Exploring a whole world of bands for fans of Zach Condon’s Euro-orchestra style
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Very few bands “make it.” Far more toil in relative obscurity, only sometimes earning a fan base and a living wage for their art. Many of these little- or under-known acts, though, are the inspiration for or the compatriots of those bigger acts that make it. Thus, The A.V. Club’s Recommended If You Like, where we start with a bigger band—Mumford & Sons, for example—and run down a few acts that the bigger band’s fans might be into.
For this edition, we’re exploring the world of Beirut. Zach Condon, the group’s ringleader and one constant member, fell in love with European music after traveling the continent in his late teens, and has spent the last five years fusing the sounds of Balkan folk and French chanson with fey, friendly indie pop. With the group set to play Nov. 30 at Turner Hall, The A.V. Club decided to present a handful of acts from all over the globe that have influenced Beirut’s sound, as well as a few of their peers in the indie world-music scene.
A Hawk And A Hacksaw
A Hawk And A Hacksaw is a European folk group fronted by Jeremy Barnes, perhaps best known for his work drumming for indie demigod Neutral Milk Hotel. Barnes had a hand in Beirut’s initial success: According to Condon, he met Barnes after playing a show with A Hawk And A Hacksaw. Barnes passed on Condon’s demos to the label that went on to release Beirut’s first two records, helped Condon flesh out the home recordings that became debut album Gulag Orkestar, and performed as an early touring member of the band. It’s easy to see why Barnes took a shine to Beirut’s steez; A Hawk And A Hacksaw is similarly influenced by world music. The band’s globetrotting sound is predominantly instrumental, which makes its records both more authentic and, sometimes, less accessible.
Beirut covered “O Leaozinho” by Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian musician and composer, on the compilation Red Hot + Rio 2 (put together by the folks behind the late 2000s indie-rock state of the union address known as Dark Was The Night). Veloso’s early records were formative in the Tropicalia movement, which dominated South American art and culture throughout the late ’60s and ’70s. His fusion of high art and Brazilian pop sensibilities mirrors Beirut’s blending of world music and modern indie-pop; considering Condon’s ethnomusical crate-digging tendencies, it’s understandable that he’d be into someone as revolutionary as Veloso.
Owen Pallett/Final Fantasy
Owen Pallett has arranged string parts for groups like Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Fucked Up, and Pet Shop Boys, and released three records of string-soaked art pop under both his birth name and the stage name Final Fantasy. Pallett also collaborated with Condon on a series of releases, including Beirut’s second LP, The Flying Club Cup; his warbly tenor is a great foil to Condon’s croon on “Cliquot,” a duet between the two. Pallett released Heartland last year to near universal praise; the record is alternately tense and blissful, restrained and theatrical, and is a sure bet for those with an ear for experimental pop.
Condon has made no bones about his love for the music of Boban Marković, one of the finest Balkan-style trumpet players. Condon’s obsession with hyper-melodic, Gypsy-tinged trumpet lines is heavily informed by Marković, who leads The Boban Marković Orchestra, perhaps the most popular brass band in his home country of Serbia. Robert Christgau cites Marković’s “contained chaos” as a sort of counterpoint to Beirut’s “melodicism tempered by harmonic melancholy,” and he’s right. Condon translates the booming, celebratory marches of The Boban Marković Orchestra into something American indie-rock fans can relate to: classy pop songs about the uncertainty of youth.
Beirut’s songs often bring to mind a sunny day somewhere in Europe, where a well-dressed old man is sharing a bottle of wine with a few friends, reminiscing about past lovers. Gogol Bordello sounds like what happens when that old man’s grandkids meet a group of filthy strangers on the street, break into the liquor cabinet, and party for three days straight. To put it another way, Gogol Bordello is to European Gypsy music as Dropkick Murphys are to Irish folk songs. Bandleader Eugene Hutz’s cartoonishly thick accent and wild onstage antics occasionally overshadow the band’s intriguing blend of European folk and Andrew W.K.-style party rock, which any Beirut fan with a wild side should be able to hang with.
Between the release of his first and second record, Condon returned to Europe as a successful musician, which afforded him the opportunity to meet and play with some of the groups that informed his musical style. In an interview with San Francisco Weekly, he recalled this “super amazing” experience playing with the Kočani Orkestar, a brass band from Macedonia. The Kočani Orkestar’s eclectic Gypsy brass sound is most similar to the sound Beirut has developed, incorporating international influences into the band’s native style.