Zach Condon definitely has a way with soaring, rich arrangements and a Balkan brass band sound; that's no small feat for a single instrumentalist who didn't solidify his eight-piece band until he was well on his way to a second full-length album. He's a complex songwriter with a singular passion for the music he becomes interested in. We'd like to add for the record that he has French horns tattooed on the insides of each of his forearms.
"Elephant Gun" is one of Beirut's most catchy and musically inventive songs, capturing the feel of a Balkan brass band alongside rich storytelling and a dash of American indie hipster sensibility. The song starts with the simple sound of Condon on a ukulele alone, playing a mildly non-conventional chord progression beginning on a minor and progressing through three major chords. His tremulous, rich voice comes in over the lone uke before he is backed by an accordion and a second ukulele track (you wouldn't notice it at first, but it's there). A trumpet melody winds up for action behind the first chorus, and builds into a few measures of celebratory dominance by a small ensemble of horns. Condon's voice is filled out by harmonies singing a mournful wordless melody in a major key; yet another section of the song is filled out by a violin. Oh, and did we mention the cymbals crashing in the background? Like most of Beirut's early work, the song quickly achieves the full sound of a brass band clomping down a cobblestone street—or at least, the full sound we might imagine such a thing to have. (Actually, it might sound something like this.)
One of the criticisms leveled at Condon's work on Gulag Orkestar is that it loses its musical distinctiveness to an over-full, over-done sound that does not vary enough within or among songs. Such a criticism doesn't apply to "Elephant Gun"; after a second enthusiastic and graceful trumpet duet, the instrumentation drops back to a lone ukulele and percussion behind the second chorus, building back up only slightly before the song fades. The listener has the feeling that this lovely roving band is disappearing down a long alley while we stand outside the café and watch. And now, the moment of greatest musical novelty: after the song seems to have ended completely, an accordion abruptly starts back up, playing with a jaunty rhythm. The accordion echoes the chords from earlier verses, but this time its sound is a tinny echo rather than a full noise, like a sound coming from a memory or a phonograph rather than the live feel of the earlier takes. A trumpet cuts back in, playing a snippet of an earlier melody. The accordion rhythm falters, almost seeming to stop and start rather than proceed steadily forward. "Elephant Gun" fades again to the sound of these two instruments. It feels like a man standing alone in a room with a memory.
Despite not really being about anything in particular, "Elephant Gun"'s music fills the song with emotion. According to Condon, this is exactly what he's going for: "I like it brash and drunken and full of feeling. When our new trumpet player came in, he sounded very regal and was perfectly alliterating all the notes. I remember saying, No, you have to slop it up!" At least on "Elephant Gun," Condon's approach is a certain success.