Beirut- The Rip Tide

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Aug 172011
 
Authors: Alex Hall (DJ Keller)

After five years, Zach Condon has finally come home.

Don’t you expect to see something like that in a review for this album? After all, The Rip Tideis going to go down in Beirut history as their most “American” record, and it is centered on their acceptance of American pop sensibilities. “Port Of Call” sounds like standard foreign fare for the band on its own, but when discovered that the port is in fact America, the themes of this work morph dramatically.

Why is this important? Because for New Mexico native Condon, his home country has been the last place he’s looked for inspiration. 2006’s Gulag Orkestar was deeply rooted in the traditional music of the Balkans, while The Flying Club Cup borrows from French chanson and March Of The Zapotecchanneled the folk music of post-colonial Mexico. There was a romance with Beirut, something ineffaceably new without the danger of novelty. Gulag Orkestar was one of my favorite albums of 2006, andMarch Of The Zapotec/Holland was one of my favorite EPs of the past several years. Now with The Rip Tide, Condon shifts his focus to something familiar and tries to find romance in America.

It doesn’t necessarily work. If it does, it cannot replicate Beirut’s past achievements. The main problem rests in the composition:The Rip Tide relies more on melody than any other of the group’s albums, and while it is certainly romantic to think of Condon with his sleeves rolled up tentatively isolating a couple notes on a baby grand piano, the way these songs are structured are actually a bit unimpressive. The composition will establish a melody or a central chord progression at the beginning, and then all the orchestration will assemble itself around it. However, part of romance is the artist’s willingness and capacity to surprise his audience, and these motifs do little or nothing to that effect. “Vagabond” mirrors the I-vi-IV-V progression that made so many doo-wop numbers famous, but not even the breakdown halfway through can save the piece from languorous boredom. “Payne’s Bay” offers an enjoyable and memorable hook, but only utilizes it as a differentiation tool between itself and the other eight similar-sounding cuts on the album. Silence is featured heavily on The Rip Tide, even on the two aforementioned tracks, but for some reason Beirut can’t seem to apply it well. Songs will seem to end and then pick back up again, but it never is jarring enough to excite the listener and it is never prolonged enough to challenge him.

The lyrics are nothing to write home about, either. Beirut’s catalog has often been so ribald that the histrionics of Condon’s lyrics are actually very effective, or has alternately been so vague that they are imperceptible. This record is neither of those, and because of it, Condon’s imagistic verses and nasal delivery do not have a satisfactory anchor. I often felt embarrassed by the words and the vocals, because they didn’t seem like they fit. The self-harmonizing works on “The Gulag Orkestar,” but does not on straight-ahead number “Santa Fe.” Many of the songs are about concrete places, like “East Harlem” and “Goshen;” this is how it has always been, but Condon used to offer an impressionistic vision of the concrete, and that was what made it wonderful. When it is impressionistic, like in “East Harlem,” it is merely the same set of lines repeated in the same fashion as the melodies in the rest of the album. “The Peacock” separates itself with selective detail, but there are so many wasted opportunities; for instance, when ther calls Berlin “a city where no one hears,” Condon neglects to distinguish between hearing and listening.

Though my main grievance with The Rip Tide is that I find it uninteresting, it is not a fatal flaw. If the listener values melody, he or she should purchase this record, because Condon and his band are at the top of their form as popular songwriters. The consumer’s impression of The Rip Tide certainly depends on whether or not the consumer prefers melody as the focal point of the work, and as such it shall be very divisive. What Beirut’s back catalog possesses and this LP lacks is any evocative power. This is the most tepid record the band has pressed (and hopefully the most tepid they ever will), especially because it does not involve itself enough to thrill any passions in the listener. So although Zach Condon has finally come home, he seems more lost than he ever has.

 Posted by at 5:16 am

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