God, I love it when I pick something up just because it looks interesting, and it's even better than I hoped. I used to do this at Tower Records all the time, but usually I'd get it home and realize that (a) the music sucked, (b) I'd been bamboozled out of my hard-earned money, (c) I now had less to spend on worthwhile music, and (d) the music industry is dominated by money-grubbing pigs who don't care at all about music.
This is why the EPFL is so great. First of all, it's free. Yep, that's what the "F" in "EPFL" stands for: Free. Second, most of the music in their collection that I've checked out blindly has been, at the very least, decent.
Beirut is better than decent. Like kindred spirits A Hawk and a Hacksaw (who guested on Gulag Orkestar), Beirut is a celebration of Eastern European Gypsy music that's been filtered through the ears of a kid from Albuquerque. The instruments -- including trumpet, ukulele, accordion, mandolin, and piano -- are mostly played by Zach Condon, and he plays them all reasonably well, at least in context.
The music lacks the feel of a roomful of people feeding off of each other's energy. This flatness is particularly noticeable on the opening dirge, "The Gulag Orkestar," whose plodding tension would've benefited from the interplay of different musicians with a shared vision. "Brandenburg," which does feature several guest players, has a frantic urgency that hints at what Beirut is capable of achieving.
The biggest weakness is the singing, which generally sounds like a lackluster imitation of Smiths-era Morrissey. It's a nice idea to juxtapose mournful pop crooning with Gypsy-inspired music, but he hasn't yet figured out how to seamlessly incorporate a love for British shoegazer pop into Beirut's musical personality.
Gulag Orkestar is a strong debut that holds the promise of great things. If Condon strengthens his alterna-pop sensibilities and mixes them with old world Gypsy music, then he'll be able to stake a meaningful claim in a genre that's dominated by punk-influenced bands like Gogol Bordello. Otherwise, he's better off sticking with the old world interpretations, because on Gulag Orkestar, he rocks the hardest when he's not being a rock musician.
The instruments are played well, and the imperfections make it clear that this record wasn't made by a bunch of soulless studio hacks. The songwriting and arrangements are consistently strong, and they provide a base on which Condon will hopefully build. Occasionally, the vocals are an important layer of a thick musical canvas, but mostly they sound like the kind of third-rate mope rock that's been spewed out by wannabe Nick Drakes throughout the past three decades. The low point is "Scenic World," whose Casio-esque rhythm tracks and woeful vocals embody the worst elements of Beirut.
The cover photo and the photo on the back of the jewel box are eye-catching. They were apparently "found in a library in Leipzig torn out of a book," and the photographer is unknown. The photo of Condon isn't bad, but I have no idea why there's a picture of geese running across a field.
Listen if you like: A Hawk and a Hacksaw, DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, The Smiths
If it were food, it'd be: Pasulj (a spicy bean soup from the Balkans) with a big hunk of bland cheese in it.