A few years ago, a friend of mine, once a fervent Zach Condon follower, fell out with Beirut. He fell out with them over questions of “authenticity”. Now. The debate over authenticity goes on and on and on, uselessly. There are not enough trees to print on, not enough servers to flame on, for the arguments of arbitrary purists to be validated or refuted, condemning, or not, musical pastichers/posers to hell over this tiresome and vacuous designation. My friend’s qualms sit unwell with me for another reason, however: Zach Condon and his rota of musicians have at no point actually striven to be “authentic”. The band were born cuffed over the car bonnets of the Pastiche Police, only taking certain select elements from the Balkan and French folk etc. their music is so often cited to resemble, whilst otherwise putting forth pop songwriting.
Gulag Orkestar had the plaintive horn dirges alongside the drunken sailoring, and altogether took a lot more, particularly in mood and melodic shape, from its World Music (my tongue is in my cheek, and I want to kill myself) sources of inspiration. Over the albums, the concoction of European influence poured over Condon’s pretty straightforward pop songs has become more of a sideline than a key ingredient. One's very first listen to ‘Nantes’ (opening The Flying Club Cup) sets the wheels in motion and the journey culminates in Holland, the Real People half of Condon’s 2009 double EP, where the placed exoticism of his earlier recordings has been supplanted by lo-fi synths and electronic percussion. The Rip Tide, the latest record, the one currently being toured, is in one sense an afterword to the stylistic evolution from Gulag Orkestar to Zapotec/Holland.
The pursuit of pop over continental folk pastiche has certainly paid off for the band, since they have been booked to play Manchester Academy. The city’s own The Travelling Band open proceedings, tepid and MOR overall, but not without their merits. A clean lift of Fleet Foxes’ use of lush, watertight, all-bearded-male vocal harmonies is effective - successfully epic. When the band aren’t dropping out for said vocals, they trundle along quite unvaried in the vein of Iron & Wine, stylistically resilient, but playing sadly forgettable songs.
Beirut tour as a relatively stripped down band this time around, three brass, accordion, drums and bass. This line-up does not read minimal, but trust me it sounds so next to the wonderful cacophony of the records. One drawback is the drumming. It behaves strangely. More rocky than appropriate, with a lot of songs substantially losing their original drive, particularly ‘Scenic World’, ‘After the Curtain’ and ‘My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille’. The latter’s strength on record is tied to catchy electronics, whilst here it blurs in with some of the less impacting numbers. Songs occasionally end on awkwardly cheesy emergency stops - final cadences that wouldn’t sound out of place at the end of an episode of Harry Hill’s TV Burp - evidence that this choice of accessibility over exotic folk ideas has been applied retroactively to Gulag-era tracks, and isn’t always desirable.
The atmosphere Beirut fosters overall, however, thankfully hasn’t changed since my last experience at Leeds Irish Centre in ‘07. The chant-alongs of ‘Postcards From Italy’, ‘Sunday Smile’ and ‘Carousels’ keep the tone light but grand, whilst ‘Gulag Orkestar’ menaces, and Rip Tide-highlight ‘Goshen’ touches the crowd, Zach piano-bound and projecting an unquestionably Antony Hegartish croon. All in all, long term stylistic direction and pedantic instrumentation gripes aside, Condon’s actual songwriting is fantastic, and to those back-of-hand familiar with the discography, like myself, the show is a treat.