Monday, July 16, 2007

a week in EPs day #1: beirut - lon gisland

i have always had a love affair with EPs - i believe they most often capture the best an artist has to offer, instead of thinking of them as a placeholder between albums. EPs, simply by virtue of the fact that they are not LPs, have to stuff an inordinate amount of quality into less than thirty minutes, to assure that they are purchased. while some EPs are dreary and tedious, mere precursors of what to expect on the artist's next full-length, the best are works in their own right, perhaps a time for a band to go in some new directions or experiment with different sounds. even when EPs are not adventurous, however, they can often contain an artist's best works. so, for a change of pace from all the concert reviews lately (and those still to come), i have selected this week to be my week in EPs, where i will re-review some (five) choice EPs that i really like. some are new-ish, some are old, but they're all excellent.

today's EP is lon gisland by beirut.

i remember being really excited about gulag orkestar before even listening to it last year, when it came out - the glowing review in pitchfork and subsequent inundation of beirut news left me with the impression that zach condon had practically recruited a roving band of hairy gypsies as accompanists to his balkan-influenced music. how disappointed was i, then, to hear the thin and repetitive sounds of "postcards from italy," or any of the other songs on that album. where was the furious fiddling? or the devil-may-care attitude? this was no gypsy music. and i'd be damned if any eastern europeans played such stripped down folk - the tendency is to use as many instruments as possible. so it was with skepticism and trepidation that i even gave lon gisland a spin on my radio show, playing "my family's role in the world revolution" merely because i liked the name so much. and was i rewarded. this new beirut seemed positively raucous compared to the straitlaced sounds of gulag orkestar, even going so far as to fuck around while taping. and the rhythms were new too, driven by a piano and trumpet with nary a guitar to be heard. this track was the first that i had heard that could warrant the "balkan stomp" label that pitchfork had so thoughtlessly awarded to gulag orkestar, smacking of vitality and energy as it did. when i finally sat down and gave the whole EP a listen, i was very pleased.

the EPs' opener, "elephant gun," is obviously the most mature song condon has written to date, seamlessly layering the simple ukulele line, first under the accordion, and then the full line of brass, to say nothing of what he has learned about vocal production. no longer is he the solo vocalist; he uses the voices of the rest of his band to flesh out his own, rather nasal, voice, giving "elephant gun" a lilting and epic feel. and, of course, the best part is the false ending, when the melody we've heard throughout the song dies out, only to be immediately replaced by another, propelled by double accordions and sprinkled with treble trumpet notes, bolstered by a tuba or trombone. i played "elephant gun" on the air before i had listened to it, and the false ending totally threw me for a loop. i had to apologize to my listeners on air.

the rest of the EP doesn't disappoint, though the other three songs are not as outstanding as the first two. "the long island sound" is a more sturdy version of "elephant gun"'s false ending, and "scenic world (version)" starts off sounding like a busker at a french amusement park (which is definitely not a bad thing). "scenic world" also has a nice bit of violin, and, in what was clearly a moment of sheer genius, bongos. the hand drumming new level of sophistication to the beirut sound, which is also evident in "carousels," the last song of the EP. that song begins with a rousing downbeat and a cute half-hidden piano part playing peek-a-boo with the snare, placed at the forefront for this song. partway through the song, all of the instruments, save the piano, drop out, while the whole cast of beirut add their voices to condon's. "carousels" is really indicative of the changes lon gisland has wrought for this band - a maturation of sound from a rather boring, stripped down pseudo-balkan folk band into a fleshed-out, true orkestra, that assembles its sounds in a charismatic way, layering brass upon string upon bellows (accordion), provoking a re-evaluation of a band once written off. though beirut still doesn't sound balkan to me in the slightest (i get more of a french street band feel), i hope lon gisland will represent where they're going, instead of just being an experiment.

beirut - "elephant gun," "my family's role in the world revolution"

buy lon gisland here.

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