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Alaska in Winter 
Dance Party in the Balkans
[Regular Beat Recording Co.; 2007]
Rating: 7.6
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Having a musician more famous than yourself appear on your record is a double-edged sword. Because Zach Condon of Beirut plays some trumpet and ukulele on Alaska in Winter's debut, it's gotten more blog hype than an album by a unfamiliar musician on a little-known label would traditionally merit. This is a boon, because Dance Party in the Balkans is subtle and idiosyncratic in a way that doesn't align with modern popular indie music's gravity and bombast. It's quite likely that this fine album would've been overlooked if not for Condon's cameos.

The downside of having a built-in blog hook on your album is that, while you'll get more exposure, it will often focus solely on a dubious interpretation of this hook. One wonders if Alaska in Winter auteur Brandon Bethancourt has come to regret asking Condon, his childhood friend (not to mention Beirut collaborator Heather Trost), to play on the record, effectively branding it as a Beirut side-project in exchange for more album sales.

Of course, the one song on the album that sounds really Beiruty, the drippy anthem "Close Your Eyes-- We Are Blind", has garnered the most attention so far. It's an anomaly, and I'll take the sputtering, richly-harmonized electro of "The Homeless and the Hummingbirds", the sprightly piano ballad "Your Red Dress (Wedding Song at Cemetery)", or the thunderous box-step of "Rain on Every Weekend" over it any day. While Bethancourt and Condon share a fondness for woozy brass and sinuous gypsy strains, their music is drastically different at structural and aesthetic levels.

Dance Party in the Balkans hybridizes a far-flung variety of forms into chilly, beat-oriented, downtempo hymns: amorous Balkan strings, the melismatic vocal tapestries of classical Arabian music (often so gently vocoder-kissed as to sound more spectral than robotic), icily splintered piano loops (which are actually played live), skittering hip-hop percussion (ditto), and soaringly simple indie pop melodies obscured in an atmospheric haze. The voices droning through the splashy percussion and glacial pianos of "Twenty Four Hours in Lake of Ice" sound like they haven't seen the sun in some time, a semse that persists through the more abstract, less rhythmic half of the songs.

It's difficult to overemphasize the pervasive chill that hovers, paradoxically, around the album's warm melodies: Even its most luridly romantic moments sound remote and contemplative. The unfortunately-titled "Lovely Lovely Love" is such a moment, and among the record's highlights: a swelling, non-instrumental sound-alike of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" for the indie rock set. Where Condon's voice soars over Beirut's music, Bethancourt's nestles into his own, which partially explains the chilliness. Also, he recorded most of the music in Alaska, in winter, before returning to New Mexico to flesh it out. After you check out the Iditarod and the aurora borealis, there's not much to do besides hole up with your music and think about how freaking cold it is.

The album's resistance to pop structures is another key to its aloofness-- instead, the arrangements tend toward the incantatory, the fugal, the intuitive drive forward. Hooks last for entire songs (see the tense, cyclical piano figure undergirding the lyrical strings on "Balkan Lowrider Anthem") or never appear at all (see the stately dirge "The Beautiful Burial Flowers We Will Never See"), lending a sense of gusty expanse to an album pinioned by taut rhythms. This is suburban low-riding music at its most self-aware: a far cry from Beirut's guitar-intensive chamber music.

-Brian Howe, December 04, 2007

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