March of the Zapotec / Realpeople: Holland

(Pompeii / Ba Da Bing!; 2009)

By Conrad Amenta | 18 February 2009

I’m still sufficiently charmed by the back story: Zach Condon, aimless adolescence incarnate, tired of holing up in a bedroom in his parents’ house, drops out of high school to spend time in Europe. He comes home with eyes opened amply enough to inspire amateur ethnography, and in the same aforementioned bedroom becomes capable of DIYing a worldly, mature debut album. Flying Club Cup (2007), its follow up, did go some ways towards assuaging fears that a man whose songwriting style can be said to amount to niche at best, gimmicky at worse, wouldn’t be able to produce a substantive discography. Mating the material with an ecstatic live show, Beirut was, at least in my eyes, officially legit: a cosmopolitan beacon and knowing visitation at a time when seemingly unauthored hybridization was becoming indie’s clumsiest rule of law. Condon had sufficiently answered criticism that his music was only as viable as that trip to Europe—immediate and rejuvenating, but temporary and necessarily episodic. On the contrary, I believed that Condon’s vision is one that tapped into something kinetic and wholehearted, a flipside to the cynicism that permeates the soulless mining of better minds and hollowed out scenes—that rarity of tempered, informed youth.

So it’s a fan asking what, exactly, this bet-hedging, timorous, stop-start, weak-willed garbage is? A double-EP, practically a disclaimer, Condon stipulates that his genre tributes have ossified rather than become fluid over time. This is disappointing evidence that perhaps even he believes his particular take on Eastern European oompa deserves to be segregated and treated with retrospective romanticism—as some sort of unknowable relic untouched by the transient currency of today’s music—rather than receive the full brunt of technical and conceptual interrogation. The style Condon employs is still a novel one, but this is now bordering on self-immolation.

March of the Zapotec is a serviceable, if less than memorable, expansion of Beirut’s already established sound via the Jiminez Band, a 19-piece band from Mexico. Realpeople Holland is fucking awful techno music that is desert-bereft, wholly disposable, and somehow makes Condon’s crooner’s dollop seem alien and unlistenable for the first time. If there’s any consolation here it’s that the relegation of Realpeople to its own EP makes it easier to ignore. Which, one suspects, was entirely the point.

I’d hoped introducing electronics—always a riskily predictable move, and a particularly disjointed one considering Beirut’s meticulous genus—might backdrop a valuable reflection on the apparent transferability of Beirut’s music to the New York scene in which it’s been so joyously applied. Instead, Realpeople stupidly thumps out its 4/4 beats and blippity noises like any series of terrible New York electronic bands, like a series of disengaged Cubase sample tracks. Condon’s syrupy vocals sound histrionic and silly in an exact inverse of its function on those still believable Roma recordings. There are few horns, the inclusion of which being equally predictable but also providing the impression of depth or perhaps representing the subtle displacement of traditional rhythm. Realpeople supposedly represents the output of Condon’s pre-Beirut project, and this apology, like the EP itself, is not enough to ensure passive receptivity. These cumulative knee-jerk reactions to Realpeople will almost certainly outweigh unmoved acceptance of March, its better half which is nonetheless neither good enough to sustain us nor bad enough to want to thoroughly analyze.

One is also left with the impression that Condon’s limited vocal and lyrical scope has reached its natural limit. Numerous instances throughout March conjure “A Sunday Smile,” with its sweeping resignation and picaresque worldliness. The degree to which one buys into Condon’s continued mining of such broadly Modernist themes will dictate, to some degree, one’s patience for his music. I admit that I’m partial to it, but I’d lose patience with Hemingway himself if he hadn’t occasionally transported himself, along with his own romanticized vision of masculinity, from La Rive Gauche and into the world.

The invisible, sub-Lon Gisland (2007) March and the truly awful Realpeople represent not only the first real misstep in what will hopefully be a long and rewarding career for a still very young artist, but a spectrum-wide shift from Condon’s broad-textured portraiture to what sounds like a facile, pathetic entreaty for contemporary relevance. It’s stunning to hear Condon release something that seems to so completely miss the crux of Beirut’s mass appeal. The trans-cultural gush that had New Yorkers losing their shit over Eastern European music never required this junior set of apologist inspirations.