Pre-Screening: Beirut

Album: March Of The Zapotec/Holland
Artist: Beirut
Label: Ba Da Bing Records
Due Out: February 17th

Zach Condon made quite a stir last April, when he posted an apology letter on Beirut's homepage, canceling all the dates of the band's upcoming European summer tour, putting the band on indefinite hiatus, and promising only that the band would eventually, "be back in some form." Like many Beirut fans, I feared the worst. Luckily, not too long after, in an interview with the alternative Seattle newspaper, The Stranger, my fears were put to rest, when Condon confirmed that he had begun working on a new record, which he had tentative plans to release in the upcoming year.

That record is the double EP, March Of The Zapotec/Holland. A unique pairing of a set of songs inspired by Condon's recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, and a set of electronic songs which he credits to Realpeople, his pre-Beirut, bedroom recording project. On the surface, it would seem that these two sounds might clash, but in fact, they balance each other out surprisingly well. What really sets this release apart most from what we are used to from Beirut, is that the Balkan and French, European sounds that dominated the last two records have been traded for a brassy, funeral band aesthetic. The influences from the past records are still audible in the music, but it is decidedly more somber, and with the help of a 19-piece Mexican backing band, its instrumentation is very true to the region that inspired it.

The opening track of March Of The Zapotec, "El Zocalo", starts things off with what sounds like a lively marching band, gearing up for a big parade, circa 1945, setting the stage for the tracks to follow. This goes right into "La Llorona", a tuba and trumpet driven waltz, with few lyrics, but extremely dynamic instrumentation. A theme that continues into the next track, "My Wife", which is entirely instrumental, and then to "The Akara", one of the standouts of the first half. With mournful brass and a lockstep combination of metallic percussion and the strumming of a traditional, Mexican stringed instrument, it is one of the more fast-paced tracks as well. This song flows seamlessly into the brief, "On a Bayonet", and then onto "The Shrew", which Zach Condon has called one of his favorite pieces in multiple interviews. It's another waltz, like much of Zapotec, but one that develops slowly, reaching a speeding climax of tumbling trumpets and bass drum, and then easing back into its origins, closing the first part of the double EP.

Holland begins with "My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille", a song which many of you may have heard already if you happened to read about Natalie Portman's Big Change: Songs for FINCA compilation on the interweb last year. It's a bouncy, dance track, with deep bass and synths that evoke images of an evening near the shore in France, illuminated by only the moon and stars. The next song, "My Wife, Lost in the Wild", has a similar feel, but is much slower, and makes use of layered and differently pitched vocals, to the point where they are like another instrument, rather than the focal point. This is, quite possibly, my favorite track on the entire double EP. Following that, is "Venice", another tune that was on a separate compilation (the Believer 2007 Music Issue) before this record. It's reminiscent of early Beirut songs like "Fountains and Tramways", from the Pompeii EP, with its simplicity and lyrical repetition. The next song, "The Concubine", gives us something refreshing, that seems like it could even have fit in on one of the two previous full-lengths. It opens with accordion and bells, and has a steady beat that powers it along, as Condon croons. The final track, "No Dice", is completely instrumental, and is a fitting, energetic ending to a record that varies greatly throughout, with a melody reminiscent of "Sunday Smile", off of The Flying Club Cup.

Overall, I liked this release, in terms of being a solid EP. It also offered a unique vessel for Zach Condon to release some material of his that otherwise may not have seen the light of day. Zapotec expanded the band's sound in a way that I had not expected, but I was definitely pleased with. The main complaint I have, and I think other people may share, is it isn't as big and grandiose as their previous releases. If anything, the lack of brand new material just leaves Beirut's fans hungry for more in the near future on the band's next full-length.

Rating: 7.0/10

Best Track: "My Wife, Lost In The Wild"

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