September 13, 2011

Review: Beirut- The Rip Tide

By Lee Cole–

If one were to hear the sound of a softly strummed ukulele, mingled with a brass band, over which resonated deep, operatic vocals, most people would be understandably baffled by the combination of instruments and sounds. If you were a fan of indie music, however, you would immediately recognize this signature sound as that of Beirut. Beirut recently released their third studio album on Aug. 30, entitled The Rip Tide.

Beirut has become well-known since 2006 for their baroque arrangements and pop sensibility. Their latest album, The Rip Tide, contains many familiar elements from earlier albums, but is breezier and marks an interesting turn in songwriting. Chief lyricist and composer Zach Condon was originally in uenced by jazz, but after traveling through Europe, he became aware of Balkan folk music, and his first album is largely a foray into the traditional sounds of Eastern Europe. Since then, Condon has been increasingly in uenced by world music, and his second albumwas reminiscent of French chanson, with lyrics describing a bygone era of fairs and hot air balloons in 1900s France. Condon’s characteristic, over-the-top arrangements with everything from ukuleles and euphoniums to accordions and tubas are still present in The Rip Tide, but the lyrics tend to focus on the present-day rather than a time and place that Condon has never experienced.

The songs on The Rip Tide often take the form of brief impressions and lyrical fragments. They are less specific and more abstract than on previous albums. “Santa Fe” is an ode to Condon’s hometown, but otherwise, the lyrics seem to paint a winter landscape. The songs call together images of snow shaking loose from trees and the regal New York City winter. He sings in “Vagabond,” “Now the air grows cold/the truth unfolds/and I am lost and not found.” The almost constant, spirited strumming of ukulele can be tiresome at times, but the terriffic horn arrangements throughout more than make up for it. The album sounds as though it were recorded with only the resources one would find in a middle school band room. The horn parts are minimalist, but played with bravado, creating a joyous atmosphere one might expect to hear from a small Balkan brass band at a wedding. The sound is not unlike Sufjan Stevens’ arrangements or the brass melodies on The National’s latest album.

While Condon’s vocals are characteristically resounding throughout, they truly soar on the album’s opening and closing tracks, “A Candle’s Flame” and “Port of Call.” Perhaps the most memorable moment on the album, lyrically at least, is Condon’s repeated chant in “The Peacock” of “He’s the only one who knows the words.” Condon’s songs seem to grasp at something vague and intangible.

They have a certain panache, but it’s difficult to locate any specific narrative within the album. His lines verge on the psychedelic at times, but the arrangements keep the songs grounded firmly in a traditional or classical mindset.

Overall, the album is strong, perhaps their best yet. The only unfortunate aspect is the length, which is only 33 minutes. Somehow though, the album seems appropriate as it is – an impressionistic, albeit brief portrayal of a snowy winter set to the sounds of Condon’s bizarre horn arrangements. Fans of Beirut, and indie music more generally, should not miss it.

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Photo courtesy of Pompeii Records

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