Beirut – Not just another ukulele band

This year has turned out to be a blessing for me thus far. A lot of my favourite artists have either released or announced the release, of new albums (or songs). One of the releases that I am particularly excited about is the fourth studio album of Zach Condon’s band, Beirut, set to release in the month of September.

Even though they may not be as big in the industry yet, with their stand out music deriving from different European cultures, they clearly have the potential for giving the giants of the indie world a run for their money.

For me, what sets this American band apart is that they are not American at all. Their name is Asian, while their music draws influences from diverse European cultures, French being the dominant one. In fact, their second album, The Flying Club Cup was almost entirely French in sound.

Condon’s voice has a gravel that gives an impression of an old, retired man drinking away the rest of his life, but in a good way. In a brilliant way. There have been comparisons with Neutral Milk Hotel and the like, but that is no surprise when you consider the fact that NMH’s accordionist assisted Condon on the first album.

Let’s consider the debut album here, the credit for which goes (almost) entirely to Condon. This album gave the band two of its most popular tracks, “Postcards from Italy” and “Elephant Gun”, both of which are so authentically Beirut.

Gulag Orkestar is full of beautiful Balkan sounds and an overpowering ukulele. That’s an automatic plus for me. When I say ukulele, which is the first band that comes to your mind? Yes, Mumford and Sons seem to have a monopoly in the music of ukuleles and mandolins and horns (I am a huge fan of theirs).

Many musicians have attempted to create a similar music but most of them miss the charm. However, I am pretty confident that Beirut is right on par with Mumford and Sons. They are not just another ukulele band. Some might even say that Beirut is a few steps ahead, but I guess the banjo-less Wilder Mind has something to do with that.

The sophomore album is my personal favourite of the lot. It is a little less trumpet and a little more accordion. Perfect balance is struck between the instruments and Condon’s croon. In the songs like “Nantes” and “Knives and Forks (La Fete)”, the instruments are very smartly arranged to take a step back and to give Condon’s vocals, with all the trills and warbles, a chance to shine. “Un Dernier Verre”, “Cliquot”, and probably the album as a whole is bound to take you straight to a Parisian cafe of the old times.

The third and the fourth albums see the band shedding some of their international influences and develop a sound that is more and more, well Beirut. Traces of a little electronica are evident, a genre Condon tried experimenting with. I was a little sceptical about the slight shift from the indie-folk style of music at first, but the songs grew on me really quickly. Not as quickly as the first two albums but quick enough to make me put “My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille” from the third album on top of my list of favourite Beirut tracks.

Sometimes a band releases a top class debut album but never manages to achieve the same in their subsequent releases (Maroon 5?). Sometimes, they release a massive fourth or fifth album and the audience goes back to their debut years wondering “who are they?” (Daft Punk?). Beirut is a band that gave a beautifully memorable debut album, and even more notable follow-ups. They truly have a sound of their own. Hopefully, they will not lose it on the next album, No No No! With this track, that sure does not seem likely.