Beirut: "Postcards From Italy"


By Mark Abraham | 8 May 2006

Dear Grandfather,

I’m just listening to this song and…you know that croony religious stuff that Granny likes? Where every syllable is over-enunciated? I remember when she used to sing those songs and, back when you weren’t mostly deaf, you used to kind of chuckle fondly but not so that she noticed, ‘cause for some reason she was totally stretching out her syllables and using the highest, sketchiest parts of her register?

If you weren’t deaf I’d like to play you this song I’m listening to, by this band called Beirut. And no, it’s not because it’s Lebanese, ‘cause beyond the name, I can’t tell if there’s any connection to our culture. I’d play you “Postcards From Italy” because it’s croony too, like the missing link between that dismal 1940s stuff Granny adores and the kind of music I listen too today -- bands like Neutral Milk Hotel (weird name, I know!) and Secret Chiefs 3 and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Which doesn’t mean anything to you, in terms of how it sounds, I guess.

Let’s see. It starts with this innocuous Mickey Mouse ukulele, but damned if that silly strumming pattern doesn’t become the pulse of the song, throbbing like some cosmic Stravinsky folk ballad, putting the stress in awkward places, and allowing the end of each set of measures to transform into a fantastic pile-up. Remember when we used to play checkers, and you had that funny way you’d swoop around the board with your kings so that each jump got quicker and closer together? Like that. And then there’s this syncopated piano that hints at Klezmer and Balkan horn ensembles (beautiful horn arrangements) and even a little Mediterranean gusto.

The lyrics are about marriage, and I know I’ve seen pictures of your wedding, and when I hear this song I imagine it’s you proposing, and suddenly those pictures have Granny and you in your military uniform standing under willow trees in them even though I don’t know if there are any willow trees in Halifax. Willow trees are like the crux of the song’s imagery, and if we were listening to this, I’d say, “the solemn tree has lost its semiotic cache in modern folk poetry, don’t you think?” To which you’ll say, “shut up and roll those grape leaves, Mr. Brain!” To which I would retort, “but it sounds good, right?”

Maybe I will play this for you, on that CD player dad bought for you, since you never really use it anyway. You can use your TV hearing aide thingy. I think you and Granny will like it; it even reminds me a bit of those old Lebanese folk songs you used to sing for me -- y’know, the ones you didn’t really know all the lyrics to, so you’d improvise with “la” and “dee” when you had to, and I never minded ‘cause I was a kid? And also because the stories were simple, and beautiful in their simplicity, right? Wow! This song must be good, if it’s making me think about all of these things it really has nothing to do with, right?

Say “hi” to Granny,