Album Reviews

Beirut – The Rip Tide

on August 17, 2011, 8:00am
beirut_riptide C+
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It’s a cause for celebration, The Rip Tide  – a commencement party for a band shedding its eccentricities and rounding down its cultural influences in favor of delightful, orchestral pop. Three cheers for Beirut, as they move out from under the cloudy, drunken Eastern Bloc influences of their former albums and into the sun of American indie. That is, if that’s what you want from this band. Seeing how all things must naturally progress, Beirut doesn’t sprint away from who they were toward something they’re not, but rather they gently refine the excitement of their first two albums into a product with a focused scope and broad appeal. Zach Condon, ringleader of the group and lead songwriter, leaves the impoverished waltzes behind in favor of a rich future with tighter arrangements, fuller sound, and generally better spirits.

It’s not as much like Citizen Kane as it may seem, but The Rip Tide definitely is the band aiming for something far more nationalistic than ever before, and thanks to the prodigious arranging and songwriting talents of Condon, songs hit their mark over and over again throughout the record. For a taste of nationalism, you needn’t look further than the song titles, many of which reference US cities, ports, and neighborhoods and use those locations as backdrops. The piano ballad of “Goshen” slowly adds layers of horns and snare over Condon’s forlorn voice as he sings t0 a woman frightened of one stage or another. When he croons, he recalls that pre-rock and roll, Italian-American voice with a shaken vibrato, so that no matter how relatively modern the instrumentation may be, there’s always a sense of the past in Beirut’s songs.

“The Peacock” recalls Beirut’s past more than any other track. It’s a WWII memory playacted with less than precise horns and harmonies that layer atop Condon’s impressionistic lyrics that repeat and repeat and repeat. And repeat. Repetition as a device in songwriting is a surefire way to win me over, though Condon takes enough liberty with it throughout the record that it ends up becoming shitck — something that’s easy to latch on to and loses power. So, after “Santa Fe”, “East Harlem”, and “Payne’s Bay” all employ the same structure at their endings, “The Peacock”, with repetition at its most evocative and original, is just a familiar dub of previous movements.

Which speaks to the larger point that the new, whittled, and freshly painted sound of Beirut is a confusing combination of starched instrumentation and stunning emotionalism. As impressive as the signature brass and squeeze box arrangements are, the short and poppy formats of the songs dampen the emotional resonance of the album so that it washes over you gently and inoffensively. However, it’s not an entirely toothless collection, as closer “Port of Call” does the best job at collecting the past and the present and putting them to good work in a song rich with life and color that also doesn’t sound like it’s playing in a room two sizes too small. It’s just that The Rip Tide is a collection of songs that feel constricted in their forms and sound truncated as opposed to trimmed, cut too short as opposed to styled.

When you see a cropped image, it’s typically for the better, and you usually never see what was lost. When you hear a cropped sound from a broader and familiar canvas, you know what was shed, and boy it’s hard to forget. What Beirut strive for and achieve on this record are simplicity and a slightly sunnier disposition. Condon writes some of his best songs to date here by letting in a lot of light through a small shutter. In particular, “East Harlem” rolls into the air with a pure melody that’s sure to bounce around in the head for days on end. But by leaving behind the experimentations and the peculiarities of their former albums, Beirut create an album that’s all too easy to hold on to and all too easy to let go of.

Essential Tracks: “Port of Call”, “East Harlem”, “The Peacock”

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