Every once in a while an album comes along that deserves five stars. The latest one, to my mind, is Gulag Orkestar by Beirut. Despite coming from from Albuquerque, New Mexico, this albums sound is rooted in Europe. Not just any Europe, however, but influenced mostly by the gypsy sounds of the Balkans and beyond. The sound, when compared to the authentic stuff by the likes of Kocani Orkestar (as heard on last.fm - where else?) demonstrates that there's many differences. The pace and the artistry are certainly poles apart. But that doesn't stop this album from being a masterpiece.
To listen to it, you'd be forgiven for thinking there was a full orchestra in the studio but this album is the work of a twenty year old (name of Zach Condon) and was composed bit by bit on his laptop with only few musical contributions, notably by Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk And A Hacksaw. Trumpet, accordion, drums, piano, mandolin, ukelele and more. Yet no guitars. And when the music sounds this lush, who really needs them?
The album begins with title track, Gulag Orkestar, which, after a raspy trumpet mourning opens into piano led procession of further trumpet signatures backed by steady percussion. And, over the top of this, Condon lightly wails with lyrics flitting in and out of comprehension. Prenzlaurberg and Brandenburg march on in much the same way, with added violins; brass leading the former, vocals the latter.
Postcards From Italy features some of the most coherent lyrics, it's funky opening leading the album into something nearing pop music. The accordion led Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) heads off into a lovely trumpet riff, maintainin the pop sensibilities, and the following Rhineland (Heartland), with its anthemic vocals backed by a chorus of trumpets concludes the upbeat trilogy.
Scenic World begins with a little electonica led ditty layered with instrumentation and almost incoherent vocals, the word 'breathtaking' closing the show. Bratislava feels a darker take on the gypsy sound and has a clash of instruments all playing to their strengths, including clarinet, but playing off each other. Ukelele led The Bunker sounds like an elegy for a lost city, a patchwork of vocals backed by cello leading into a wall of gypsy sound before coming down to a sparkling organ and trumpet denouement.
The Canals Of Our City almost seems aware that the album is coming to a close. It's slow, the sounds therein strained and sustained. And final track, After The Curtain, eschews much of what has gone before with a mostly electronic track featuring, amongst the lyrics, "what can you do when the curtain falls", before leading into a coda of wails backed by applause.
While the album is low on lyrical prowess (at least as far as I can make out) it doesn't stop the snippets heard from being doleful, sometimes evocative, and steeped in the spirit of the music. But it's the sound that matters more here and this version of folk music (especially given that Condon has no roots in the Balkans) just works so well. Part of the fun is repeated listening when you noticed little snatches of music just rippling below the surface; a cello here, violin there, trumpets playing over each other. Simply wonderful - an album evocative of an indefinite time and place.