t starts, as all things should, with fanfare. A piano rumbles, a trumpet screeches, and they rise until, as all things do, they fall. Rumble turns to moan, screech to mewl, small victory to even smaller defeat. Notes go rotten and fall off the vine, to decay and reemerge as their own eulogy. A kick stomps slowly as the piano, accordion, and horns line up behind it; a pallbearer's march. A young man leads, crooning “They call it 'mine', and I call it mine” to anyone listening who might understand. But soon the grief turns, as it must, to muted celebration; the horns raise their muzzles in salute, shouting a herald toward the sky. What falls must also rise again.
The enormous and outsized will always get attention—nothing like a raging, screamed chorus or a gaseous explosion for simple catharsis—but nothing beats quotidian human drama, something straightforward and lived-in. It can be joyous and heartfelt, brutal and unbearable, and above all true, even if it's completely false. Zach Condon throws around a lot of very exotic, and very loaded, imagery for a guy from the desert southwest of the United States, things and places that I'm guessing he, like most of us, has only read about. Gulag Orkestar is filled with places whose very names exude a certain despair, mostly despite their true natures; hell, Beirut itself has been rebuilt to at least some of its former glory. But playing with exotic imagery from an unknown locale, however loaded or even tragic, is just as much the stuff of drama as using your own immediate experience. Just like pulling something from your dreams, it's no less meaningful for being factually inaccurate or physically impossible.
Much has been made of Gulag's component parts—its assimilations from French peasantry and those thieving Romany, for instance—but that misses the point. The sound, like the imagery, is second-hand, swiped from the Schwarzwald gypsy folk-via-Tin Pan Alley twirl of Kurt Weill, in spirit if not in actuality, and Condon and his cohort (including Neutral Milk Hotelier Jeremy Barnes and A Hawk and a Hacksaw's Heather Trost) take it a step further, sanding down those long, drifting melodic passages into the simple sucker-punch of modern pop. At its base, the unusual instrumentation—accordion, violin, trumpet, ukulele, drums, and vocals—are less genre signposts than an outline of the specific nature of the play; just an inversion of guitar-bass-drums, playing a fundamentally similar music to, say, guitar pop, but of a wholly unique character. Songs like “Postcards From Italy,” “Brandenberg,” and “The Bunker,” despite all their instrumental eccentricity and echoes of melancholy, are deeply easy-going, just one little four-note hook piled on another, placed just so; little pocket symphonies, equal parts Brian Wilson (“The times we had / Oh, when the wind would blow with rain and snow”) and Lech Walesa (“In my good times / There were always golden rocks to throw”). Even at its most openly “foreign”—“Prenzlaurberg,” named for an upscale bohemian section of Berlin, hews closer to a waltz-time sea shanty than anything else I can think of—the pop goes down easily and with a rare kind of clarity, even when it borders on the silly—“Scenic World” and its goofy little Fisher Price calypso retains a wealth of charm, and makes me giggle a little every time.
It's the simplicity that's the key; this could have been yet another pseudo-orchestral globe-straddling “epic” with every instrument on Earth thrown in just because, a bloated, meandering beast. But instead it's tightly focused, beautifully written, and totally without filler. It also could have been an air-tight bubble, too edited, too perfect, but everything is allowed to hang loose, to be a little ramshackle, to just breathe. It manages an open, unapologetic prettiness while never seeming delicate, like it'll break in your hands or blow away; Condon's warbly tenor has a full-throated authority even at its wispiest, and Barnes often sounds like he's hitting the snare with a closed fist. Young Master Condon seems to have an almost savant's ear for this stuff, like he just sits down and breezes through 11 of these things in just the time it takes to play them, like he's been at it forever, but he's just a kid—all of 19—and may well have even better in front of him. But for now, I guess, we'll just have to live with this lovely, unusual, and beguiling little pop record. It'll do nicely.
Reviewed by: Jeff Siegel
Reviewed on: 2006-05-08