It almost seems as though Zach Condon, 24-year-old veteran frontman and main proprietor of the internationally curious collective Beirut, is nodding in acknowledgment of the fact that the indie rock world into which he exploded a mere five years ago has changed so much that it's barely recognizable. His approach, which has long been governed by basic principles like incorporate more instruments or explore more cultures, has, after a brief moment in the spotlight thanks to likeminded peers in bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists, largely fallen out of favor, replaced by minimalist bedroom electronics and often crude interpretations of all manner of retro pop. It's been called the New Simplicity, and it stands to reason that it would make Condon very uncomfortable. Instead, he's taken on certain aspects of it while managing not to lose himself in it. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Even though it's been four years since Beirut's last proper full-length, the widely praised The Flying Club Cup, their most recent outing, The Rip Tide, is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it affair, with nine songs clocking in at a brief 33 minutes. But more than its somewhat abbreviated length, it's the directness of the album that really stands out: it doesn't feel quite as set on globetrotting, or on packing every distant corner of the mix with some perfect, unexpected detail. We're not talking about James Blake-style bareness, of course, and you're not likely to mistake it for a Wavves record, but still, for the first time, the words "straightforward" and "pop" don't seem totally off-base.
Rather than relying on the groggy, drunken, back-alley vibe that made Flying Club Cup so likable (but also sort of a pastiche), these songs are crystal-clear and engaging from the get-go. The quality of the recording plays a big part, providing separation and punch that was lacking before, but there's also just less stuff competing for your attention. There are still horns, lots of eager strumming, and a few things you'll have a hard time identifying, not to mention Condon's ever-present booming vocals, but everything is deployed with the greatest of care, and it's a revelation. The gentle, stripped-down "Goshen" is perhaps his most affecting melody, on an album full of them, and there's not a single note out of place throughout. Even more impressively, the same can be said of more upbeat tracks, from "A Candle's Fire," where the instruments almost seem to take turns, to instant classic "East Harlem," building as precisely as it does to one of the album's (and the year's) best payoffs. Condon's new willingness to subtract left him not with a small-sounding album, but one where the remaining elements, the ones most deserving of inclusion, were given the space to sound as big and bold as they likely always wanted to. The Rip Tide feels a lot like a new beginning.
Photo Kristianna Smith