The Flying Club Cup
ome people may mourn the passing of Zach Condon’s cottage-industry approach and makeshift binary orkestra, the occasionally cacophonous delivery and earnestly clamoring, lo-fi arrangements that typified Gulag Orkestra—a result of the young musician’s inventiveness in the face of necessity. They added up to at least half the charm of Beirut’s terrific and much-acclaimed debut album from last year.
Of course those people are also missing something if they think that Condon’s second album, or, more appositely, Beirut’s first as a fully-fledged band, is somehow less charming, less idiosyncratic, less unique, and less wonderful simply because our magical conductor now has a full and very real band at his disposal rather than a cast of imagined musicians in his head.
Following on the heels of the Lon Gisland EP and the extensive, worldwide-touring that followed Gulag, The Flying Club Cup makes use of the friends, networks, and synergies put together to make his previously isolated adventures tangible, and in doing so improves it. It’s a simple formula—the songs are better, the melodies more memorable, the vocals stronger, the sound richer, the arrangements more rewarding.
To give some context, which I view as pretty important to this whole “reviewing records” thing, I reviewed this album in the midst of a house-move, my music collection packed all away bar a handful of Beta Band, King Biscuit and Beirut CDs, my desktop computer boxed and debunked, myself perched on a beanbag with a laptop and a glass or eight of red wine. Listening to and writing about The Flying Club Cup in this context made an awful lot of sense; the waiting, the tidied disarray, the low light, the frantic sense that something, somewhere, must have been forgotten, the empty shelves, the rioja that slips across one’s tongue and down one’s throat just slightly too easily. The Flying Club Cup is a luxuriant, beautiful album, but also slightly distracted, otherwise occupied, busy.
Something else that makes a lot of sense is hearing Owen Pallet’s high, tremulous voice ring out with a sense of frosted drama above the accordions and beyond-the-Iron-Curtain martial drums of “Cliquot”; doubly so when you realise that it’s his wonderful, swirling and emotive string arrangements that run through half the record, helping to take the virtual kingdom of Gulag and turn it into a real place populated by accordions, horns, pianos and voices—many, many voices.
The foremost of those voices being Zach Condon’s own, finally revealed in its full splendor as both delicate and powerful, capable of traversing melodic lines and riding tides of instruments and musical traditions that should be well beyond the common or garden college dropout from Albuquerque.
Inspired by a picture of hot air balloons by the Eiffel Tower that Condon kept pinned up in the studio (and everywhere else he recorded), The Flying Club Cup sees Condon’s picaresque folk wandering westwards from the Balkan sources of his debut album to take in sights, sounds, and scents more Gallic; Jacques Brel, conversational French, deep, taciturn burgundy clarets and light, dancing Beaujolais. The briefly ringing ukulele (or is it a mandolin?) charms and chides of “The Penalty,” the camp and elegiac drama of “Forks & Knives (La Fête),” the gently-breaking percussive waves and weirs of “Nantes,” the jazzy piano fills and audacious strings of “The Mausoleum,” the rolling farewells of “St. Apollonia”; Beirut here is taken of too much wine, swoonsome, romantic, decadent, observed, and wonderfuly so. The debut album was good, but this is better. Much, much better; the kind of record I will happily and willingly return to long after this review is dead and buried. Please, investigate, sup deeply, imbibe. The Flying Club Cup is a marvel.