Beirut played at Terrace this Sunday. You might have heard him. You might even have been there, drinking, doing your thing. The place was crowded.
There’s a lot to talk about re: this concert. For one, the way the band looked vis-à-vis the way the kids looked. This is probably not an engaging topic. But there was that dude wearing a purple popped-collar shirt over a pink popped-collar shirt over whatever, and there were some ironicky Avril-Lavigne-ish ties with shorts. Nonsmokers were smoking. When Beirut (led by Wunderkind Zach Condon) walked on-stage, people cheered. In all likelihood they did not cheer for the band’s matchingish white t-shirts and raw denim. Zach wore boat shoes. He has a baby-face.
Beirut is affected. Ensconced in the greater affectation of Terrace and extra-Terrace people, though, in a postage-stamp backyard, in Princeton, on a Sunday, the whole deal wasn’t too jarring. Zach is from Santa Fe; he dropped out of high school at a young age, maybe sixteen, and traveled to Europe. He used to make tapes in his American bedroom. He presumably made lots of tapes—maybe reel-to-reel, who can say—in Europe, on the banks of the Rhine. He’s an accomplished brass musician.
His voice is really his instrument, though. In every review of Beirut, people say something to that effect. On records, its matted, slow-building grace fogs up the supporting horn-stuff. Live, it’s even less intelligible. His songs are certainly non-narrative. They’re clumsily non-lyrical.
From ‘Rhineland (Heartland)’:
Life is all right on the Rhine
No but I no but I long
I long for your eye
Da da da da da da da
So they walked on-stage. I was standing near a speaker, which I hate, but I had a decent view of the tambourine guy. Tambourine guy also plays what resembles the flugal horn, but certainly not with the same percussive gusto. His entire body seems to beat that cymballed ring. I’m sure he gets a kick out it, at parties, when people ask what he does and he answers, I play the tambourine with Beirut. We’re big.
Beirut used to consist of Zach Condon and A Hawk and a Hacksaw. That’s the former backing band (with some additions) of reclusive genius-crazyman Jeff Mangum, known globally (in Bklyn, San Francisco, your indie bedroom, your girlfriend’s indie bedroom) as Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff’s ghost lent the Hawk-and-Hacksaw-ers the kind of kitschily delightful genius-image Condon so assiduously seeks. But Condon likes being pseudofamous too much. I’m not slamming him for this.
I should probably mention that a few weeks before the show, I was tapped to do an interview with him, Condon. His publicist in Chicago shot me an email. I said sure. She said it could only last twenty minutes. I said I would see them at Terrace. She said she wouldn’t be attending, as her office is in Chicago. On Friday of last week, though, I received a final message, something to the effect of Zach’s-being-ill, Zach’s-being-exhausted, so it never happened.
You’ve probably been in the Terrace bathroom. This is where an impromptu interview could have taken place. I was washing my hands when Zach walked in. He already hiccupped saucedly. During the show he slammed Jameson to the face. He also talked like a hobo. In many ways he has assumed the trappings of hobodom. It is very hard, in our modern world, to appear a convincing drifter. It’s too easy to get around. You can’t loiter in front of big-box stores.
So I’m washing my hands. Zach is peeing. I could have asked about his meteoric rise to fame, or about his program of cultural pastiche, or about how dirgelike his first album is, or about how slightly-less-dirgelike his second album is, or about how he learned to play so many instruments, or about his views on dilettantism, or about his views on post-secondary education, or about his views on the war. I could have asked how many times he has shaved in his life, which has to be less than five. He resembles Scott Peper ’08. Did I mention that?
Some people say Beirut’s songs are samey-sounding. They are to an extent. His albums are atmospheric without being amorphous or flat; his melodies are never overbearing, nor do they tumble into that bramble-patch of ‘organic music.’ Like this article, Beirut is not coherent or arching enough to promulgate any form of meaningful ‘message.’ His is a hermeneutics of tight pants and greasy hair. The group’s first album, Gulag Orkestar, derives its name from semi-mythological musical collectives back East. The album art is a pretty if somewhat unnerving picture of an indie-looking gal. It was presumably snapped before iTunes was invented.
His new album, titled The Flying Cup Club is, I think, mistitled. It should be The Flying Club Cup. In any case, the name reminds me of the floating city in Gulliver’s Travels. Zach’s left eye points upwards, his right eye downwards. The music coasts above a Frenchified landscape. There are sound bites of the stuff sensitive people love to notice: train station warnings about personal belongings, television infomercials. Zach spoke a little French during the show. He had a decent accent.
This is not all that surprising. Beirut provokes that reaction I’ve always had in language classes, when the kid you know just started studying German speaks convincingly and doesn’t wince at the Rs or Chs. It’s a gutsy thing, speaking like that. It’s a gutsy thing, hopping on-stage out back of Terrace and playing Balkan orchestra-pop like you mean it, when you’re contextually incapable of really, really meaning it.
Zach’s not faking. Neither were we. I liked the show, as did purple-and-pink-shirt guy. No one’s liking was more or less legitimate. We just had no clue what we were doing.
A coda: right after the set I found a button near Frist. I still have it. It says: ‘What happens at Princeton…’ and then lists the phone number for Public Safety. Is this a reference to the Vegas catchphrase ‘What happens in Vegas…stays in Vegas?’ I don’t know. If it is, the button implies a manner of speaking about Princetony things, like Beirut-at-Lawnparties, that is graspable by an outsider. I don’t think this manner of speaking exists.
So I headed back to my room and turned on Gulag. Then I took a champagne nap.