Zach Condon must surely have taken the phrase “Go west, young man” quite literally. Where Beirut’s debut Gulag Orkestar was a Balkan influenced pop album of Eastern dirges, all written with the idea of an imaginary orchestra in mind, its follow up The Flying Club Cup finds Condon on the express rail to France, still traveling with packs of gypsies, but with entirely different surroundings. Partly inspired by a picture that Condon pinned up in the studio, depicting hot air balloons flying around the Eiffel Tower, The Flying Club Cup is a joyous stumble through Parisian streets, drunk on vin chaud, dewy eyed and romantic.
While there are many similarities between this album and Beirut’s debut, there are also many, many differences. Aside from the obvious turn away from the Eastern Bloc toward Jacques Brel and chanson-style pop, Beirut has expanded to include a fully realized orchestra of sorts, materializing in a way, what Condon had in mind the first time around. Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett has also become a fixture in the band, lending his talents in arranging strings, in addition to playing those stringed instruments, as well as the occasional steel drum and harpsichord. As a result, it’s a much bigger and fuller sounding album than Gulag Orkestar, but just as pretty and wonderfully crafted.
While Condon’s France is less of one created by its current pop music climate (which is not much different than ours or the UK, just in French), than of its long tradition of elegant sounds and romantic ideals, it’s hard not to fall in love with his interpretation. The organ intro to “Nantes” almost has a reggae feel to it, until further instrumentation comes in and the song begins to take shape as something altogether lovely and swooning as Condon croons “it’s been a long, long time/ since I’ve seen your smile.” “A Sunday Smile” begins similarly, with a waltzing organ trot, which becomes a lush and sweeping celebration. “Guyamas Sonora” is one of the first true masterpieces here, slightly reminiscent of “Mount Wroclai” from Gulag Orkestar, yet with its own sense of pomp and intricacy.
The two-minute “La Banlieue” is purely Francophone, its accordion a subtle backdrop for supping cabernet, while “Cliquot” takes that accordion into a much more expansive sound, with Condon bending sexuality on his sweetly sung line, “what melody will lead my lover from his bed?” Scaling back, Condon plays a solo ukelele tune on “The Penalty,” only to allow the music to escalate and become all the more fanciful with “Forks and Knives (La Fête)”. The album’s peak is the jazzy, Dave Brubeck-like “In the Mausoleum,” which takes an unexpected turn away from the gypsy folk caravan into a smoke-filled cabaret (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll call `The Mausoleum’). Condon & Co. do a magnificent job with jazz style arrangements, the subtlety and intricate layers all the more fun to pull apart and discover one by one.
Condon’s Gallic playlist then takes on quiet piano balladry with “Un Deniere Verre (Pour La Route),” reprises the opening lyrics of “Nantes” in the more melancholy “Cherbourg,” and makes a grand exit with the title track. The Flying Club Cup is a strong progression from Beirut’s fantastic debut, and shows how strong these songs can be with bigger and more vibrant instrumentation. Part of the fun of Beirut is listening, while the other part is guessing where Condon’s travel itinerary will take him next.
Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire – Thrills
The Decemberists – Her Majesty The Decemberists
DeVotchKa – How It Ends
MP3: “A Sunday Smile”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.