Bombshell Band Rocks Out Coffeehouse

Zach Condon's story is enough to make the average high school guidance counselor cringe.

At the tender age of 16, the now-lead singer of folk-rock outfit Beirut dropped out of school and took off for Europe. Five months later, he returned home with the seeds of an album planted-an unlikely fusion of indie pop and Eastern European folk music that would make him the toast of the hipster critical establishment.

"I've actually dropped out of four different schools," he said. "I guess I'm not much of a student."

Despite his undistinguished scholastic history, Condon will bring his self-described "ramshackle garage orchestra" to campus Friday night when it performs at the Duke Coffeehouse.

"We've been a band now for only two months, but we already sound a little less ramshackle," he said, with at least a little reassurance. The band consists of between eight and 10 musicians, playing accordion, trumpet and assorted percussion, among other instruments.

Beirut's music is an unlikely favorite-sepia-toned indie pop layered thick with dust and nostalgia. Even Condon wouldn't speculate about why his Gulag Orkestar (released this spring on Ba Da Bing! Records) has been so well received.

"I don't know-I can only spout off cliches, really," he said, before gamelys but cautiously offering, "There's just something about it that's old-fashioned."

Condon speaks with disarming nonchalance and understatement-two qualities that stand in contrast to the romantic, Old World bombast of his music. The album serves as an elegy to a time that long ago ceased to exist, a feeling which is reinforced by the low fidelity of the recording and a quiet foreboding. Gulag's antiquity is only occasionally disrupted by a modern signpost like the reggae drum fill on the title track or the peculiar electronica on "Scenic World."

It's all a very superficial veneer-strip away the mandolins and trumpets, and the result isn't that different from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Neutral Milk Hotel, to whom Beirut is often compared.

Unlike those bands, Beirut's lyrics are often minimal and almost always secondary to the instrumental arrangements, and Condon's pleasantly lethargic voice trumps the bleat of NMH's Jeff Mangum.

The songwriter speaks with clear ambivalence about his home life. He now lives in Brooklyn, far away from the New Mexico desert where he grew up, and doesn't have much to say about his childhood beyond music.

"There's basically only one thing in my family's life, and that's music," he said, adding that he was weaned on the Beach Boys and Van Morrison.

Condon said Gulag is actually the third album he's recorded, dabbling with Pro Tools in his room as a disaffected teenager. His first efforts were a Magnetic Fields-esque electronica album and a doo-wop record, which he described as "listenable, but a mess."

Don't look for it in record stores any time soon.

After the doo-wop project, Condon decided to use the funds he'd earned while working in a Santa Fe frame shop to go to Europe, much to his parents' horror.

"They're all about the music, but none of them really had any faith in me," he said of his decision to drop out of school. "Of course they were upset. It's not what people in my family do, so they must have been confused."

He went to Europe, traveled extensively and heard a myriad of vernacular musical forms before returning to the States. With a second trip overseas, the music crystallized and he signed a record deal after his return.

Condon played most of the instruments on his self-recorded album, forcing him to go through the difficult process of finding surrogates before going on tour.

"It was really nerve-racking," he said. "I have a really specific sound I want from the brass, for instance. But they're all close friends of mine, so we've been able to get it together."

With the band in tow, he set off for the rest of his musical career: the highs and lows of life on the road, including the one-month, four-country swing that brings him to Durham.

"Getting out of New York is good, but what are you supposed to wrap your head around?" Condon said, explaining that a large, appreciative audience may be followed by an indifferent handful at the next stop. "You don't know what to expect. In some places, I'm just some guy playing in a bar and maybe they'll buy me a drink.

"On the other hand, I had a moment on a stadium stage in Moscow where there were all these Russians out in front of me and they were all singing along-they know all the words."


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