Release Date: Sep 11, 2015
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Folk
The first album in four years from Beirut lynchpin Zach Condon, No No No feels as if he’s never been away. It’s a natural progression from previous record Rip Tide – an album that saw Condon tone down the electronic pop of March Of The Zapotec/Holland and his earlier attempts to draw on traditional Balkan folk music, to create something that, for the first time, felt as if it was his. Like its predecessor, No No No specialises in small, economical songs that have a habit of entering the listener’s consciousness for good by the end of the first listen.
In many ways, Zach Condon started painting himself into a corner the moment he began making music. Gulag Orkestar, his debut full-length as Beirut, was largely produced in his bedroom as a teenager, although it’d be pretty difficult to convince the casual listener that was the case; largely in thrall to Balkan folk, it sounded like the work of a ragtag European orchestra rather than a kid from New Mexico. His next move was to decamp to Paris for The Flying Club Cup, which traded Serbia and Croatia for the feel and instrumentation of France - accordion and string sections were order of the day, whilst track titles like ‘Nantes’ and ‘Cherbourg’ left us in little doubt as to quite where the record was rooted.
Following a stint in an Australian hospital for exhaustion, indie music's best-known flugelhorn player, Zach Condon, returns with Beirut for their fourth studio album, No No No. The concise, 29-minute album was written during a tumultuous time as Condon was facing a divorce and touring extensively. The album was recorded in a two-week span in New York while the city was facing one of the most intense winters in recent memory; as a result, the tone of the record is warm and comforting, with a contextual focus on recovery.In his almost ten-year career — quite impressive, given he's only 29 — Condon has been applauded for borrowing from international genres and experimenting with instrumentation and rhythm.
Beirut's fourth full-length album, No No No, has songwriter/singer Zach Condon swaying away from 2011's more indie pop The Rip Tide back toward the European folk-infused eccentricity of the band's first two LPs, and hanging out somewhere in between. With a flock of instruments ranging from piano, guitars, bass, and percussion to brass, strings, ukulele, and a selection of vintage synths and electronic organs, the songs are rarely sparse and often whimsical -- a diversion from more typical indie rock fare, as has been Condon's calling card since the beginning. While there are several electronic instruments on No No No, the experience is that of an acoustic jamboree.
In recent interviews, Beirut singer and songwriter Zach Condon has shed some light on the backstory behind the odd, skeletal sound of his band's new album. Condon had been embroiled in personal and creative despair for a few years, some of it the result of working on a new maximalist opus in the vein of his previous work. He abandoned this material to return to low-stakes jamming in a piano trio format; ultimately, No No No's songs developed out of this approach, and the album was recorded in just a couple of weeks.
Zach Condon has one of the most recognizable voices in contemporary music, a somehow both lush and nasal delivery that instantly stamps a track as Beirut's. Because his voice is so idiosyncratic, it's difficult for Beirut's music to sound too different from record to record, and gives Condon a small bull's eye to hit. No No No won't change any minds.
Some bands have a knack for remaining recognisable despite each of their records sounding largely different from the last - see Real Estate, Deerhunter, Kurt Vile et al. It’s a rare-ish quality that can sometimes be seen as a huge misstep, but with Beirut’s fourth album in four years - ‘No No No’ - the Zach Condon-led band are keeping things fresh, and yet entirely the same. Recording over a two week period in a staple New York winter, the album sounds more like catharsis for the cold than a freezing slumber, feeling organic, fresh and breezy with every step.
It’s been a long four years since we’ve heard anything from Zach Condon’s band Beirut – a barren extended period for the band’s fans for sure, but a rather more traumatic one for Condon himself. For, since the release of 2011’s The Rip Tide, Condon has gone through a divorce, a subsequent breakdown and a period of hospitalisation in Australia for exhaustion. You could be forgiven, therefore, for expecting No No No to be dark and brooding – a Balkan-flavoured Blood On The Tracks for the 21st century, perhaps.
In the four years since Beirut’s last album, The Rip Tide, frontman Zach Condon watched his life crumble. Writer’s block clouded his mind, mental and physical exhaustion saw him hospitalized, and he got divorced. For a man so full of life, with a voice that longed to detail its beauty, that toll became monumental. No No No can barely mask his pain.
Shooting for Sufjan-sized productions before he could go out to bars, Zach Condon prematurely ruffled those partial to a bare-bones, guitar-vox-bass-drums setup even at the improbable age of 19; the full extent of his pretensions hadn’t even really solidified. A decade ago, the Santa Fe-to-Williamsburg transplant’s desire to graft a Rufus Wainwright-style croon onto Gogol Bordello’s dilapidated-basement revival of Balkan scales was something no one else was doing. It helped that his two opening bows, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar and 2007’s Lon Gisland EP, brought the genuine brass.
It’s surprising that Beirut bandleader Zach Condon has become the critical darling he is. The story goes that he dropped out of New Mexico’s Santa Fe High School aged just 17, travelled round Europe soaking up various strands of continental folk, before releasing his striking Balkan-themed debut as Beirut, ‘Gulag Orkestar’, in 2006. On paper, Condon’s about the most irritatingly precocious gap year smartarse imaginable.
If you’ve been following Zach Condon in the decade or so since he first began crafting baroque world-pop gems in a bedroom somewhere in Santa Fe, you may have come to expect a few things from an album carrying the Beirut moniker. Song titles that namecheck far-reaching locations, relatively brief (sub forty-minute) runtimes, complex arrangements built from exotic instrumentation and a heavy dose of horns and strings; all were hallmarks of three very good and sometimes great albums, from 2006’s Gulag Orkestar to 2007’s The Flying Club Cup to 2011’s The Rip Tide. With the exception of a slightly pared-back sound that emphasizes drums, bass, and piano over pump organ and ukulele, No No No fits that mold to a tee.
Beirut's curiously subdued, funky little fourth album makes me appreciate 2011's poppy, sophisticated The Rip Tide all the more, which is to say that No No No sounds transitional and experimental. Many of its piano-, vintage-keys- and drum-driven tracks feel like song sketches, with Zach Condon's lead vocals reminiscent of Morrissey but more obscured. Since the vocals hang back, the hooks, humour and delights of the record are mostly mood-based and instrumental.
Beirut usually do okay for themselves when they expound on well-established modes of musical communication. Perhaps then the jig is finally up on No No No, their fourth album in nine years. Ostensibly their pop record, this brisk, 29-minute album album runs out of ideas in the first ten. Play it and forget it.