Less isn’t always more on Beirut’s No No No
Beirut have had a unique career. While the path from Western pop to world music is commonly trodden and often tedious, few white musicians go the other way. Gulag Orkestar (2006) was a remarkably assured study in Balkan brass tradition for a 20-year-old American with no ancestral ties to Southeast Europe, and Zach Condon has since explored France and Mexico with fruitful results. The Rip Tide (2011) was the culmination of a gradual shift toward central ground, with Condon reasoning that further foreign adventures would dishonestly reflect his happily settled private life. A divorce threw that theory out the door, and the state of his group into uncertainty. On No No No it takes the form of a trio; the smaller lineup acknowledging the need to recharge a weary leader with a new approach.
Working with drums, bass and piano poses a different challenge than the brass armies with which Beirut made their name. Condon’s strengths lie in densely textured arrangements, especially those involving unorthodox instrumentation. The vocals are generally best served in a counter-melodic role amongst many layers rather than out on their own; whether they’re suited to a modest ensemble is questionable.
More enamoured with the sound of words than their formal meaning, Condon tends to pick one vowel and stick with it throughout a song. This habit would be easier to digest if his lyrics had a bit more meat on them, and it’s doubly frustrating to hear the opening pair of tracks spring the same trap. “Gibraltar” is the first offender. The result of its “fine / find / line / time / kind / mine” rhyme pattern is phonetic fatigue, not helped by a faux-funk chord sequence that runs through 46 times without changing. “No No No” commits a similar crime (are / start / far / are / la la la / AAAAAARRRGGH STOP IT), but at least offers relief via an energetic horn section feature in the coda.
“August Holland” belatedly starts the album at the fourth pull of its lawn mower cord. Some will be dismayed to find Beirut leaning closer to the Garden State soundtrack than to Neutral Milk Hotel, but this succeeds by hinting at tidy harmonic resolution without ever quite delivering it. Violins, flute and acoustic guitar combine in a song which, despite the seasonally specific title, should be worth a listen at any time of year.
After that, there’s little else to which you could apply the same compliment. The buoyant strut of “Perth” becomes grimly comic when you realise it’s about a breakdown brought on by exhaustion, but most of the remainder can be categorised either as promising demos in need of development, or listless jams crying out for a middle-eight. Drummer Nick Petree and bassist Paul Collins might have done more to liven things up. Smooth on the ear as it is, Condon’s voice lacks variation, rarely leaving a comfort zone of legato mumbling. His lyrics are too airy to sustain interest in the tunes when they become too cordial, and all these flaws are left naked in spaces formerly occupied by euphonium and ukulele.
When you’ve half lost your mind and completely lost your muse, minimalism is a sensible method of restoring both. I’m glad Zach seems to be content again, but the latter process of recovery is ongoing.