Album review: Beirut – ‘Artifacts’: a masterful and beautiful voyage through Zach Condon’s early years in EPs, Bs and offcuts

The Breakdown

Artifacts is such a journey though the world, nay worlds, of Zach Condon: soundtracky instrumentals, heart-squeezing indie anthems, klezmer meets mariachi folk, synthpop, experimental sketches; it's all here. What it so does is show all the threads running through Zach's world: the romance, the poetry, the dulcet vocals; the pop, the cinematic and the cultural fusion. And this record also reveals a heretofore unexpected ambient quality to the Beirut canon. Ambitious and sometimes idiosyncratic, it's languishingly lovely, it's humbly great. This way for quite the immersion in Zach's beautiful aesthetic.

MISSION CREEP. One of those pseudo-economic terms that make the decent among us go “eeep”, defined in dictionary terms as “a gradual shift in objectives, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment.” We’ve all seen it happen: something which starts to sprawl out of control in a Mandelbrot set of projects within projects within projects within, jeez, is life really worth living.

Of course sometimes what begins as a little archive dive to fish out a track or two can result in a wholesale immersion in songs loved, songs forgotten, songs which have never yet seen the light of day, reminiscence, regret, pride, love; and that can result in something very lovely indeed, especially for a true fan of a band.

This a process which Zach Condon has been through in recent times with his gorgeous Beirut, who are now set to release an overview of their early years next spring – a project which has burgeoned from a collection of early EPs into a full-on 26-track set.

The collection, entitled Artifacts, began to grow in ambition as Zach went shining his torch into just what he had down there in the vault.

“When the decision came to re-release this collection, I found myself digging through hard drives looking for something extra to add to the compilation,” he says. Fresh ears combined with memory to bring new life to songs he knew he knew, but which sounded so different from the perspective of the passing years.

“What started as a few extra unreleased tracks from my formative recording years quickly grew into an entire extra record’s worth of music from my past, and a larger project of remixing and remastering everything I found for good measure,” he says.

Zach’s love affair with the sound he made his own began when he discovered Balkan brass music while travelling Europe with his brother; it as a sound that stayed with him and which he first fully realised on his 2006 debut, Gulag Orkestar, for Ba Da Bing!; I mean crikey, he was only 20 at that time. He quickly followed that, in a creative burst, with the defining Lon Gisland EP, featuring the magnificent “Elephant Gun” and album no.2, The Flying Club Cup, within a year or so.

A double EP, March of the Zapotec and Real People Holland – one recorded with a 19-piece Mexican group, the other six electronic tracks made under the pseudonym Realpeople – proved an interesting blossoming into other sonic avenues before a third full-lengther, Rip Tide, five years on.

Artifacts will be released as a 2xLP set, and comes themed across a quartet of sides. Side A centres on that debut EP for Ba Da Bing!, Lon Gisland, and connected works, and of course features the marvellous “Elephant Gun”, alongside “Scenic World”, “O Leãozinho” and others; side B is entitled “The Misfits” and collects together overlooked gems such as “Autumn Tall Tales”, “Fyodor Dormant” and “Poisoning Claude”; side C dives into “New Directions and Early Works”, unearthing gems from back into Zach’s teen years; and side D rounds things off with a selection of B-sides.

Zach Condon of Beirut, photographed by Lina Gaisser

And so our travels begin in December 2006’s five-track Lon Gisland EP (and yep, doofus that I am, it actually took me literally ages to spot the letter transposition and read it differently) reprised here in full, with a couple of associated bonus cuts.

And it starts as we mean to go on: with the stupendous “Elephant Gun”, that oh-so-melodic 6/8 sweep of accordion and mariachi brass and wonderfulness, still one of the freshest, most sublime things I’ve ever heard, continent spanning and joyous and reminding us of a better world. Full disclosure: I totally had a moment of epiphany with this song at Green Man 2010, which was one of those Green Mans at which the heavens stayed continually and extremely damply open; but at which I caught Beirut’s brass section jamming this around the campfire in the small hours. Pretty spellbinding.

And you get that other quartet of EP tracks, too: the false starting, festival piano vamp and brass gallop of “My Family’s Role In The World Revolution”; the sweet indie sweep of “Scenic World”, which for all the world sounds like something Strip-Mine era James would have delighted in, big and proud and full of heart; that tiny sketch, setting out a manifesto for the “The Long Island Sound” as “Elephant Gun” reprising in environmental hum – and I’ll never, ever tire of that massed brass; “Carousels”, widescreen global jazz pop free of the curated tediousness that might suggest and in which Zach’s fine voice is almost Rufus Wainwright-like in its bold, smoky tone.

So far, so bloody excellent for fans, and now here begins the rarer treasure trove: “Transatlantique”, previously only a B-side to a 4AD 7″, quiet, swinging ukelele leaving ample room for Zach to sing out pure and true, massed brass putting Calexico into the TexMex shade; and a cover of Caetano Veloso’s “O Leãozinho” (“Little Lion”), played out in Hispanic lyricism and Zach’s trademark ukelele over crashing timpani and mandolin with sweetness and an edge.

Side the second and things begin to get really interesting for the Beirut aficionado. Herein, a well-rounded half-dozen out-takes, discarded sketches and more for your delectation – which include the atmospheric and floaty indie of “Autumn Tall Tales”, sorta soulfully Sufjanesque, gliding along; the curiously named “Fyodor Dormant”, a lo-fi essay of strangely Christmassy keyboards and drum machine tethering some beautiful brass and a lovely vocal, Zach meets Future Bible Heroes, perhaps, which gradually climbs skywards; and the straight-out synth squelch-pop nugget, “Poisoning Claude”.

“Bercy” continues the lo-fi exploration, is festively pretty, all retro synth voicings and this phase-shifting electronic pop chatter holding the fort while Zach and the brass are increasingly up riding the thermals in yearning. “Your Sails” sounds a first grasping and outlining of the “Elephant Gun” map, swaying in accordion, a interesting unearthing, while “Irrlichter” continues to reveal a Sliding Doors-style other route for Zach in understated, atmospheric global-beat electronica, shuffling drums, Zach a distant choral texture of melody – one which, for all its promise, be glad he eschewed and blessed us instead in the way he has.

Side C really blows the dust motes off the cassettes and master reels and takes us back to teen Zach; crikey, two decades ago, pretty much. A different world for us all, but a time when Zach was formatively in love with grand old Europa, as evidenced by the minor chord miniature odyssey of “Sicily”; poetry and romance watercolour sketched in subtle piano and electronica; the sorrowful and impressionistic piano and strings serenade, “Napoleon On The Bellerophon” and “Interior Of A Dutch House”, a homecooked, skiffly thing that reveals a touch of the Camper Van Beethovens and the Wainwrights and that really is no criticism – you’d Want this One, as the second passage reveals it be one of the absolute highlights of the set.

“Fountains And Tramways” show what an impact the continent had on him, summated in the split-second icons of the mind’s eye, poetic, swept up in the romance of it all – and wholly blessed with the chops to elicit it as he saw and felt it. It’s another forgotten great. “Hot Air Balloon” seems to encapsulate a bohemian world of twizzly moustaches and top hats in its wide-eyed melancholy and a wishing to be one of those aeronauts.

And so into the final quarter, the curated selection of B-sides and other nuggets, beginning with “Fisher Island Sound”, to which you can take a listen, below.

Zach says of this one: “This song was written while staying in band member Ben Lanz’s old family cottage on the coast of Connecticut, on the Fisher Island Sound. I played with the lines for years before trying to record versions of it in Brooklyn with the band.

“Perrin Cloutier had taught himself how to play a new button accordion beautifully, and the band was really sounding their best. I however, struggled in those years to put vocals on the songs and ended up scrapping a lot of the music from that era in this part of the collection due to fear, stress and self-doubt.

“I’ve come to rediscover some of these old songs in a different light since then, but they do remain a heavy reminder of unsteady times.” Beautiful though, ain’t it? Zach: you’re way too hard on yourself. It’s rather fetching, truth be told.

“So Slowly”is a beautiful polyrhythmic glide in some complex time, organ and drums and guitars almost bossa taut in direct contrast to Zach’s mellifluous harmonies. Both “The Crossing” and “Die Treue Zum Ursprung” (“the loyalty to the origin”, translation fans) could grace a cult European film of the Sixties’ both instrumental, the former waltzing and grand; the latter coming over like a Felt track, even China Crisis. And then there’s “Zagora”, slighter, mariachi-mitteleuropean and pin-bright with zinging guitar.

Two finely scrimshawed miniatures wrap quite the journey: “Le Phare Du Cap Bon” (“The Cape of Good Hope lighthouse”) is Beirut inna gently dub pastoral organ style, Zach weaving in and out with lamenting power; and Babylon just brinks 100 seconds in

It’s such a journey though the world, nay worlds, of Zach Condon: soundtracky instrumentals, heart-squeezing indie anthems, klezmer meets mariachi folk, synthpop, experimental sketches; it’s all here. What it so does is show all the threads running through Zach’s world: the romance, the poetry, the dulcet vocals; the pop, the cinematic and the cultural fusion. And this record really also reveals a heretofore unexpected ambient quality to the Beirut canon.

Would I recommend it to someone new to Beirut? My initial feeling was no, I’d say begin at the wellspring of Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup; get one of those first, put this in the mix for a second purchase. And then I thought, well, hang on: “Elephant Gun”, all these excellent sketches and instrumentals, the pop, the folk, the indie … why wouldn’t you? Do it. It’s ambitious and sometimes idiosyncratic, it’s languishingly lovely, it’s humbly great.

Roll up your sleeves in delight. This way for quite the immersion in Zach’s beautiful aesthetic.

Beirut’s Artifacts will be released digitally on January 28th on Pompeii Records with the physical release following on March 4th. There’s all kinds of merch bundling, too. Pre-order your copy here.

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