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.