Release Date: May 9, 2006
Record label: Ba Da Bing
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Twenty-year-old Zach Condon's war-torn alias is just the start of his obsession with conflict. The title of his debut album evokes Stalin's notorious labour camps and he's found inspiration in the battle-scarred spirit of the Balkans. Yet his music is a sublime mix of optimism and resignation. Mandolin, ukelele, horns and simmering percussion conjure up mournful celebrations; violins strike the tangled melee like shards of lightning.
The best album to come out of Albuquerque since the Shins decamped for the Pacific Northwest, the debut album by Beirut (aka New Mexico-born 19-year-old singer/songwriter Zach Condon) bears an immediate resemblance both to Denver's DeVotchKa and the current passions of the Athens, GA, crowd formerly associated with the Elephant 6 stable. Like DeVotchKa, Condon is heavily influenced by Eastern European folk music and, to a lesser extent, the mariachi trumpets and Latin rhythms of the desert Southwest: the songs on Gulag Orkestar are lousy with mandolins and similarly plinky members of the string instrument family, accordions, horns, and hand percussion clearly played with dramatic in-studio arm flourishes. But like the Athens folks (some of whom appear here in a supporting role, most notably A Hawk and a Hacksaw's Jeremy Barnes), Condon isn't interested in mere approximations of traditional forms.
Gulag Orkestar starts at the end, so to speak, with a mariachi funeral march. It’s an odd way to begin your career, but 19-year-old Zach Condon already sounds closer to death than birth. Beirut’s brilliant debut album is full of grandeur and intimacy, with accordions, ukuleles and brass instruments complementing contemporary notions like drum machines and digestible song structures while simultaneously channeling the ancient appeal of Balkan folk music.