Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Let's Raise a Toast To Helium

Beirut – The Flying Club Cup

The prodigiously talented songwriter Zach Condon has followed up his debut ‘Gulag Orkestar’ with unfashionable rapidity. This time, his songs come with the added bonus of arrangements from former Hidden Cameras member and Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett (with whom I once spent an evening in a Cambridge gay pub, ligger extraordinaire that I was back then). Advance word on ‘The Flying Club Cup’ (a tricky tongue twister of a title, that one) suggested it might display a radical change of direction, veering sharply into the world of French Chanson. Well, that influence is certainly present, not just in the French language song titles, but also with the emphasis on keyboards and accordians over mandolins, ukuleles or guitars. What is most impressive about this record, apart from its admirable brevity at 38 minutes, is the way these new preoccupations have been cleverly subsumed into Condon’s Balkan gypsy sound. This album very much represents an evolution rather than a revolution, which seems entirely appropriate at this stage of Condon’s still burgeoning career.

The drunken wooziness that characterised ‘Gulag Orkestar’ is still a defining feature of Condon’s sound, particularly on the deliberately ragged choruses of ‘A Sunday Smile’ and ‘Cliquot’. Satisfyingly though, Condon’s voice is afforded a much more confident and clear presence here, pushed forward in the mix and with much less of the mannered slurring that obscured many of the affecting words on ‘Gulag Orkestar’. These songs are written in a peculiar, almost archaic language referencing the folk tradition which gives them a compelling balance of clarity and allusion. What on earth is ‘The Penalty’ all about for example? ‘Our parents rue the day, they find us kneeling/Let them think what they may for they’ve good reason/Left for the lights always in season.’ These words have a deliberate, compelling flow but the precise meaning is somewhat elusive. ‘Cliquot’ is particularly fascinating – either delivered from a female perspective or a song about love between men (‘what kind of melody will lead my lover from his bed/what kind of melody will have him in my arms again?’).

Pallett makes his presence felt on the wonderful ‘Forks and Knives’, with its mix of elaborate orchestral swells and pizzicato strings. Throughout, his arrangements are thoughtful and inventive rather than smothering – there’s a wonderful moment on ‘In the Mausoleum’ when additional percussion enters, heralding a long instrumental passage dominated by Pallett’s hypnotic string melody. There’s a preoccupation with waltz time here that makes a refreshing change from the four-square stomp of most rock music (and which provides particularly fertile ground for Pallett’s arrangements).

Named in honour of a hot air balloon race, ‘The Flying Club Cup’ has some of the heady, celebratory rush that one might associate with such an event, but there’s also an underlying melancholy and mournfulness that the title conceals. Much like it’s predecessor, it’s a lugubrious and charming record, completely removed from any prevailing trends. It’s far more in tune with a recognisable folk tradition than the parodic, irksome ‘freak folk’ of Devendra Banhart and, whilst the songs seem lacking in contemporary resonances, they are seeped in a rich emotion that feels genuine and sincere.

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