Uncle Jak is a tough man, an old man now but still tough. He has a closed-in face, not much feeling plays out there in his cold blue eyes and tightly pursed mouth. You have heard whispers of how harsh his young days were back in the old country, ‘childhood’ does not seem like the right word. The war was an improvement for him, they bought him boots and gave him almost enough to eat, he saw and did things he refused to talk to anyone but his priest about and then he and your father crossed over to the West. Young men both, they made it to the New World by fortitude, fortune and faith alone. They were fit for the lowest, hardest, most dangerous jobs only – your father says he lost more friends on construction sites than on the steppes, Uncle Jak does not talk about it; he doesn’t wear all his scars on his skin.
Every year on some old-fangled saints’ day they come together, all their compatriots, to this basement bar; fewer each year as the reaper thins them out and the twin evils of sickness and forgetting stake their toll. Linked there all these stoic men come alive, slowly at first the talk swells like the first trickles down a storm drain, swelling in direct proportion to the beer froth on the men’s luxuriant moustaches, until the room roars. Then it happens, some old party stands on the bench and sings something from long ago, far away, not forgotten. Then the others join in, an accordion plays and the old men beat time on the benches, all the while shouting the words they can barely remember. Songs of the fireside and hillside, songs of the benighted and the free. Songs of home. Songs of glory and loss, songs of rebellion and kings, songs of love and companionship.
Uncle Jak sings with the best of them, of course he does, the words rolling back the years relentlessly against the tide. Later when it has quieted, thanks to insensibility and leave-taking, the accordion player sits playing a hauntingly melancholy air. Uncle Jak sits very still, staring into a far off distance his eyes filmed with tears, his mouth forming speech and a sudden boyish smile crosses his face, a starling sight on those harsh crags.
The moment passes, Jak stands and leaves without any fuss or ceremony. The past locked away for another year, if he bothers to come next time.
That’s Beirut Gulag Orkestar for you then. All done.
I bought it in December 2006, lured by the whisperings that this was a very special album and the charms of the LP cover – an image picked up in a library in Leipzig, torn from a book and used as found art*. It intrigued me, still does.
Zach Condon the 19 year-old meistermuso behind Beirut played trumpet, ukulele, piano, organ, vocals, percussion, accordion and mandolin on Gulag Orkestar**. When he wasn’t kicking out the jams on that lot he was busy being from Albuquerque.
An obsession with French film started to edge, the even younger, Europhile Condon away from indie rock onto more esoteric turf. Trips to Europe fuelled his imagination and he somehow created that rarest of musical things, an album that exists entirely in its’ own space and time. Nothing sounds like Gulag Orkestar, nothing will.
This Beirut exists not in the Lebanon, but in a half-dreamed, half-unearthed locale that can hazily be located somewhere east of the Carpathians and south of the Harz Mountains, conveniently blending German, Serbo-Croat and a plethora of other sensibilities and traditions together to create a music both brand-new and deeply nostalgic. .
Take the opening title track ‘The Gulag Orkestar’, which hoves into view querulously in the manner of a Tom Waits tune before waltzing and polkaing away in a dignified manner. The trumpet has a mariachi bent, which doesn’t sound remotely out-of-place here; it should but it doesn’t. Best of all for me is Condon’s voice, a rich melancholy instrument of its own.
The overall effect of Gulag Orkestar is somewhat akin to crashing the tail end of an East German Greek wedding band’s last ever gig, stomping rhythms with a good deal of regret and sadness thrown in.
Have a go on my very favourite tunes here^, the mighty ‘Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)’. It’s a real beaut. I find it intensely emotional, to the point where I daren’t ever listen to it if I’m sad, especially not in public; I’d end up uncle Jak-ing. It sounds like a tale of long ago happy days, tainted by the audience and singer being all too aware of what was to happen much later in life – I looked up the lyrics today and the line ‘We grow fat on the charms of our idle dreary days’ caught me right between the eyes.
It would have sounded great on the soundtrack to Amelie – I can offer no higher compliment.
Reviewers criticised Condon’s lyrics, I found that odd because despite all the time I had spent with Beirut I genuinely don’t think I’d ever understood a word, I treated his voice as just another texture in the music without ever registering meaning. Maybe I’m just the superficial sort.
I am at risk of overstaying my welcome here but I will tarry a while to say that Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar offers you a pretty unique experience, certainly compared to anything else in the 1537. Give it a go and lurch along with ‘Bratislava’, sing along with the stirring ‘Rhineland (Heartland)’ and synth along in a slightly tinny way with ‘Scenic World’^*.
As a slightly fey woodland creature myself, this album is a great place to come and hide myself away for a spell. Am I coming back? nah, I’d rather Jak.
PS: I love that cover so much. I would love to know the story behind the taking of the photograph. I love the look on the face of the shyer girl on the left.
*later identified as being by Russian photographer Sergey Chilikov.
**although he had to enlist the help of both a cellist and a clarinettist, which is a bit lazy in my book – I’d have played the lot, personally.
^or elsewhere even. I like it that much.
^*which doesn’t sound like anything else here, too poppy and artificial to fit and yet is still quite excellent.