Beirut – Gulag Orkestar

Gulag Orkestar

Weary, world-traveled music is often a genre reserved for old-timers who have, well, traveled the world. But just as a rare young writer can spin tales fraught with the kind of gossamer tensions that, in a normal human, take decades to develop, 19-year-old Zach Condon has conveniently skipped a lifetime’s worth of harrowing experiences on his way to creating some of the most compelling music this side of the Atlantic.

Condon foregoes the ubiquitous sounds of American indie rock for the sounds of a more distant pass and a simpler aesthetic. Instruments like the ukulele, the trumpet, and the accordion blend in a dizzying borscht, giving off a lively steam smelling somewhat of the former Soviet bloc. Witness the loping “Prenzlauerberg,” lead by skipping percussion and crisp accordion. When Condon’s haunting Rufus Wainwright-meets-Bonnie “Prince” Billy vocals enter the fray, it’s obvious the kid’s onto something – but when the trumpets cascade from somewhere overhead into thick layers, all considerations of quality are swept aside as the listener is treated with a mental image of a rickety train rumbling across the landscape of some Eastern European country, carrying women in their sundresses and their children in the stuffy little suits of the early 20th century.

“Bandenburg” offers a tense ukulele line that finds support with galloping percussion. Condon’s vocals raise the tension until the accompanying music melts away, leaving only the ukulele. Soon, though, the band returns, this time escorted by a triumphant trumpet line that recalls a bullfighter’s entrance into the ring.

“Postcards from Italy” is even better, offering the first real glimpse of a solitary Condon, devoid of the murky harmonizing favored on the first three tracks. This time around, a piano joins the fray, and the song’s myriad moving parts somehow march to the same beat, creating a patchy creature that lurches along gloriously. Towards the end of the song, the band melts away, leaving only the ukulele, hand drums, and a brilliantly affecting Condon, singing “I would love to see that day / that day was mine” right before the martial drums herald the most haunting trumpet melody I have ever heard. This moment surpasses even the impressive heights of the album so far, jettisoning with ease into the stratosphere of musical transcendence made all the more impressive for the fact that you’ve never heard anything quite like it before.

Other standouts include the glorious “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days),” the martial “Bratislava,” and album closer “After the Curtain.” The latter, along with “Scenic World,” represent notable departures from the album’s usual fare, featuring electronic beats and more pop-oriented melodies. Surprisingly, Condon is quite at home, deftly mixing the 20th-century sound with the decidedly antique flourishes of most of the record.

The album is not without its missteps, though. The second half of the album wallows in the shadow of the first, unable to conjure the absolute majesty of the first four tracks. Indeed, sometimes Condon shows a clumsy songwriting hand, as in parts of “Rhineland (Heartland)” and “The Bunker.” Usually these shortcomings are brief, but they are all the more frustrating for their situation among flashes of complete brilliance. Also, Condon’s lyrics often leave much to be desired. Luckily, these are often buried deep in his mumbled, layered deliveries, suggesting that his lyrical content is secondary to the moods he paints with vocal tones and inflections.

It is perhaps difficult to speak of this album as a debut, since it bears so many of the marks of an effort by a seasoned (and accomplished) musician; the music is so enchanting that it seems awkward to discuss it in any practical terms. Still, it makes Gulag Orkestar all the more remarkable that its complexities and nuances are the handiwork of a man of just 19 years. Condon has immeasurable promise; let us hope that, when pressured by all of the baggage that comes with such promise, he can drop it all and journey to the enchanted lands conjured by his music. I must admit it’s a pretty nice place to escape to.