For those poor souls whose ears have yet to be graced by the fantastical orchestration that is Beirut’s music, allow me to give you a taste. Back in 2006, Zach Condon decided to stray from the mainstream by combining folk and indie rock with world music and jazz influences to make a sound so uniquely satisfying that his fan base has been growing ever since. My own personal infatuation with Beirut derives from the feeling I get when listening to songs off of Lon Gisland, of frolicking through a meadow in Scotland with a circus nearby. I can’t help but adore the unique mixture of trumpet, ukele, accordion, piano, trombone, tuba, and percussion. With their newest full-length, The Rip Tide, it is clear to see that Beirut attempted a new spin on their old sound.
After 2009’s March of the Zapotec EP delivered some -but not nearly enough- satisfaction to my new Beirut music thirst, I was eagerly awaiting their first full-length album since 2007. Since the nice folks over at NPR streamed the album earlier this month, many of us got an early taste of The Rip Tide. Upon first listen, I enjoyed myself. Upon second listen, I questioned myself. Yes, it was the Beirut sound that I so loved, but too restrained. Superficially, it satisfied my desire for the gypsy-like music I had been yearning for. After repeated listens, however, the album was just that: superficial.
“Port of Call” and the title track “The Rip Tide” both, in my opinion, exemplify the whole album: pretty and enjoyable, but forgettable. Though these are two of the best songs on the album, they just don’t stick with you the same way the grandiosity of Condon’s former exploits did.
An old favorite played at live shows but never officially released, “East Harlem” shines as a standout track, staying true to its roots and reminiscent of earlier Beirut days. This song, being so playable, has emerged as the lead single with its attractive simplicity and fanciful strings. In the same vein, “Vagabond” utilizes a wonderful piano line reinforced by horns, giving the song more strength than it would have on lyricism alone.
Condon slows it down with “Goshen,” a pained ballad that beautifully shines for its lyrics and vocals. “A Candle’s Fire” sticks in your head with a repetitive melody, much like the repetition of the “Payne’s Bay” waltz. Meanwhile, “Santa Fe” sticks out as depending on the percussion beat, and is the only song that is at all reminiscent of the electro-synth first debuted in March of the Zapotec. It is, however, one of the better songs on the album despite it being much less circus-y than the other tracks.
Regardless of my disappointment with what could have been a masterpiece, I cannot ignore the undeniable talent of Zach Condon. His uniquely smooth voice paired with his usually insightful lyrics and varied instrumental ability make for, time and time again, a moving musical experience. This album, being more restrained, is likely more accessible to a wider audience. While I can understand that he opted for a stripped down approach to The Rip Tide, I can’t help but long for the days when each song was epic in its own terms. Perhaps this would have been better had it been released as an EP of the best tracks; but, on its own, it just doesn’t live up to the bar that he set so high for himself. While most of these songs are quite good -and a few exceptional- together they do not create a masterpiece, but rather something beautiful that has left more to be desired.