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Gulag Orkestar

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iTunes Review

Zach Condon, the twenty year-old songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind Beirut, voice steeped in harsh kvass and Prima tobacco, delivers a highly idealized take on Eastern European musical culture over a theatrical musical backing. Cracked brass, wailing violins and distressed accordions, it all sounds like the soundtrack to one of Emir Kusturica’s cinematic fever dreams. Still, Condon’s unapologetically ersatz brand of gypsy folk does not deserve the ire of musical purists. Far from being a po-faced ethnomusicologist, Condon is a musical fantasist of the highest order who maniacally attacks gypsy music with an eye to sublimity over authenticity. The exotic musical forgeries of Tom Waits and David Byrne are his true touchstones. Yet for all of its borrowed gypsy attire, Gulag Orkestar’s star struck romanticism hints that not all of Condon’s influences hail from the far side of the iron curtain. “Postcards From Italy” stumbles skyward on a shambolic chord progression borrowed from Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World”, while “The Scenic World” is an exercise in unabashed Stephin Merritt worship. With Gulag Orkestar Zach Condon has charted a fantastical musical landscape where Gypsy bards and Morrissey acolytes meet to compare compositions.

Customer Reviews

Interesting Story, Interesting Music

I heard recently about how Zach Condon, the singer/songwriter/primary musician behind Beirut, allegedly dropped out of high school, ran off to Europe, mingled with gypsies and traveled all around the continent absorbing the sounds of Eastern Europe. Well...allegedly. Whether or not that story is true, it's exactly what Gulag Orkestar sounds like. The songs are a guide through the eyes of a traveler--by the track names at least. It is some of the flat-out strangest stuff I have ever heard and yet I'll find myself craving a listen during the middle of the day. Many of the tracks are epic and sweeping ("Rhineland", "Postcards from Italy"), using orchestration featuring meloncholic trumpet parts. Others blend instruments and electronics ("Scenic World", "After the Curtain") that culminate in a few of my favorite tracks on the record. I've never been to Eastern Europe, but I feel like I might have been there once while listening to Beirut.

Simply Amazing

I originally brushed off the idea of getting this album. The concept of incorporating Eastern European/Russian themes into enjoyable and touching indie music seemed impossible to me. However, scouring for some new music, I got the album, and I was blown away by my first listen. Zach Condon's vocals are amazing: think Jens Lekman with more versatility and emotion. The instrumentation is wonderfully executed as well, inspiring me often to do a little jig or snap my fingers. The lyrics are not the deepest ever, but insightful and moving. Songs on the album range from hardcore Eastern Euro spirituals (Prenzlauerburg, Bandenburg, Rhineland) to light and hip indie pop, both of which are executed excellently. My pick so far for best album of 2006.

eastern bloc abq

this is a compelling, lovely album, with eastern-yurp overtones that sound so pleasing to our blown-out western ears. think of an egoless rufus wainwright on vocals and a bit of neutral milk horns over eastern bloc charmers. i recommend cross-referencing A Hawk and A Hacksaw, a similar-sounding project debuted in 2004 by one jeremy barnes, of neutral milk hotel & bablicon. who curiously is also from albuquerque nm like this here band beirut. similar & interesting, but gulag orkestar is rather more listenable for an indie-poppers ears. enjoy.


Formed: 2006 in New York, NY [Brooklyn]

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

One of 2006's most unexpected indie success stories, Beirut combines a wide variety of styles, from pre-rock/pop music and Eastern European Gypsy styles to the alternately plaintive and whimsical indie folk of the Decemberists to the lo-fi, homemade psychedelic experimentation of Neutral Milk Hotel. At the heart of this sonic hybrid was a teenager from Albuquerque, New Mexico, a fact that made Beirut's debut album, Gulag Orkestar, all the more surprising. Something of a musical prodigy, multi-instrumentalist...
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