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Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

Beirut: On Travels and Homecomings

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"Ha, not really, no," Zach Condon says with a laugh, when asked if there's a place he's saving to write about because it's special. The 25-year-old Santa Fe native and current New York City resident perhaps brushes off the idea of any place being singularly special, since as the leader of Beirut he has already written a hefty travelogue of his journeys through Italy, Mexico, Germany and Slovakia, among others. With ease, he's absorbed these experiences, translating them into lyrics and setting them to atmospheric, worldly arrangements.

The Rip Tide
, Condon's third full-length since his startling voyage began with his 2006 debut, Gulag Orkestar, finds the daydreamer and boy-traveler settled into home life in New York, penning songs about "East Harlem" and running his own label, Pompeii, through which he released the album.

"I started Pompeii as a way to not run away from music," Condon explains, "in order to embrace the business side of things, instead of just be confused by them. ... And yeah, it's a handful." If he sometimes struggles with the business of music, though, he's only becoming more confident in the art of recording. On The Rip Tide, he begins to slim down the bulky arrangements of his past albums, allowing each instrument to carry a distinct, heady importance. By reining in both his wanderlust and his eager compositional mind frame, he's crafted one of his most relatable recordings.

To be sure, The Rip Tide is still packed to the brim with violin, euphonium, trumpet, trombone, tuba, accordion, piano and ukulele, but the album places an emphasis on melody and song first and foremost. As part of that process, Condon revisited his past, literally, by listening to songs he'd recorded as a teenager and revisiting some of the same melodies, one of which became the basis for "East Harlem."

"I'd been meaning to give that song some direction for years," he says. "There are other tunes I was listening to from the same time that hadn't been on my mind in a while that very much caught me by surprise. It'd be like finding photos of yourself dressed up going through some phase as a teenager that you don't remember actually going through. I remember being frustrated while writing the earlier songs because my ambitions for the melodies never felt like they could be fully reached—as in, I knew there was weight in the melody, but I couldn't elevate it to the place I wanted it to go."

His compositions have evolved considerably since those teenage sketches, but he still saw a bit of his current self in his old recordings.

"Besides the obvious instrumentation differences, there was a feeling that my sense of melody hadn't really strayed far from the source, which is nice," he says. "The songwriting had changed completely. I think the main difference was learning the discipline to complete thoughts that I'd started. I notice in some of the older material I'd be so excited by one musical moment that I'd latch on and repeat it for an entire song. (There were) less dynamics, I suppose."

Condon's current knack for dynamics is apparent in his vocal melodies, which hover and fall like trembling stars around the city-lights glow of his warm instrumentation. It's a restless process.

"I wander around on some instrument until a kind of primal gut-reaction vocal melody leaps out of it," he says, "and from there, I try and refine."

He lets the sound and feel of each song guide him. As he sings on "East Harlem": "Sound is the color I know, oh/ Sound is what keeps me looking for your eyes/ And sound of your breath in the cold/ And oh, the sound will bring me home again."

Beirut performs at the Turner Hall Ballroom with opener Perfume Genius on Wednesday, Nov. 30.