Top 100 Albums of the Decade: #69 Beirut - Gulag Orkestar
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#69 Beirut - Gulag Orkestar
Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar came out of left field for most indie rock fans. With accordions, twittering brass and bucketfuls of polka / Balkan / exotic Eastern European influence, it fell well outside the canon of work circling the rounds in 2006. In our destructive frenzy to frame a particular album’s merits in the shadow of some iconic predecessor, everyone and their awkward, uninformed brother pinned Beirut down as “kind of like Neutral Milk Hotel, sort of, if you strain your ears a little bit.” I suppose this comparison would have been accurate if In The Aeroplane Over the Sea was just “The Fool” twelve times in a row, but it wasn’t, and so I never understood that association. In reality, there’s similarity in the approach – Jeff Mangum penned Aeroplane after internalizing the plight of Anne Frank decades after the dust settled; Zach Condon, a scrawny New Mexico native, projected himself thousands of miles away onto European soil, makeshifting much of his imagery from impressions of Russian and German streets that he’d never called home.
Same approach: pretend one thing, put out a crushing, beautiful other thing in the process. But oh, what a stunning and new product this was. Gulag Orkestar is a bouquet of flourishing promises – not so extravagant as to overwhelm, not so weak as to wilt. On the title track, marching drums and a trilling horn sound the arrival of this kingly parade: a sweet, galloping and bold salute to royalty and grandeur. Much of what Condon explores in his lyricism is sweet: “I try to remember a careless life / a scenic world where the sunsets are all breathtaking.” But he also dips into a mystical well, presenting a kind of twisting new perspective that falls in line nicely with the foreign nature of the music: “In my good times / There were always golden rocks to throw…” Condon is rarely obscure, but the fresh, lilting style he introduced to the indie pop world allowed his message to leap straight through our chests and latch onto our hearts. He was 19 at the time, and as The Flying Club Cup proves, he’s got a long, glorious career ahead of him. Gulag Orkestar was the ornate gift that launched it.