Monday, May 22, 2006

Beirut/Gulag Orkestar/7.7

Are the songs really so incredible or do they simply mimic and mine musical traditions unfamiliar to the average indie rock fan?

With Eastern European relatives in Cleveland, I heard lots of polka music. Every wedding had a band with an accordion. Even the family reunion for the Irish side of my family had a two man polka band with the dad on accordion and the son on drums. At the time, I was a "cool" college radio DJ and polka was not my cup of tea. However, after watching them play, I was pretty taken with their musicianship. Since then, I've ventured outside of indie rock to listen to various traditional music and I've always found two things to be true of folk music from Galway to Galax to Ghana -
  • The songs have infectious melodies and beats. In order for a song to be passed down from musician to musician, it has to be memorable. Singers have to remember the melody and dancers have to instantly recognize the rhythm.
  • The musicianship can be phenomenal. Many folk musicians start playing as soon as they can wrap a hand around an instrument. Even players in informal sessions are technically skilled.
Listening to Beirut, I don't hear either of those elements. Most of the songs are humble and repetitive. In some cases, the songs are two-chord riffs with the same two or three bar long melody repeated. Instead of razor sharp playing, the tracks have a mish mash mix of instruments competing with doubled vocals. While the tracks suggests a certain mood, they never really gel as songs and after a while become a little monotonous. I've even tried comparing it to various reviews RIYL's - Andrew Bird, Bell Orchestre, Final Fantasy - and the record still doesn't stand up in comparison. Indie rock fans may be hearing something new, but you can just easily go to the Smithsonian's Globals Sounds store and hear much better examples of the same sounds.

Stosuy gives Condon some slack in his review saying " his themes ..are vague and sometimes less than effective. That makes sense: He doesn't have the lived experience for those situations." However, I expect any songwriter, regardless of his age, to work with subject matter that he knows. Maybe I should cut him some slack for his age, but I still expect a certain level of performance whether I'm listening to a 19-year old singer songwriter, a 19-year old fiddle player or a 19-year old heavy metal guitarist.

The one track that succeeds on Gulag Orkestar is the single "Postcards From Italy". While the instrumental parts are simple, they're added gradually, leading into an engaging bridge. I've actually caught myself whistling the main melody. There are promises of these elements in the other tracks, but "Postcards From Italy" put them together in a way that shows a tremendous amount of promise. If I could score Gulag Orkestar just on the basis of "Postcards From Italy", I'd give it an 8.0. However, I'd probably shave a full point off the PFM rating of the whole album.

If Gulag Orkestar was a plate of pierogies, they wouldn't be the best pierogies money can buy - they certainly wouldn't be like any made by someone's babushka. However, there are a couple of good morsels on the plate - good enough for Beirut to go back into the kitchen and take another stab at it.