It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
On Zach Condon's third and best full-length album as Beirut, he finally looks inward. No, there's no self-indulgent navel gazing going on, but after spending the first half-decade of his career exploring his fascination with musically potent foreign cultures from the Gypsy music of Eastern Europe to the moody chanson of France his newest batch of songs, both lyrically and musically, look to his New Mexico birthplace. The record seems to say that he wants to leave behind his days as a musical nomad in favor of something more familiar and stable. Beirut hasn't abruptly jettisoned all of those global influences here, but they're integrated much better, no longer dictating the arc of his deeply catchy melodies. Now the elegant brass caresses rather than carries his songs. Condon alternates mostly between ukulele and trumpet and the guitar-like ubiquity of the former reinforces the debt he owes to Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields but the real focus is on the sweet melodies falling from his lips. On the sorrowful title track, which sounds like something written by Carole King more than King Naat Veliov, he seeks privacy and solitude: "And this is the house where I/ Can be alone/ Be unknown now." On the aptly titled "Vagabond" he sings, "Left a bag of bones/ A trail of stones/ For to find my way home." Listening back to the entirety of Beirut's recorded output, it becomes clear that despite all of the peripatetic stylistic shifts and some of the more superficial lyrical elements, Condon has maintained a clear and identifiable sound, one rooted in his sweet vocal delivery and a direct, irresistible tunefulness. He's been a seeker, but his core aesthetic has been as steady as a rock. "Santa Fe" rides on a pulsing electronic groove, "Goshen" is a sensitive, march-driven piano ballad, and "Payne's Bay" is a fantastical descent into orchestral pop with some killer horn hocketing, but in the end they all possess the same quality as nearly everything Beirut has ever done. The big difference now is that Zach Condon seems to truly know himself.
Balkan Brass Bombers
When Beirut dropped its debut Gulag Orkestar back in 2006, the bold, propulsive brass riffs were the musical element that linked the young band to Eastern European Gypsy traditions most clearly. Any appreciation for the high-octane, relentless power of Balkan Brass must begin with this juggernaut led by the Serbian trumpeter Boban Markovic, whose blazing horns were so dominant at the celebrated Guca Trumpet Festival that his Orkestar had to retire from competition to let someone else win. You may have heard Markovic in the classic Emir Kusturica film Underground, but Live in Belgrade, stands as one of his greatest triumphs. The song selection provides a kind of thumbnail sketch of the band's legendary marathon performances in their homeland sprinkles in a few traditional Gypsy numbers among the brash original tunes, tossing in a tender ballad ("Zadji, Zadji") among the muscle-flexing high velocity contrapuntal workouts which range from a blow-out version of "Have Naguila" to "Ederlezi," the theme for Kusturica's Time of the Hypsies. There are a couple of percussionists in the group, dropping stuttering patterns on darbouka, snare, and the thin-ringing tapan, but the phalanx of brass delivers a surprising mix of funky energy, gentle melancholy, and hell-raising mayhem, in meticulously arranged riffs, licks, and unstoppable solos. One listen will make you hear why Condon drew his early inspiration from Eastern Europe.
Rio de Janeiro’s Sophisticated Keeper of the Flame
In a recent New York Times article, Condon expressed his admiration for Chico Buarque, one of Brazil's greatest singer-songwriters. His defense of samba and bossa nova during the Tropicalia era unfairly got him saddled as a conservative bore. Says Condon of Buarque during the late '60s, he was "digging deeper and deeper into his classic samba roots, dressing up every night, old school. I can appreciate that. I've been a total slob, but I'm trying to adapt some of that attitude myself." He cites "Roda-Viva" as one of his all-time favorite songs (and considering how many Brazilian singers have covered it, Condon isn't alone in feeling that way), and that tune is one of many knockouts on this 1968 classic, with transcendent, lighter-than-air arrangements by the great Lindolpho Gaya. His gorgeous melodies, restrained but emotionally precise delivery, and poetic lyrics have been a consistent trifecta of Brazilian music. On its surface the music here may sound tame compared to what Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil did at the same time, but its subtle richness is undeniable. Brazilians have also developed a deep love for Beirut's music; after appearing on a TV mini-series there, a home-grown movement called Beirutando started, with musicians adapting Condon's songs with local rhythms, instruments, and forms.
New Mexico BFFs
Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, the core members of A Hawk and a Hacksaw, were early members of Beirut, and they toured the U.S. together on double bills. They also learned about Eastern European music together, but while Condon has combined those influences with his tender pop sensibility, AHAH went full-bore, eventually moving to Budapest where they studied and played with hard-core Romani traditionalists. They've moved back to New Mexico, and Cervantine is their first recording since decamping. It not only shows how deeply they understand the traditional sounds they immersed themselves in, but how they've adapted it to suit their town multipart compositions. They stick with the breakneck rhythms and off-kilter, careening melodies of Hungary, Romania and Turkey strings screech and scrape, accordions pump and wheeze, brass puffs in percussive bursts, percussion clatters in tricky time signatures but they manipulate and twist those traditional elements in their own way. They bring in some local flavor, giving the brass a Mariachi injection on "Espaola Kolo," and they expand their reach with some rembetika tunes, to which singer Stephanie Hladowski (of the Family Elan) brings a fiery intensity.
On Beirut's second album The Flying Club Cup, Condon revealed an evolving fascination with French chanson, the urbane, sometimes arch, sometimes overwrought pop music of Paris made famous by Edith Piaf and developed by folks like Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Franoise Hardy and others. Condon titled many of the songs in French (or named them after French cities like Nantes and Cherbourg), but his love of chanson never sounded like mimicry; rather, he absorbed its sophistication and folded into his own aesthetic. The same can be said for the contemporary French chanson star Katerine (nee Philippe Katerine), a guy with enough reverence for the past that he once sang a duet with Ana Karina, one of the starlets used by new wave pioneer Jean-Luc Goddard. On Mes Mauvaises Frquentations his refined melodic sensibilities sound like they belong in a Left Bank cafe, and while the arrangements are heavy on bossa nova, Katerine retains his own distinctive sound, a quality Condon has possessed since his earliest days.
Romani Music Summit
Condon once called Macedonia's long-running Kocani Orkestar his favorite bands and they even performed together live. In fact, this hard-hitting brass band has frequently collaborated with diverse artists, from Italian jazz trumpeter Paolo Fresu to Italian pop star Vinicio Caposella. But on this killer album they joined forces with another storied ensemble of Romani music, the Romanian village string group Tarak de Haikouks; together the 26 musicians create an awesome din, with fat, ultra-plush horn patterns dissected by wildly sawing violins, frantic hammer dulcimer, and darting accordion lines. Combining two large bands with competing egos, agendas, and back stories couldn't have been simple, but the balance they strike is wonderful; some tracks defer to the given traditions of one band or another, but even when they truly join forces the performances maintain an impressive clarity; rather than creating an overstuffed mess, Band of Gypsies 2 doubles your Romani music pleasures.