Beirut, Gulag Orkestar

Yancey Strickler

By Yancey Strickler

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

For some, nothing is more bewildering than the present. Forget the future — for it will forget you — it's the routine of modernity that terrifies, sending us wistfully toward a non-existent past, nostalgic for a life that the cruelty of time prevented. To experience this later in life is understandable, but to be afflicted at the age of 19, like Beirut's Zach Condon, borders on criminal. And yet from this alienation arises Gulag Orkestrar, in my view one of the finest albums of 2006 thus far and one seemingly ready-made for the indie canon.

The best indie-rock record of the 19th century

Backed by Jeremy Barnes, currently of A Hack and a Hacksaw and formerly the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, Condon strolls through Gulag Orkestrar's multi-instrumental estates with a certainty that could only come at such a tender age. Condon writes morose, quasi-baroque ballads that he arranges like Eastern European folk songs: accordion, multi-layered percussion rhythms, muted horns and numerous wordless syllables howled in protest toward the Balkan winds.

Neutral Milk Hotel's epochal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is an obvious signpost, as is the mid-crescendo abruptness of Arcade Fire and the Luddite-rock of Tom Waits. But in its preciousness, Beirut ventures into territories more self-consciously traditional — the gypsy street march of "Bratislava," the opening title track, the arrangements in general — and, in an unlikely feat, immediate. There is an arrestingly soft beauty in the mourning horns of "The Canals of Our City" that renders classification gauche and denies self-consciousness. The song exists so that we need not consider why.

The same is true of "Postcards from Italy," which is looking like a staple of my mixtapes for years to come. Here Condon most succinctly bridges his affection for the old immigrant songs and the indie-rock world whence he has come. His voice phonograph-distant, Condon alluringly drawls melancholy over clap-trap rhythms and a simple ukulele jaunt of love and loss, honest topics for any era. But as much as "Postcards" stands out, it's just one amazing song of 11. Gulag Orkestrar is the best indie-rock record of the 19th century.