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4.6 out of 5 stars
Gulag Orkestar / Lon Gisland EP
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
To be honest, when I think of psychedelic bands I don't usually think of Balkan folk music. But with the release of Beirut's "Gulag Orkestar," I may have to revise my thinking.

This new band consists of teenage musician Zach Condon, along with people from Neutral Milk Hotel and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, making bittersweet folkpop and danceable marches. Imagine a band of slightly drunk gypsies on parade, and you'll have the general idea of how it sounds.

It opens slow, with a gentle piano and blaring horns. The title track meanders in circles and finally dies away... only to be reborn as a swaying march. Halfway through, Condon joins in with some mournful wails and equally mournful singing. That turns around in "Prenzluerberg," where the singing is just as melancholy, but the music is a cheerier march.

From there on, the trio tries out those styles and everything in between -- rattly folk with tambourines and horns, danceable folkpop, and tinkly klezmer music. Yes, tinkly klezmer. They get downright happy in "Scenic World," a colorful glockenspiel song that is just barely grounded by some quick violins.

After that, "Gulah Orkestar" is pretty upbeat, with a string of swaying marches and upbeat folk acoustics. The album's finale is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. "After the Curtain" is a relatively bare-bones song with Condon singing over applause and a dancing glockenspiel. I don't know how to fit that one in.

And this version has an addition: The "Lon Gisland" EP, which starts off with the bittersweet, playful horn pop "Elephant Gun," before slipping off into a ponderous march song, a colourful accordion tune (complete with clacking drumsticks), a sweep of soaring horns, and the delightfully bright "Carousels."

Basically this album is what happens when an American teenager drops out and crosses Eastern Europe, soaking up the folk music as he goes.

And it's a good thing Condon's musical talents are being backed by experienced musicians, so we can get a bittersweet, atmospheric taste of whatever he heard there. The main problem is that the less folky songs don't really fit in -- without them, the album would have been a lot better. But as it is, it's a remarkable achievement.

Condon has a pretty deep voice for someone so young, and he fills it with the longing and beauty that traditional singing often has. And he's assisted by some very talented musicians: Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, both of whom work in the psych-folk band A Hawk and a Hacksaw. So of course, they have a good ear for this sort of thing.

So how do they manage? Soundwise, it's like someone took the gypsy out of Gogol Bordello and slapped it on Neutral Milk Hotel. The songs are brimming with violins, horns, accordion, mandolin, pianos, ukeleles, glockenspiel and many others. These instruments are so smoothly blended that it sounds like at least a dozen people are playing at any one time, and that they've played this music their whole lives.

"Gulag Orkestar" is a pretty, heart-tugging album that will make you think of quaint European villages in the springtime. Definitely worth listening to, many times.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 10 April 2008
Beirut, as well as being a geo-political hotspot, is the name adopted by the prodigiously-talented Zach Condon for his musical ensemble.

Condon is a 20-year-old stripling from New Mexico who is bizarrely, but encouragingly, obsessed with traditional East European music. Addled by gypsy Romanticism (to the extent that the sleeve notes tell us that the front and back photos were "found in a library in Leipzig torn out of a book") he has produced a remarkable album.

This intoxicating Balkan stew was mostly recorded in his Albuquerque bedroom. Multi-instrumentalist Condon plays trumpet, ukulele, piano, accordion, mandolin and percussion in addition to providing the marvellously plaintive vocals. He's backed by a superb band of Romany-influenced musicians.

This is Condon's third album (following the eclectic pairing of an electronica debut and a doo-wop sophomore effort) and this brisk stroll into the uncharted territory of Balkania comes from so far out of left field it could seem to be wilfully obscurist.

It's all the better for it. The opening track (The Gulag Orkestar) with its lamenting trumpets and discordant piano sounds like an anthem for the cancer-stricken and it's followed by a succession of supremely emotive pieces. It isn't all Slavic melancholia by any means though; much of the slightly ramshackle music is positively beautiful.

Condon is definitely one to keep under close observation. It's tremendously impressive that rather than being moody, cladding himself in black, listening to The Smiths and writing poetry in inclement weather his teenage miserabilism manifested itself in a superbly affecting piece of work that creates a soundscape of dissonant orotund swirls.

This was released earlier in the year in the US and has been receiving rave word-of-mouth reviews. It's now re-released with a five track EP tagged on as an extra. Entitled Lon Gisland E.P. (where Condon is now resident) this is a slightly more commercial variation with Condon's vocals more to the fore, thus losing a certain ethereal quality and sounding less like the signatories of the Brest-Litovsk treaty tumbling into damnation and singing about it. You won't hear as good an album all year. It's an essential purchase.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 3 May 2007
Prepare your ears for an oddity. From the 1st track this is a whirlwind trip around Eastern Europe via a slight distorting mirror. Then slowly but surely your heart starts to move and it is under your skin. Very little of the lyrics can be plainly discerned but the melody and emotion is so strong it doesn't matter. When you find some thing as different but so right as this it rekindles your whole reason for loving music. Get the credit card out now.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 5 May 2007
I got hold of this last year when it first came out. At the time I listened to it and listened again and again..... I'll admit I wasn't really sure if this was very good or just utterly pretentious crap! I didn't get this with the first few listens - didn't get it at all. So I left it, unplayed for a few months. However, I did put it on my mp3 played, and whilst it was turned to random the other day, on came "Brandenburg". As I was "gloved up" at work I couldn't fast forward. But......remarkably this time it hit me! This IS good music!

I've listened to the whole of the album a few times over the past couple of days and yes, it is good all the way through.Saying that this won't be everyone's cup of tea - not by a long chalk! If you like your music to be daring, experimental, highly original and imbued with a deep melancholy then this might be for you. If you like music that you don't have to work at listening to then it is definitely not for you!

The whole album is a mix of Balkan-style folk, played with ukelele, mandolin, horns and percussion. Added to Condon's vocals which treble throughout, it's an odd but thoroughly moving piece of work. When I first heard it last year it sounded more like drunken mariachi than Balkan folk but I don't hear the mariachi band now I've listened again.

Standout tracks are "Brandenburg", the odd beer-hall style march "Prenzlauerburg", "Postcards from Italy", and the fabulously haunting "Rhineland".

"Gulag Orkestar" has been compared favourably to Neutral Milk Hotel's brilliant "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea". As it features Jeremy Barnes who also drummed with Neutral Milk Hotel, I guess these comparisons were inevitable. I personally don't think this is up there with "In the Aeroplane" but then nothing is! This is though a great album that stands out from anything else you're ever likely to hear. (10/10)
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 14 June 2006
The Neutral Milk Hotel album In the Airplane Over The Sea is one of the all-time classics of intelligent anti-rock, and that band never followed it up. NMH's Jeremy Barnes, however, has a heavy hand in this album by 19-year old Brooklyn boy Zach Gordon, and it is as inventive as they come. Comparisons to Airplane are inevitable, but that's not a bad thing. Other comparisons include Andrew Bird, Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens and, just possibly, Russian folk music (as suggested by the title). This is a work of rare genius, with utterly compelling rock mixed through a few centuries' worth of music. It rewards from the first listen, but is more habit-forming than nicotine. There is no pigeonhole that would do this album justice, such is its level of creativity and surprise. No fan of Waits or Sufjan could resist this album, but it should have a place on every right-thinking listener's shelf. Whisper it, but it may even be better than Neutral Milk Hotel's album...
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on 14 October 2011
Visions of an attic full of crates of old musical instruments, clouds of dust erupting from tuba, accordian, ukelele and clarinet as music is forced through them: instruments that haven't been played in a generation. The tune chasing the dust-clouds a shambolic plodding oompah and a mesmerism of Balkan melodies, and then a baby-faced young man bursts into song, singing in English, of all things, though imitating not the glossily-marketed idols of his day and his native land but an old man witnessed singing for pennies in a cobbled square on the far side of Europe: weather-worn, over-bearing, inebriated and transcendent. Coming from such a sweet-faced boy this tirade is somehow unsettling, possibly intoxicating, or perhaps a complete turn-off. I picture him transported to the royal court as a novelty act, the surprising Zach Condon, between the bearded lady and the snake-charmer.

Shades of Tom Waits, Fanfare Ciocarlia, The Pogues, Sixteen Horsepower, Warsaw Village Band and many others colour this album, the super-highway of ordinary Alternative music is a distant drone as paths less trodden (but by no means overgrown and impassible) are followed into the hills. The Alternative sensibility is never entirely shed - it couldn't be - but Zach is fixated upon the unfamiliar, collecting musical elements like butterflies in a net.

Much colourful praise has been heaped upon Beirut, I was lured by all the talk but I have to say that overall I liked the idea of the album better than the experience of listening to it. At its best, when all the elements of good songwriting, atmosphere, attitude and performance align, as on "Postcards From Italy", this album really shines, but elsewhere it trips over itself, and there is always a sense that Zack is yearning to be a beaten-down old geezer, but for now can only act out the part. There's nothing unusual in a singer shadowing their heroes, of course.

Zack Condon drawing upon worlds of music unencountered by the majority of his fans, might well be viewed as a kind of prophet, an original mind turning everything about indie music on its head. For somebody coming to this music from the other direction, having already experienced otherness, it might make less of a wave, but musical explorers from both inclinations would do well to check this out.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Thought I'd go out on a limb and buy this based on its cover art. On first listen I thought, mistake. To my surprise, after a few listens these songs became the prettiest ditties. Imagine Talking heads unplugged but with Balkan Instruments. Yes Please and an extra falaffel while you're at it. Postcards from Italy was the first to sink its claws in but from then on it all started to make sense. If you're looking for something a little obscure but extremely special, this is your deep fried feta.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 11 March 2008
Beirut is essentially one man: Zach Condon, and this is Beirut's debut album. "Gulag Orkestar" draws a lot of inspiration from Balkan folk music and had a pleasingly homemade air about it. Hearing it almost takes you to a café looking onto a square in Sarajevo, slightly sozzled after a few too many Fernet Brancas, and perfectly happy about that.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 26 July 2011
From the cover picture which I love to the music which I can't describe.I saw them at Hyde Park with Arcade Fire & thought I really like this.I'd never even heard of them before but had to have their music.Went to the West End to find some but none of the music shops left had any of their albums so bought on-line at Amazon.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 30 November 2006
According to the music press this record is by a 20 year old kid from New Mexico who went travelling in Europe, fell in love with Eastern European music , then moved to Brooklyn and learned how to play the required instruments.Don't know if I believe all of that , but ultimately it doesn't matter because the music here is fantastic.

The sound maybe Eastern European,but the sensibility is still mid atlantic and the combination of the two has produced the best album of 2006.I guarantee that one listen and you will be hooked by Zach Condon's haunting vocals.Make sure you buy the version that includes the new 'Lon Gisland' EP as a bonus disc as the additional 5 tracks are all excellent.
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