Sign up for our free newsletter
Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in the voice of Zach Condon. On The Flying Club Cup, the most recent release by Beirut, Condon’s musical alias, the tuneful prodigy channels the chanson star on almost every track. (He’d tipped his hand to his intentions a few months back, when he released a faithful live version of Brel’s “Le Moribond” on Beirut’s Elephant Gun EP.) Just a year and a half ago, Condon was relatively unknown—just a kid from Santa Fe, N.M., who had recorded an album’s worth of songs mixing Balkan folk and Magnetic Fields–styled pop in his bedroom. He soon signed to New Jersey indie Ba Da Bing Records and, thanks to the game of Chinese whispers that is the indie-rock blogosphere, Gulag Orkestar quickly garnered a ton of hype. Rumors about him kept springing up: He supposedly recorded a tribute to Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers when he was 16, then dropped out of school and headed to Europe and learned to play trumpet from Rom Gypsies. (His age got younger in each story’s retelling as Beirut’s buzz grew, and the pressure wore on Condon, who had to cancel some tour dates last year due to extreme exhaustion.) Condon now lives in Paris, and for his new game of musical dress-up, he exchanges his Gypsy vest for a felt beret: The album’s title comes from a French hot-air balloon race that Condon saw in an obscure 1910 photo, and a press release explains that each song on The Flying Club Cup “intends to evoke a different French city.” With its whirlwind premise, it’s like the sonic version of the wacky tourist comedy If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. The jaunty “Cliquot” is Brel by way of Scott Walker (at least when he was still fun); the mood is set by a lone accordion that is soon joined by a military tattoo drumbeat and Condon crooning, “A plague on the workhouse/A plague on the poor/Now I beat on my drum until I’m dead/Yesterday, fever, tomorrow, St. Peter/I’ll beat on my drum until then.” Ah, to be young and world-weary—you can almost smell the fumes from his Gauloises. The changes from his debut to The Flying Club Cup are evident but not drastic: “The Penalty” even begins, as do several tracks on Gulag Orkestar, with Condon strumming a ukulele. Still, the accordion seems to have replaced the uke as Condon’s main instrument of choice, and his playing is a perfect complement to the cinematic arrangement of strings on “Forks and Knives (La Fête),” one of the album’s highlights. If there’s one criticism to lay on Condon, it’s that he often seems like a precocious child who has an incredible ability to mimic these European styles but not quite feel them. His lyrics are great at setting a Continental mood, but Condon himself is a cipher whose personality is buried somewhere beneath those beautiful layers of sound. His singing voice has strengthened since his first release, and it may take a while for his lyrical voice to catch up. That’s a minor quibble, though—the album remains as ornate and uplifting as the hot-air balloon that captured Condon’s imagination.