To be honest, when I think of Elephant 6 bands I don't usually think of Balkan folk music. But with the release of Beirut's "Gulag Orkestar," I may have to revise my thinking.
This new band consists of teenage musician Zach Condon, along with people from Neutral Milk Hotel and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, making bittersweet folkpop and danceable marches. Imagine a band of slightly drunk gypsies on parade, and you'll have the general idea of how it sounds.
It opens slow, with a gentle piano and blaring horns. The title track meanders in circles and finally dies away... only to be reborn as a swaying march. Halfway through, Condon joins in with some mournful wails and equally mournful singing. That turns around in "Prenzluerberg," where the singing is just as melancholy, but the music is a cheerier march.
From there on, the trio tries out those styles and everything in between -- rattly folk with tambourines and horns, danceable folkpop, and tinkly klezmer music. Yes, tinkly klezmer. They get downright happy in "Scenic World," a colorful glockenspiel song that is just barely grounded by some quick violins.
After that, "Gulah Orkestar" is pretty upbeat, with a string of swaying marches and upbeat folk acoustics. The album's finale is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. "After the Curtain" is a relatively bare-bones song with Condon singing over applause and a dancing glockenspiel. I don't know how to fit that one in.
Basically this album is what happens when an American teenager drops out and crosses Eastern Europe, soaking up the folk music as he goes.
And it's a good thing Condon's musical talents are being backed by experienced musicians, so we can get a bittersweet, atmospheric taste of whatever he heard there. The main problem is that the less folky songs don't really fit in -- without them, the album would have been a lot better. But as it is, it's a remarkable achievement.
Condon has a pretty deep voice for someone so young, and he fills it with the longing and beauty that traditional singing often has. And he's assisted by some very talented musicians: Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, both of whom work in the psych-folk band A Hawk and a Hacksaw. So of course, they have a good ear for this sort of thing.
So how do they manage? Soundwise, it's like someone took the gypsy out of Gogol Bordello and slapped it on Neutral Milk Hotel. The songs are brimming with violins, horns, accordion, mandolin, pianos, ukeleles, glockenspiel and many others. These instruments are so smoothly blended that it sounds like at least a dozen people are playing at any one time, and that they've played this music their whole lives.
"Gulag Orkestar" is a pretty, heart-tugging album that will make you think of quaint European villages in the springtime. Definitely worth listening to, many times.