When Beirut, the solo project of New Mexico native Zach Condon, debuted in 2006, it was a welcome blast from some accordion-filled past. With its resounding chorus of brass orchestration and romantic images of Ye Olde Europe, the band’s debut album, Gulag Orkestar, was a refreshingly cheery introduction for the Southwestern wunderkind. And, in the five years since, Condon has consistently produced this up-beat brand of retro folk, but with the band’s latest release, The Rip Tide, the nostalgic nods are still present, but with a previously unheard level of melancholia and technical experimentation.
Despite its evident nod to traditional Balkan music and the pop of the French chanson, Beirut has carved a unique niche a world of increasingly ubiquitous electronica. Condon’s orchestrations of triumphant trumpets and strings are nothing short of a soothing symphony where acoustic music still reigns supreme. And, with The Rip Tide, not much of that has changed. “A Candle’s Fire” opens the album with a dulcet accordion that soon broadens into a bombastic harmony of tambourine, trumpet and Condon’s versatile vibrato. It’s a typical Beirut track, combini pop-fueled vocals and plucky instrumentals. However, it’s on the second song, “Santa Fe,” where the tide begins to drift.
“Santa Fe” begins with the beats of an electronic drum. On any other album by any other band, this wouldn’t be out of place. But with Beirut, the patron of bygone sounds, the technological upgrade emerges as off-putting instead of evolutionary. The song soon blossoms with a bevy of brass that overshadows the electronic input, but those subtle instances of electronica may be the only note of interest in an otherwise monotonous musical output. For much of The Rip Tide, songs merge into one another, with little to no differentiation in style. “East Harlem” employs the same soft accordion as “A Candle’s Fire” while the strings off “Port of Call” are an almost exact replica of those heard on Beirut’s previously released hit, “Postcards from Italy.”
There are some moments of refreshing content, from the plaintive piano on “The Rip Tide” to the despairing vocals on “Goshen.” But for the most part, The Rip Tide finds Beirut stuck, as the album title implies, between the sounds of the past and the present.