I was maybe halfway through the entirely improvised new live album by Ghost, when it occurred to me that I might have been fixating on the new psych/folk/freak jams a bit much this past week or so. It was then that I turned to the new album by Beirut, as I have done for the past two or three weeks when I feel the need for tunes, of all things.
“Gulag Orkestar”, Beirut’s auspicious debut from last year, was an elaborate and meticulously-realised Balkan fantasy, concocted in a teenager’s bedroom in Albuquerque. It felt incredibly self-conscious, occasionally a bit over-wrought, and yet I really fell for it. That teenager, Zach Condon, seemed to be grappling with big, portentous, passionate and ramshackle anthemics with a skill that many of his contemporaries (and seniors, to be honest) were reaching for, but only The Arcade Fire really grasped.
“The Flying Club Cup” is, I think, an even better record. The heavy conceptualising remains, though the co-ordinates have shifted. Now 21, Condon appears to be living in Paris, and has made a record about France, as titles like “Cliquot”, “Une Derriere Verre (Pour La Route)” and “Nantes” make clear. So far, so adolescent: reading this, I imagine a few of you may be faintly appalled by some kind of chamber pop Conor Oberst who’s seen a DVD of Amelie and got inspired.
Well, there’s an element of that to “The Flying Club Cup”, I guess. But it’s also a quite lovely and engrossing record, one which fully transcends some of its more, ahem, gauche pretensions. Condon recorded the album in the Arcade Fire’s church studio, and Owen Pallet (a part-time member of that band, and the man behind Final Fantasy) clearly had a key role in the opulent string arrangements that dominate many of these 13 songs: “Cliquot” is absolutely wonderful, a drunken and lush staggering waltz, of sorts.
“The Flying Club Cup” is notionally inspired (he says, frantically regurgitating the press release) by a 1910 hot air balloon race held near the Eiffel Tower, and Condon is gifted enough to have perfectly captured that vibe in a lot of this music: flighty, antique, redolent of sepia glamour and adventure.
Initially, that feel seemed to be the key, and I wasn’t sure how strong the songs were. But slowly the melodic richness comes into focus, and the likes of “Forks And Knives”, “Cherbourg”, the pulsating piano groove of “In The Mausoleum” and the amazing title track start feeling memorable as well as detailed.
It reminds me of The Divine Comedy circa “Promenade” a little, though in a very modern American indie context. My colleague Mark has just mentioned Sufjan Stevens, which is very true. Our friends in marketing, meanwhile, who I was trying to placate by putting it on, have just shouted something about “Hungarian psycho music”. So maybe Condon’s attempt to move on from the Balkans hasn’t been entirely successful. But whatever: great record.