ambitious, inventive, otherworldly, engaging and downright enjoyable...
Janne Oinonen

11:08 23rd October 2006

It’s not that far-fetched to view ‘Gulag Orkestar’ as a determined effort to cater for miserabilists and devotees of untapped global genres alike, imply as it does both record densities of gloom and a bombardment of Balkan beats well before the needle drops.

After all, the album’s title refers to the indescribable squalor of Stalin’s slave labour camps, whilst the city that provides 20-year old multi-instrumentalist Zach Condon with his nom de rock has become a byword for wanton destruction since the platter first saw the light of day to a chorus of hosannas from tuned-in indie observers on the tiny US imprint Ba Da Bing! Then there’s the Lada-enriched cover art, which suggests you’ve landed with an obscure platter of pathos-drenched Russian folk songs someone picked up at a car boot sale on the outer reaches of Eastern Europe and successfully smuggled through the Iron Curtain during the death throes of communism.

The sorrowful title track does little to shatter the illusion. Swaying and stumbling like a fatigued work company of tattered convicts making its way back to the barracks in knee-deep snow, hurried along by an unsteady horn section from the album's titular orchestra, it’s desolate stuff, marinated in the most tormented depths of misery traditional Eastern European music can muster. Add to that Condon’s mournfully acrobatic vocals, which hover permanently on the verge of choking from the unbearable sadness of it all, and you've a supremely striking sound submerged in enough Slavic melancholy to address a century's worth of woe and injustice, even if Condon's remarkably palatable histrionics hinder most chances of deciphering what he's wailing on about, and the proceedings do cheer up a tad as the platter progresses.

Inspired by the European travels Condon embarked on after dropping out of high school in his native New Mexico, ‘Gulag Orkestar’ rolls forth a wealth of startlingly mysterious sounds of the like you’re unlikely to have ever encountered before. Conjured with a tipsy assortment of trumpets, tubas, accordions, balalaikas, ukuleles, fiddles and mandolins, the album operates roughly in the same authentically dervish district as the Hawk and A Hacksaw, who pop in for a spot of percussion and violin here. Rather than unleashing the swirling Eastern European folk styles entirely, however, Condon recruits them in moderation to add extra oomph to his songs, which for the most part remain rooted in vintage indie pop. The absolutely arresting outcome resembles a drunken lo-fi field recording of a maudlin indie kid bashing out his downtrodden tunes amidst a riotously energetic gypsy dance orchestra all-nighter, even if the album was actually recorded in his Albuquerque bedroom with some subsequent overdubs in Condon’s current Brooklyn abode.

Although hints of Jens Lekman, Bright Eyes and Sufjan Stevens can be detected amidst the croonsome lilt of 'Postcards from Italy' and 'Scenic World', and the eccentric essence of Tom Waits is rarely far from the surface on the brasher bits (check out the wired bazaar polka of ‘Bratislava’), the patent for this disarming ethno-indie hybrid belongs to Condon. The vocals might take an occasional turn towards over-ripe melodrama and the cheesy Casio beats that propel the otherwise excellent ‘After The Curtain’ belong to the alcoholic fug of some hellish half-sunken ferry lounge, but these are negligible shortcomings next to the overall uniqueness of the album, which gains bonus EP ‘Lon Gisland’ for its UK debut.

“There’s nowhere to go,” Condon laments amidst the majestic orchestral sweep of ‘Rhineland (Heartland)’. After a debut album as ambitious, inventive, otherworldly, engaging and downright enjoyable as this, the only way for Beirut surely leads steeply upwards.

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