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.
And for the record, we'd like to add that he has French horns tattooed on the insides of each of his forearms. That's commitment.
"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's 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. But 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 doesn't 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, the music of "Elephant Gun" fills the song with emotion.
According to Condon, this is exactly what he was going for. He said, "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!" (Source)
At least on "Elephant Gun," Condon's approach is a certain success.
"He's obsessed with geography and location, but doesn't have a permanent home of his own," wrote CMJ of Zach Condon in 2006. "He loves to travel, but his music imagines the locales that inspire it rather than documents them. And, most of all, he's a young man with old tastes." (Source)
This pretty much sums up Zach Condon at age 20, a musical prodigy with far more travel-related imagination than actual travel experience.
After dropping out of high school to be a musician, Condon traveled briefly to France and New York. Out of money, he returned home and recorded his entire first album, Gulag Orkestar, in his bedroom at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His friend Jeremy Barnes, the former drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel and then accordionist for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, insisted on sending his demo to a friend at Ba Da Bing! Records in Brooklyn.
Almost overnight, Zach Condon was Beirut. He flew to New York for the album release and played his first show with a full band in front of a house of 200 at the Knitting Factory. He was apparently, very, very nervous. Luckily for his career, he caught on quickly to the art of being a bandleader and solidified an 8-piece band by the time "Elephant Gun" came out.
When Lon Gisland was released, Condon was 20 and living in Brooklyn, but much of his life there was spent crashing with friends in between bouts of touring. He'd still done most of his writing at home with his parents in Albuquerque.
He was, however, clearheaded about his quick path to fame. He dropped out of school because he knew he had a higher calling, and when his music career took off, it all made sense. He told Under the Rader:
"I felt school was in the way of something, but I didn't know what at the time. I felt no responsibility to it. I always thought I was heading toward something, but I didn't know what it was. It felt like it would get in the way of that. After I dropped out of high school, every once in a while I'd say, 'You know what? Maybe I did make a mistake.' And I definitely don't come from the kind of family that smiles on that kind of thing. I kept trying, but every time, I swear, a week into it I'd realize that something was very wrong. So I dropped out of school four times, [including] college and high school. It might have been a dumb adolescent cockiness, but I always felt that there was something more important to be done and I was just wasting time." (Source)
He wasn't even sure if music was what he should be doing:
"I've played trumpet for most of my life, and it's the only instrument that I've been at all trained in. I remember when I went to high school, all they had available was marching band. And I convinced the principal of the school to start a jazz band class, which I claimed that I would run under the supervision of the marching band teacher who just sat in his office as we drank wine in class and played a few Thelonious Monk songs and Miles Davis tracks. And we never even played a concert, though we did have fun doing absolutely nothing. I remember that being the first time that it was like, 'Well, I'd rather be in this all day than in school.' So I started recording myself." (Source)
By the time he was 19, Condon had written most of Gulag Orkestar:
"I had 13 songs, and I remember thinking, this isn't what I want it to be. This still isn't good enough. [..] Then I got this offer for a show in Albuquerque from a friend of mine. At the time, all I had was those tunes on my iPod. So I played this concert, and I walked on stage, and I pressed play on my computer. All I had was a microphone and a trumpet, and I started singing and yelling and playing trumpet. And it was a really great show, and it's a really great memory of mine. Afterwards, they kicked me out of the bar because I was underage." (Source)
Gulag Orkestar reflected a highly developed style. And one that was unusual in the indie music scene of the U.S.
Balkan influences were generally marketed more to a "world music" audience that tended to be well over 30. Condon brought it to 20-somethings, and the 20-somethings loved it. "Elephant Gun" continues in this style, but it's also part of the ongoing development of Beirut, not as a Balkan-inspired brass band, but as a band who can do anything.
What came next—later that same year, in fact—was The Flying Club Cup, an album styled after French pop music known as chanson.
The EP after that? Mexican funeral music recording in Oaxaca. Critics loved Gulag Orkestar, adored "Elephant Gun," and are likely to revere whatever comes out of Condon's versatile band next. "He is more than a precious indie rocker slinging a guitar; he is helping revive orchestrated pop music" (source), wrote CMJ.
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: the explanation of why on earth this kid who'd never been to the Middle East named his band after the capital of Lebanon.
As with many things Zach Condon, the decision was based more on his imagination than on lived experience:
"One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it's seen a lot of conflict. It's not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I'll change it. But not now. It's still a good analogy for my music. I haven't been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide." (Source)