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Largely the work of an ambitious youngster named Zach Condon, Gulag Orkestar is an indie rock album filtered through the mind of a teenager who dropped out of high school to travel across Europe and soak in as much culture and music as possible. The result is something that sounds a bit like the Microphones crossed with Neutral Milk Hotel. It might be the only rock album you hear that doesn't contain any guitars, and it conveys an emotional and worldly power of the likes I've not heard in some time.

Largely inspired by Balkan folk music, the album moves through mournful ballads and more upbeat tracks (that sound more like the work of a 10-plus member ensemble) with ease, layering horns, stringed instruments, ukeleles, mandolins, glockenspiel, drum, organs, piano, and other percussion under the soulful vocals of Condon himself, who has a similar range and style as Andrew Bird. The disc opens with the album-titled track of "The Gulag Orkestar," and after some warbling horns and cascading piano, the track turns into a shuffling march that finds Condon soaring over the top of it all with his rich croon.

The album really hits stride with the gorgeous "Bandenburg," which finds deft mandolins playing out over heaving drums and percussion as accordions wheeze and the track builds gracefully with delightful horn sections and layered vocals. "Postcards From Italy" follows, and it may very well be the best track on the disc, moving along with a playful opening section that mixes shuffling mandolin, piano and horns before shifting halfway through to a more delicate (and reflective) section that completely tugs at the heartstrings before bursting into a celebratory ending that's absolutely stunning.

The second half of the album finds Condon taking a few more chances, and amazingly he pulls things off just about every time. "Scenic World" uses a programmed casio-beat that sounds straight out of Magnetic Fields, but layers horns and accordion over the top for something completely unique while "After The Curtain" takes the non-traditional instrumentation and runs it through some filters, giving the track a slight electronic tinge without making it ever feel out of place. It seems like every year there's an album that comes completely out of nowhere and really stuns me, and this year that title is easily held by Beirut with Gulag Orkestar. An outstanding debut album, and easily one of my favorite releases of the year so far.

(from almost cool music reviews)
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HALL OF FAMEon April 22, 2007
Finding out about Beirut was one of the best things to happen to me (musically) in 2007. When I first heard their EP "Lon Gisland", I quickly proceeded to dig back in the past works by this fascinating act.

Beirut blends a lo-fi sound not unlike a group of East European gipsies with a folk feel like Sufjan Stevens with leader Zach Condon's voice coming across much like David Byrne. The result is an exquisite and upbeat album that makes your heart pound with excitement making you want to jump, clap and laugh, with "Postcards From Italy" being one of the highlights.

Thinking that this was Beirut's debut album just blows me away. If you like it, by all means pick up "Lon Gisland".
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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.
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on May 22, 2007
This is definitely one of the most influential albums i've heard recently and maybe ever. It combines a bit of Balkan sounds, a bit of Tiersen (yes you've definitely heard of him!) and a bit (just a little bit) of indie and maybe post rock - at least, this is what my ears tell me :).

The most interesting thing maybe, is that the whole album is mostly the work of a single person (Zach Condon) whose age is about 20. When i first listened the album i thought that this was composed either from a Balkan band / orchestra or from some mature musicians. Well, i was wrong! Most of the recordings were made by him in his own house! This is his third personal album but the first under the "Beirut" name.

It is difficult to say which tracks are worthing from this album since most of them do! Few exceptions exist of course, but they are the exceptions and not the rule ;)

So, five stars from me and highly suggested to anyone who's looking for something fresh, inspiring and different. Give it a try and you won't be disappointed
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on May 15, 2007
Gulag Orkestar, the debut album of Albuquerque native and then nineteen year old Zach Condon, is a memorable and beautiful musical journey through the beer halls and streets of Eastern Europe. Condon, whose production of the album was helped by Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel, A Hawk and a Hacksaw) and Heather Trost (A Hawk and a Hacksaw), was heavily influenced by the alluring, folk sounds of violins, cellos, ukuleles, mandolins, glockenspiels, drums, tambourines, clarinets, pianos and the accordion. These instruments, brought together in the style of Balkan folk music, play host to Condon's voice. His crooning, dusty voice rides over every melody.

The result of the collaboration of the above is a haunting collection of mournful ballads and pulsating beats that touch the human spirit. Like the tide, this music ebbs and flows and washes over you again and again. The bohemian wonder that has simply poured from the previously unknown artist is simply extraordinary. This musical achievement heralds Condon as one of our most promising new arrivals yet.
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To be honest, when I think of psychedelic 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.

And this version has an addition: The "Lon Gisland" EP, which starts off with the bittersweet, playful horn pop "Elephant Gun," before slipping off into a ponderous march song, a colourful accordion tune (complete with clacking drumsticks), a sweep of soaring horns, and the delightfully bright "Carousels."

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.
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on March 4, 2008
Beirut is the Indie-genre band headed by Zach Condon, a twenty-two-year-old native of Albuquerque who dropped out of high school at age sixteen to travel Europe. While there, Condon was irreversibly influenced by Balkan gypsy styles that are manifest in the group's music. Another style characteristic is the prominence of untraditional rock instruments--none of their songs feature the guitar but instead the ukulele, owing to a prior injury of Condon's that rendered him unable to wrap his wrist entirely around the neck of a guitar. Beirut's members are numerous, but among the most notable individuals are Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, previous members of Indie accordion band A Hawk and a Handsaw. Beirut's 2006 debut album, Gulag Orkestar, consists of eleven tracks that alternate between melancholic gypsy-inspired songs including titular track "Gulag Orkestar" and "Prenzlauerberg," bubbly pseudo-pop beats "Postcards from Italy" and "Scenic World," and points in-between, most enjoyably "Rhineland" and "The Canals of Our City."
Gulag Orkestar is split between Beirut's two distinct styles--its patently Balkan east European folk style and its own unique effervescent ukulele pop. While Condon's low crooning voice is excellent in the latter milieu, it is difficult to appreciate in the former. Especially in "Bratislava," Condon's voice fades to the background as a distant repetitive mournful wail or echo, while cymbals and quavering musette-like trumpets occupying the musical foreground. The lyrics for these songs are inexistent--they are unintelligible as sung; moreover, they can be found neither in the album insert nor online. For this reason, they seem largely irrelevant. They are present only for the sake of there being words set to these songs, some semblance of verses. These gypsy songs are out of place in this album. I would expect to hear them as part of an interesting movie soundtrack or in some Turkish restaurant. In this different light, in fact, I would enjoy them very much. Beirut has previous band members of A Hawk and a Handsaw, which in turn drew influences from Colorado band DeVotchKa, a contributing group to the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack along with Sufjan Stevens. This style of music thus lends itself excellently to film albums, but not so well to a standard release, unless your quarry happens to be something ethnic and atmospheric.
Despite the seemingly out-of-place interludes, when Condon sings a Western-style song, everything comes together. Emotional, intelligible lyrics roll sweetly off Condon's soothing, low croon. In "Postcards from Italy," Condon's slow, contemplative, soothing voice inspires a personal analysis of the past. When he muses, "There were always golden rocks to throw / At those who... admit defeat too late," he induces his listeners to contemplate lessons learned from important but flawed people in their own lives. In "Mount Wroclai," Condon laments the emotionally unengaged life he might lead in the future. At the opening of the song he ventures, "And I know when time / Will pass by slow / Without my heart." As the song ends, he tells of a love so old that it has fizzled out, singing, "We grow fat / on the charms of our idle dreary days / Seen the shadows grow." Midway through the album, Condon addresses a midlife-crisis sort of question at an earlier age; he feels trapped, as if he were flowing down a one-way river. In "Rhineland," he sings in a subdued wail, "Life is all right / But I know / I would have nowhere to go." Finally, "Scenic World," the shortest but most notable song on the album, perfectly captures the relaxed introspective mood via imagery and simile. "When things don't feel right / I lie down like a tired dog / Licking his wounds in the shade," he sings to a quiet bubbling beat. "I try to imagine a careless life / A scenic world where the sunsets are all / Breathtaking," Condon ponders a bad day and consciously decides to improve it. Condon's lyrics, when significant, are introspective gold.
A great appeal of Beirut is its prominent use of unusual instruments including the accordion, cello, euphonium, glockenspiel, mandolin, organ, trumpet, ukulele, and violin. Only the final track, "After the Curtain," features vibrant electric guitar riffs, and even then they are overlaid by jubilant cascading marimba arpeggios. In every song, no particular instrument reigns dominant over any other. Each song features several different instruments prominently, but each has its own separate movement in which it is the main player. "Gulag Orkestar," "Postcards from Italy," and "The Canals of Our City" are showcases for the vibrato trumpets the likes of which I have never heard before. In "Mount Wroclai" and "The Bunker," the accordion holds the harmony with slurred alternating six-eighths march time; in "The Bunker" as well as "Bratislava," the accordion takes the forefront with its earthy, wonderfully-aged clarinet treble reeds, adding in beautiful embellishment. All songs save for "After the Curtain" feature Condon's light airy ukulele strumming. The synthesis of these unconventional and quirkily seductive sounds with Condon's low voice is truly a pleasure.
Aside from the glaring incongruity of the Balkan-style songs and its own alt-pop style, Gulag Orkestar was, for me, the musical experience of 2007. Condon's sincere lyrics are poetic dynamite and the band's compositing of numerous distinct instruments contribute to a wide range of effects that everybody can enjoy.
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on June 10, 2007
indie melodies with gypsy european folk instruments! these guys push the envelope to the edge... very very refreshing and lovely.

the music makes you want to spin around in 3/4 time like the dervishes... it makes brass band music sound good! and even the accordion sounds great in the album.

the tunes are very catchy and melancholic and you won't be trying to tune it out of your head when you catch yourself singing it over and over again.

there is just one song which is a little strange because it has a casiotone (70s toy electronic keyboard)thingy going throughout the song, but i think they put it in to get that cheesy feeling which in a way is pretty daring but well spiced in an album that is completely filled with folk instruments.

If you're an indie fan and like innovation and great tunes, this is a MUST BUY.

LOVELY!
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on September 23, 2006
If you like Goran Bregovic or Johnny Cash or Roy Orbison or David Byrne or Mostar Sevdah Reunion or Zlatne Uste, you'll like this music; if you like all of the above, you'll love it. It's that simple. Indie crooning plus Balkan brass music. How come nobody ever thought of this before?
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on March 26, 2007
While it is a great CD I would also recommend Boris Kovac's Last Balkan Tango for more of the lovely Eastern/Southern European melancholia. I am amazed how Beirut manages at moments to outplay Kovac, a music veteran with twenty years of experience in New/"World" music. That right there is a great achievment for a 19-year old kid. Oh, yes, if you can grab somewhere UNMIK Titanic, a latest documentary by Boris Mitic which opens with a mournful, but yet comedic gypsy brass cover of "My Heart Will Go On" you will be closer to understanding what the H-E-C-K the Balkans is all about.
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