The best music rarely fits neatly into a category. Since great music often comes from ambitious, multi-talented, and highly curious musicians, this isn’t surprising: pull anything together that doesn’t fit into a preordained slot and the mass market doesn’t know what to do with it.
That brings me to Beirut, the band led by founder Zach Condon that epitomizes this kind of musical curiosity, as showcased on The Rip Tide, their third full-length release. You’ll hear a wide range of instrumentation and different styles of songwriting. At times you could be in an English dancehall; at other times at a carnival sideshow or listening to a busker. (What you won’t hear is the Eastern European sounds featured on previous releases like Gulag Orkestar.) Anchoring it all is Condon’s expressive delicate tenor, sometimes backed (for example on “Peacock”) by the kind of slightly raggedy harmonies made famous by The Band.
Horns make a fabulous contribution to this album. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard an album that used horns so well. Although the trumpets, flugelhorns, French horns and trombones only appear in carefully selected spots, they often add a quality that lifts the song to a higher plane. “Higher” is the operative word: just listen to the horns swell in on opener “A Candle’s Fire” and you’ll feel a moment of uplift. They provide terrific color under the slightly quavery, weary singing on “Peacock.” And they drive the 3/4 time of “Port of Call,” filling the place where another band might have used guitars.
The most straightforward song on the album is the aching piano ballad “Goshen.” I admit to a weakness for a sad piano song with world weary vocals. This song satisfies this weakness. Once again, the horns are the stars (in addition, of course, to Condon’s voice), rising and falling underneath. “Santa Fe” is an interesting variation on this album, driven more by keyboard and percussion, albeit with helps from the horns. It’s just another illustration of the range of sounds and influences here.
To me, this is a strong step forward for this band: solid songwriting, poetic lyrics, and a more unique and cohesive sound than previously. Check it out!