Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Condon’s album shows growth in talent

Courtesy Ba Da Bing Records

Sante Fe, N.M., native Zach Condon has spent the last three years on somewhat of a musical pilgrimage. Part-traveler, part-troubadour, the 22-year-old continues to evolve with each borderline and boundary he crosses, musically incorporating the cultures he encounters along the way.

With his debut album (2006’s ‘Gulag Orkestar’) Condon brought listeners to southeastern Europe and supplied them with a lavish history lesson in traditional Balkan sounds and culture. His follow-up, ‘The Flying Club Cup,’ painted visuals of cobblestone walkways and crowded caf’eacute;s, each song acting as a portrait of its own distinctive area in France.

For his latest offering, the ukulele-wielding songwriter decided to take a simultaneous step backward and forward, bringing listeners full circle with the double EP ‘March of the Zapotec / Holland.’

The first disc, ‘March of the Zapotec,’ is the result of Condon’s recent venture and subsequent experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico. To add further depth and authenticity to the recording, Condon employed The Jimenez Band, a 19-piece band from Teotitlan del Valle, as his backing band.

Following a 30-second instrumental reminiscent of a sideshow circus band the album begins with ‘La Llorona.’ The track sticks to a tested and true formula by layering Condon’s vocals over a simple tuba and trumpet backbeat before cymbal crashes and strings enter the mix to compliment more prominent flourishes of trumpet.

From the songs instrumentation and his unmistakable vocal melodies it is clear from the album’s very incipiency that Condon is not looking to re-invent himself. Instead, he is building on what he already knows, incorporating Mexican flavors into his already robust repertoire of styles.

‘The Akara’ opens with sorrowful sounding trumpet before blending into sad and simple ukulele strums. With a morose tone suited best for a funeral procession, Condon mournfully sings understated lyrics ‘And so long, mistress sings / So long, I can’t wait / To my love / Wait one more.’

Concluding the album is ‘The Shrew.’ The selection offers a welcome break from the weighted instrumentation of the previous cuts with an up-tempo three-step waltz introduction. Ultimately the song revolves around the theme of lost love, however, with Condon quipping: ‘How long she’s been by my side / But at last, the stable’s retired.’ The song masterfully builds into a frantic barrage of horns, accordions and strings before abruptly easing to its original pace.

To say the album ends on a high note is an understatement. ‘The Shrew’ is easily one of the young songwriter’s most accomplished compositions to date; a tantalizing accumulation of several years of worldly travel.

The second disc, ‘Holland‘ is a solo-composed return to Condon’s bedroom-inspired recordings and pseudonym (Realpeople) that predates any of his Beirut material.

The album’s five tracks are saturated with Condon’s teenage influences. ‘Holland‘ plays out almost like an homage to Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields with its playful and often cheesy Casio-esque synth beats overlaid with sultry baritone vocals. It is Condon at his loosest and most laid back, and while the result is far from a masterpiece, it offers a refreshing glimpse into how far he has evolved as a songwriter.

The EP’s opener ‘My Night with a Prostitute from Marseille’ is nothing new for most fans of the band. The track gained widespread Internet fame following its inclusion on Natalie Portman’s digital-only, charity compilation ‘The Big Change’ and has been floating around various music blogs for some time since.

The album hits its stride on ‘Venice,’ with the inclusion of trumpet over an electronic backdrop and picks up steam transitioning into the album’s strongest offering, ‘The Concubine.’ The track implements glockenspiel and accordion in favor of straight synth. The song feels somewhat out of place among the rest of the more stripped down digital works, but is a joy none the less.

Holland‘ concludes on the 80s-inspired, yet unfortunately uninspiring electronic drum-heavy instrumental, ‘No Dice.’

Whereas ‘March’s’ true strength is in its instrumental arrangements, ‘Holland‘ allows Condon to showcase his prowess for sweeping vocal melodies. The idea of a Condon-composed instrumental only utilizing digital instrumentation see
ms conceptually flawed, and the finished product does little to prove otherwise.

As a complete package, ‘March of the Zapotec / Holland‘ is an ideal EP for the ever-evolving artist. It’s both a glimpse into the future and a retrospective in one. And while ‘Holland‘ is not in itself a groundbreaking release, it is an important companion piece that allows listeners to see how far the young songwriter has progressed: from bedroom synth beats to 19-piece waltzes.

Beirut‘s ‘March of the Zapotec’ will be released Tuesday, Feb. 17 on Pompeii/Ba Da Bing Records.

Brian Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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