Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Look Both Ways #5: Musical Magellans

In April of last year, Zach Condon posted a mystifying message on the Web site of his intercultural music project, Beirut. He cancelled the group’s tour and said he was in need of a creative shift: “It’s come time to change some things, reinvent some others, and come back at some point with a fresh perspective and batch of songs,” he wrote. “I promise we’ll be back, in some form.” Now Beirut has returned—and indeed some things have changed.


Condon hollowed out a niche for himself in 2006 as the only 20-year-old “indie rocker” making records that sounded like a French chansonnier crooning over a Balkan gypsy ensemble. Two albums, three EPs and at least one musical crisis later, Beirut is back with the gripping March of the Zapotec EP.


Rather than forging an ethnic aesthetic using hired hands in a New Mexico studio – or bedroom – as per usual, Condon decided to embed himself for Zapotec. He traveled to southern Mexico last year to play with the Jimenez Band, a 19-piece Oaxacan brass outfit. The results are exciting and, of course, surprising.


Listening to these six tracks and thinking about how they were made, I couldn’t prevent Paul Simon’s Graceland from springing to mind. Like Condon, Simon had long held a penchant for drawing on various foreign styles. He’d never been nearly as ambitious as he was in making his mid-’80s comeback record, though. Simon ventured into an apartheid-riven South Africa to record what would become his magnum opus.


Drawing on local musicians as well as some Americans, Simon crafted a sound that’s as timeless as it is unclassifiable. The album shakes and shuffles with African pop’s snare-drum rhythms, it shimmers with the jangle of lead guitars, and it shrieks with the urgent background vocals of the Gaza Sisters (who sing in their native Tsonga on the chorus to the unbearably danceable “I Know What I Know”). At the same time, it is clearly Simon’s record: this is still his silky, reassuring voice; his songwriting; his brainchild.


The same goes for Zapotec: it is more Condon’s brand of popular music than Mexican folk. He wrote the songs, and the lush horn arrangements, while distinctly Latin American, are not as far divorced from his neo-Balkan orchestrations as one might expect. It does feel more organic than Graceland, which was influenced and recorded by South African musicians but is essentially an ’80s-pop record. This is largely because Beirut was never an indie-rock band so much as a cultural-music experiment.


Then there’s Condon’s voice. Its thickness and operatic flair recall Charles Aznavour, the so-called French Frank Sinatra, and this feels appropriate on top of European gypsy music, all mournful accordion and French horn. But when the instrumentals remind us of Mariachi, it’s more of a stretch. That’s okay—Condon is not trying to sound like any old band leader here, he’s trying to sound like an experimental young New Mexican in Mexico. And at that he succeeds with ease.


Lyrically, both Condon and Simon largely stick to their guns on this album. The former pieces together dramatized verses, often with incomplete sentences, and makes up for their inconsistent quality with a presentation that is both emotive and theatrical to the point of rendering some of the words indistinguishable. Simon, on the other hand, has never been better at slicing into human weakness and need, with both his soft-voiced presentation and his understated poetry.


“She comes back to tell me she’s gone,” he sings on the title track. “As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed / As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair back from her forehead.”


Condon might not be the lyricist Simon is, but his new Zapotec has its own, potent list of virtues. The record is on sale in a double-disc package with Holland EP by Realpeople, Condon’s electro-pop side project.

  • Click here to see the video for Zapotec's best song, "La Llorona." As Simon does on a number of Graceland tracks, Condon reaches into the culture of his host country for inspiration on this track; the story of La Llorona is a popular Latin American legend centered on a woman whose ghost roams the night looking for her lost children.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the March 2 issue of theTufts Daily.

1 comment:

  1. I know what I know and I know that was beautifully written! Can't wait to hear Zapotec, and have to thank you because Graceland is an inexcusably overlooked travel song for the radio show!