An American in a Paris all his own

Beirut’s second full-length shoots from sophomore slump to stunning territory.

Haily Gostas

More surprising than the clamoring Balkan gypsy-folk revival brought about by Beirut’s 2006 debut, “Gulang Orkestar,” was its creator, a then 19-year-old Albuquerque kid confined to his bedroom with a few old instruments – someone who probably couldn’t point out his moniker on a map but who nonetheless toiled at such cobwebbed sounds as if his life depended on it.

Said wunderkind Zach Condon has returned after the between-meals snack that was the “Lon Gisland” EP with “The Flying Club Cup” that sees his picaresque caravan wandering westward to take in sights, sounds, and scents more Gallic. Inspired by a photograph of World’s Fair’s hot air balloons departing a hair’s length from the Eiffel Tower (one of the first known color shots), Condon has found a new home and muse in the ever-seductive City of Lights. Is he still disturbingly young (and non-Parisian) to have made such a sweeping, devastatingly pretty cinematic ode? Sure. Does it matter after the first few opening minutes of “The Flying Club Cup?” Absolutely not.

The music remains quite recognizably Beirut in all its oom-pa-pa glory, but the production value has been dressed to the nines for a date with the over-the-top chanson arrangements of French yesteryear. And for such a full offering, “The Flying Club Cup” has sprung forth from a very simple formula: more instruments plus stronger vocals equals more memorable melodies and a richer, more rewarding sound.

Opener “Nantes” features a perfectly broken organ and introduces the wealth of call-to-arms percussion and scattered, sampled tidbits of French TV and radio that continue throughout the album. Waltzing glockenspiels give way to a celebratory, raucous chorus on “La Banlieu,” and from there the decadence doesn’t stop. From dreamy, ukulele-helmed luaus (“The Penalty”), to ballroom pomp and camp (“Forks & Knives”), to the unlikely coupling of jazzy piano and theatrical strings on “In the Mausoleum,” Beirut sounds as though they’ve drank (and spilled) the wine – spinning, swooning, gushingly romantic; mildly debauched but better for it.

Much of this maturation is thanks to Condon’s orkestar – no longer makeshift, it has solidified into a core group of eight members, each an integral part of Beirut’s identity. “Lon Gisland” gave them proper practice, as did appearing on Owen Pallet’s (of Final Fantasy and Arcade Fire) new album in exchange for the use of his Masonic church studio and the exotic pile of instruments within. Ensuring that there’s plenty of help to be had from friends, Pallet also ended up contributing “The Flying Club Cup’s” best string arrangements and his high, tremulous voice, adding an air of icy drama to tracks like “Cliquot.”

Condon’s own arresting tenor has been fully realized as well, cloaked in an opera-esque splendor all at once delicately quavering and boomingly powerful, capable of navigating across melodic lines and musical traditions well beyond most.

“The Flying Club Cup” may lack the immediate hits that made “Gulang Orkestar” explode with unpolished, uncontained energy, but it works beautifully as a whole. Condon was hospitalized for exhaustion in the album’s beginning stages, and the results have made his ongoing attention to detail all too obvious. Beirut is mind-boggling work for a 21-year-old – work that virtually no one else is doing – and it’s exciting to hear his musical palette expand as he gathers the life experience to match such a surprisingly ancient voice.

Many might mourn Condon’s early days, where the inventiveness of a young musician stared down necessity point-blank, but they would be incorrect in thinking a new, very real band and a bigger, bolder sound have changed things for the worse. Beirut is still every bit as charming, idiosyncratic and remarkably authentic as it was when the cast of off-the-cuff musicians and their old-world sounds were in his head.