The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Instant Expert: Beirut

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageIn our Instant Expert column, CC2k Music Editor Jimmy Hitt gives you a crash course on a unique, up-and-coming or otherwise extraordinary artist.

This week's rocker to get the Instant Expert treatment is 21-year-old wunderkind Zach Condon and Beirut.

Read on, and wow all your friends at cocktail parties, laugh-ins, sleepovers and campouts with your comprehensive knowledge of a lesser-known artist!

Who: The brainchild of whiz kid Zach Condon, Beirut started as a solo (read: bedroom) project, but quickly snowballed into a full-blown band.  After Beirut’s first album, Gulag Orkestar, dropped to massive blog success, Condon found himself unable to perform any of his own tunes for lack of accompaniment.  He soon recruited Jeremy Barnes, of Neutral Milk Hotel “fame”, and Heather Trost (A Hawk and a Hacksaw), to assist him while he built a band.  The latter two appear on the debut but were more stopgap measures than anything else.  Make no mistake, this is and will always be Condon’s show. 

What:  Perhaps the trickiest part of listening to Beirut is determining just what in the hell the band is all about.  The most common genres Beirut gets tagged with are gypsy-folk and Balkan, but for the most part the sound is a unique blend of many genres, which seems to be a big thing these days.  So, while you might get the feeling in one track that  Beirut could easily be paired with The Lives of Others or a Sergei Eistenstein film, the next song might flip that notion on its head with electronic beats or somber piano arrangements (see “La Banlieu”).  Given how young the band is and Condon’s dynamic talent, it’s also simple to hear the progression between Gulag and The Flying Club Cup, which lands today via 4AD and/or Ba Da Bing!

Where:  Though Condon originally recorded out of New Mexico, like most ultra buzzworthy musicians, he quickly raised anchor and sailed to Brooklyn, home of tight pants and shitty clubs.

Why:  In the sweep of post-war rebuilding and economic booms galore came rock ‘n roll music, which effectively wiped out genres like big band, polka, and anything Eastern European.  Throw in 40+ years of Cold War artistic repression, and it’s easy to see why this sort of music is just now making a comeback.  The story goes that Condon dropped out of school in 10th grade to tour Europe as a vagabond.  In the process he discovered gypsy bands and all things brass oriented, then brought the experience home to Santa Fe.  Working out of his bedroom with a wealth of instruments and a 4 track recorder, he sought to recreate the experience for a new audience.  Now, with said audience acquired, it would be a strange move to drop the schtick and move on to greener pastures, especially since The Flying Club Cup proves just how much room there’s left to plow.

When:  Condon’s only 21, and Beirut has just three main releases–2 LP’s and an EP, Elephant Gun–so there’s not much of a back catalogue one need explore to become well-versed.  I recommend working backwards from The Flying Club Cup.  The album has a bigger, more fleshed-out sound that’s easier to enjoy, as opposed to the spare, bucolic tone of Gulag Orkestar.

How: You won’t find the traditional drums + bass + guitar arrangement on a Beirut album.  Condon’s traded in those tropes for trumpet, organ, ukulele, violin, and the like.  But regardless of the backing instrumentation, his doleful, voluminous voice–which improved ten-fold between albums!–carries many of the songs from beginning to end, often to great effect. 

The Flying Club Cup is now available at or wherever records are sold, but probably not Wal-Mart.