“Gulag Orkestar” CD
Label: Ba Da Bing! Records
“Gulag Orkestar” by Beirut offers a satisfying, if a bit misleading, collection of songs.
Many listeners who experience this CD have already encountered the story of it’s making. An Arizona native, Zach Conlon, tours Eastern Europe absorbing the music. He then folds those sounds into his American Indie rock style to create a remarkable album. All before he turns twenty. For fans this simple story transforms into potent myth. Not that myths and stories are bad, but they’re not what makes “Gulag Orkestar” an interesting recording.
The flourishing horns that introduce this album let you know straight off that this isn’t a typical indie rock listen. They’re sweeping, cinematic, almost Mariachi-like. They signal the start of an heroic struggle, or the completion of one. They sound like nothing but the work of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest composers: Ennio Morricone. Morricone may have recorded more that 500 soundtracks in his career but those that he created for the “spaghetti westerns” of the late 1960′s are so iconic that they come to define that genre.
A first time listener of Beirut’s debut who hasn’t heard the telling of it’s creation is more likely to conjure up images of that otherworldly place where the American Sierra Nevadas flow into the Spanish Sierra Nevadas. The somber undertones of Conlon’s humble rock seem tailor-made for a place that is home to a “Man With No Name”. This may not be the album of 19th Century indie rock, but you could imagine it rotating on a hifi circa 1967.
It’s Conlon’s basis in solid song construction is what makes this amalgam work. There are no bad, or even weak, songs on this album. Yet, Conlon is still just a journeyman song-slinger. While every song is enjoyable, none of them are jaw-dropping incredible. You may recommend the album to a friend but you won’t sit them down and play one song to blow them away.
One of the lessons he needs to learn is regarding his own voice. His voice is good, but it isn’t always strong enough. Several times the vocals are over-run by the horn section. His voice also lacks the range possessed by the best pop/rock singers. It just doesn’t work for everything he wants or needs it to. Couple this lack of range with the similarity of song tempo and structure and there’s no place for any song to rise above the rest. For Conlon to succeed he needs to follow the lead of song writers like Stephen Merritt, Colin Meloy, and Stuart Murdoch and learn one of the most important lessons of great pop music: sometimes the best way to tell a story is with someone else’s voice. Other vocalists could make the songs of “Gulag Orkestar” shine stronger.
This is a satisfying album. There are no cringe-inducing missteps. What’s misleading about “Gulag Orkestar” is that it isn’t a pinnacle masterwork, but just the start of a promising career.
Ba Da Bing! Records