A few weeks ago, I found myself guesting on a music show on Al-Jazeera, talking about, of all things, Calexico. The idea of musical fusion was very prominent in the programme, and the band’s German members talked about the affinities between German oompah and Mexican forms like Mariachi; heightend, if I remember rightly, by German brewmasters relocating to America.
This story came back to me as I was listening to the new Beirut album the other day. For half of its duration, Zach Condon is augmented by a 19-piece funeral band (I know someone who sounded informed pooh-poohed this concept when I mentioned it last week, but who am I to doubt the sanctity of the press release?) from Teotitlan del Valle, apparently “a tiny weaver village” in Oaxaca.
The music of this group, The Jimenez Band, actually seems closer to oompah than mariachi, with an endearingly drunken galumph to it. But what’s most striking is how Condon seems to be chasing this sound around the world, finding woozy, brassy parallels between French boulevard sways (that he exploited so brilliantly on “The Flying Club Cup”) and, especially, the Balkan brass of “Gulag Orkestar”.
So “March Of The Zapotec” begins with a brief Mexican parade, “El Zocalo”, before lumbering gracefully into “La Llorona”, an exceptional Condon song heavy on the tuba. As with the previous Beirut records, there’s a hugely self-conscious air to the project, but the idiosyncratic songwriting and the way it meshes with the local sonic environment always, against the odds, works beguilingly.
Then, just when you think you’ve nailed Condon as an indie/oompah aesthete, however, he pulls something of a fast one. “March Of The Zapotec” isn’t so much an album so much as two EPs grafted together. And so once the six tracks of “March Of The Zapotec” itself are over, Condon moves on to “Realpeople: Holland”.
Realpeople, it transpires, is the artist name he dallied with prior to Beirut (when he was about 14, presumably), and is very hard to confuse with those Oasis-affiliated cloggers The Real People, if I can gratuitously remind you of that horror for a moment. In fact, these five songs are ostensibly synthpop trinkets recorded in Condon’s bedroom, which compound the similarities – often obscured by the oompah, of course – between his voice and melodic style and those of Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields.
“My Night With A Prostitute From Marseilles” is very much in this vein – though, as the title suggests, the actual song could have been written during the “Flying Club Cup” sessions. The closing “No Dice”, however, is straightforwardly bouncy instrumental electropop, not entirely appealing.
In the interim, you can hear Condon struggling, entertainingly, to maintain the purity of his concept. The stand-out “Venice” might start like an old Warp “Artificial Intelligence” track from the mid-‘90s, burbling and nebulously nostalgic. But soon enough, a bunch of horns ebb in, and the song drifts into more familiar terrain; terrain compounded by the martial pitter pat and accordion of “The Concubine”. Even in his bedroom, working in miniature, it seems Condon can’t stop himself from swaggering.