Gulag Orkestar

(Ba Da Bing!; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 19 August 2007

Bite down too hard on these things and you’ll hurt your teeth, right? I mean, this is one of those blogs-all-over-it albums that sends its antennas etherward and, exiting the atmosphere, finds about 60 billion words of praise clinging to its orbit, which the physics buffs in the crowd will tell you should drag it back to earth. Welcome to CMG, Beirut. We find you absolutely charming, cute even, and would love to hold your hand.

I’m not going to disagree with the Internet that this is one of the most fascinating and enjoyable debuts of the year; it is, and anybody who finds it too sugary is on the wrong diet. Those tumbling Balkan rhythms are one of my favorite things you can do with sound, intersecting marches and waltzes and street parties like there was never any difference between the three. I’m a bit concerned, however, that these embellishments have become the raison d’être for writing about this album. Dude’s from Albequerque, right? He lives in Brooklyn. I get the Balkan association, sure, but every time I hear an accordion I don’t automatically think: “Budapest…” Abstract associations (how about a few more: Lebanon, Paris, Puerto Rico, Chile, Albania, Zaire, Ceylon, Prussia, Transylvania, Jupiter, Lansing) don’t do much to explain why this is good.

We can cross-colonize this thing all we want, but push too hard and we’ll miss all the borders Gulag Orkestar collapses and end up somewhere in the middle of nowhere, without a map to guide us home. At that point it just becomes an echo of ideas about Eastern Europe, rather than an album that effectively uses the instrumentation of Balkan horn ensembles to accent a set of really pretty pop tunes. And I know last week I threw “Postcards from Italy” into my own cultural stew, so I’m not denying the urge, or the value, but if [insert National modifier here] is all we can say about this album, then it’s no better than saying that Norah Jones reminds us of jazz, or Dave Matthews reminds of us music we actually like. Gulag Orkestar is a trillion national histories better than all of that shit, and I just don’t want to see it relegated to the dinner party dustbin advocated in planner rags like Redbook because it evokes something “fancier” than your normal indie album. We all want to be cosmopolitan, fine, but let your selection of cheese do the talking; this album is far more intimate than that photograph you’ve been waiting to enlarge to cover the empty space on your wall.

Because it isn’t just a placeholder. What makes it stand out, and what keeps it from being just a sub-par recreation of actual Balkan music is that, even with all of these instruments—horns, drums, mandolin, bass, piano, more horns—Zach Cordon’s voice maintains a close-mic’d intimacy (one that allows him to transcend his under-enunciation and pocket range) that is unique in the anatomy of indie. The arrangements are crisp and precise (he’s aided by members of Neutral Milk Hotel and A Hack and a Hacksaw), but his simple lyrics that recall traditional folk tunes and anti-modern values (a bit wispy, sure, but I don’t think this is an argument, so much as homage) provide a sultry focal point that is so convincing that…well, we can talk about twee all we want, but I haven’t heard another this year that is so forthright and realistic about having its heart on its sleeve.

“Postcards” is probably the finest effort here, but the forlorn shuffle of “Brandenburg” comes close, its horns thrumming over the bridge and coda, a gestalt mass of conflicted emotions. “Bratislava” buries Cordon in the mix; this thumping Balkan march has the grit of Fanfare Ciocarla, if not the speed. “The Bunker” is a pretty little number, all round-out choruses and pleasant acoustic accompaniment. “Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)” has one of Cordon’s more impressive vocal performances; his voice at times is double tracked and pitted against a harmony of horns, and the song itself winds up slowly, allowing percussion to enter at different intervals. The effect is interesting, and the instruments and voice all seem cordoned off from each other like you’re actually witnessing this performance in a street surrounded by the musicians. “Rhineland (Heartland)” churns over its stark, acoustic kick line. Both “Scenic World” and “After The Curtain” contain flitting and inversely anachronistic synth lines; the former is an album highlight, and by far the most joyous track.

So, yes: this is cuddly, warm and intimate, just like all your favorite blogs have said. It’s a little uniform, and given its half-hour run time that’s saying something, but overall I think Cordon has managed to do something special: place his own voice at the center of very interesting, if at times monotonous, arrangements, and allow its tone to speak volumes where his lyrics don’t, really. Which is very nice, but not necessarily the ghostwritten return of a certain indirectly related and treasured songwriter some have claimed it to be. It’s an entirely different, but very pleasant, animal. Perhaps a koala bear?