11 February 2009

Beirut – March of the Zapotec

Pompeii Recordings (2009)

As per usual, I gots lots on the go, blogwise, but nothing's getting through the door. Three Stooges syndrome, innit. So here's a thing I did for FACT. It'a bloke who calls himself Beirut, and here's the full story. Note absence of synth-pop dissage in the FACT edit... And I'll not suggest they have any kind of agenda there.


Zach Condon returns with his third album, which should please fans of his idiosyncratic take on maudlin indie. The prolific youth (hey, he’s younger than Back to the Future) opened his account with Gulag Orkestar. It was something different in a world of sound-alikes and bores like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Danielson and the Decemberists.

One would listen to a song like ‘Postcards from Italy’ and rejoice at the effective pseudo-individualisation on offer. Sure, it wasn’t something actually new, but here was someone making an effort to distance his sound from those around him. And for that he was rightly applauded. The album was vaguely reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘the end of indie’ classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, though it was hard to put a finger on why.

Lacking the overt pop melodies of Jeff Mangum’s band of musical wonders, or the naïve optimism in the face of insurmountable adversity of its themes, the comparison must largely have been due to a combination of the relatively novel instruments used and the fact that, hey, here was someone doing things differently to everyone else.

We fast-forward three years, and Condon is no longer a teenager. Away from the comfort of 4AD, he is now releasing music on his own Pompeii imprint. And, technically, this isn’t a new album at all.

March of the Zapotec refers only to the first half of this release. After around 18 minutes, the artist changes. We are presented with Holland, by Realpeople: Zach doing electronics in his bedroom. Give us a snare rush!

The meat, for most listeners, will be March of the Zapotec. The fleeting, introductory, ‘El Zocalo’ eases us into the record, before festivities proper begin with ‘La Llorona’. I say ‘festivities’ but this funereal piece, lovely though it is, is far from festive.

Condon headed south of the border, to the Mexican village of Teotitlan del Valle, where he hooked up with The Jimenez Band. The EP’s ‘Zapotec’ is the dialect the Oaxacan band speaks.

It is a tribute to Condon’s musical fingerprint that he has managed to make this Mexican band sound eerily adherent to the ‘loneliest shepherd in the Balkans’ aesthetic he has established for himself.

Beirut rewards close listening, though, as the depth of the arrangement quickly becomes apparent. The Jimenez Band provides more than ample backing for what is the real draw of a Beirut album: Condon’s affectingly honest vocal timbre.

There are, of course, reminders that this is a Mexican band, such as the occasional machine gun trumpet lines, and the insistent strumming of what is presumably a vihuela. While the instruments vary from Beirut releases past, the mood remains. For all the up-tempo diversions and rhythmically powerful percussion (one for the headphones, this), the pervading mood is one of gloom.

It is a different kind of melancholy to the one we’re used to. Allow yourself to picture the band and man, playing together in Southern Mexico, and the music filters through it. It’s almost an extended eulogy from a relatively untouched area of the country for the countless drug war victims currently being slain at the American border.

Admittedly, the lyrics fail to evince this, so I’m content with it being mere flight of fancy. It is heartening that the music is so illustrative that it provides such a backdrop to one’s own thoughts. It’s a shame, then, that we are brought back down to terra firma with a bump for the second half of the CD.

Holland is a bit of a disco diversion. It’s tacked on because it probably wouldn’t sell as a fully-fledged EP on its own. ‘My Wife, Lost in the World’ has its moments, largely in the vocal harmonies Condon employs effectively. Otherwise, we’re left with the quasi-Boards Of Canada of ‘Venice’. It ends up sounding like a lazy Beirut remix anyway, as the brass makes a return to the mix.

By the time we get to ‘No Dice’, you want to applaud Condon for the effort, but you can’t really. If you’ve heard múm, Plaid or Dykehouse, then keep listening to them. I’m a strong believer that the synth-pop renaissance should largely have been confined to turn-of-decade electroclash, and this is strong evidence in favour of that position.

Holland isn’t bad. It’s just not very good. I’m not really sure who it’s geared toward. One would imagine it’s for people who lap up anything Condon does, because those specifically attracted to the melancholy organic flow of Beirut will find little solace here.

And its inclusion on this CD, while a fair way to pass the time, besmirches the good work done on March of the Zapotec. It pains even me to say this, but here we have an album of two halves. The album has two names, two identities. It might have been easier to tea-leaf a Manics title and just call it From Despair to Where?


  1. From Despair To Where is a tune. I recall it being used excellently in the first series of Game On; the series with Ben Chaplin in, when it was funny and I owned a television.

    "Holland isn’t bad. It’s just not very good." 73%?

    And the 'give us a snare rush' part of that Come To Daddy mix is my favourite Aphex moment ever.

  2. Tune indeed! Manics had their moments on those first three albums (and 'The Masses Against the Classes' single) for sure.

    Holland: 73%?! If only. It probably is bad, now I think on it.

    Finally, I make those seemingly random quotations on the off-chance someone's gonna get them. Come to Daddy was a right mini-album.

  3. Ever compared and contrasted the two different mixes of The Holy Bible? It's an interesting way to spend an evening. I wrote loads about it on Vampirefreaks, years ago...

  4. I have only ever heard the 1994 CD. Quite intrigued, now that I remember another version exists. I do like the paper-thin original mix, though. The bass guitar really shines through. And it reinforces the bleakness they were going for on that one.

  5. Basically, the US mix widened the stereo field and gave the drums some impact. A lot of impact; thesnare is immense. Works best on Yes, She Is Suffering and Of Walking Abortion, in my opinion. Three of my favourite songs of all time, improved.

  6. Nice. That's one alternate mix/master I'll have to check out then. Quite fancy doing first Weezer and Jeff Buckley albums too.

    1994 F-T-remix-W!


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