What might be called a reclaiming of a French-language musical tradition for rock & roll has echoed down the decades, from Scott Walker's embrace of Jacques Brel (and David Bowie's embrace of Walker's interpretations and approach) to Beck's overt love for Serge Gainsbourg. Zach Condon's work under the name Beirut, starting with last year's nod to Slavic and gypsy music, Gulag Orkestar, has taken a similar path with his new album, The Flying Club Cup, recorded with his touring group.
At once elegant and passionately melancholic, The Flying Club Cup may be the most invigorating American exploration of said sound since the Black Heart Procession's underrated debut. Condon's singing, solo and in overdubbed chorus, suggests various English-speaking performers in turn, including Thom Yorke and, obliquely, Antony and the Johnsons. Musically, however, the feeling is of a never-neverland where spurts of French film dialogue spike the arrangements while accordions and horn sections add to an easygoing but still darkly tinged swing. (It's wonderful to hear strings and brass used in ways that don't simply ape the now-oppressive model of Flaming Lips/Arcade Fire-style walls of sound.)
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Perhaps the album's great flaw is one of its best attributes: Condon's heavy romanticism of an older image of France rather than the tenser 21st-century state, where rai and hip-hop are the music of the streets rather than styles that evoke the sorrowful ease of a boulevardier. But the exuberance of Condon and co.'s performances—even at their darkest, the songs crackle with life, and Condon sounds like he's giving it his theatrical all—is the album's own best justification.