Friday, 12 October 2007

Beirut: better than MIA and Radiohead

No Trivia, who thinks of something interesting to say to the internet almost every day, wrote a provocative piece about one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, the rrrrremix of MIA’s ‘Paper Planes’, featuring Bun B and Rich Boy. The original is the only really good song on her much-hyped Kala LP – sampling the best bit of the Clash’s otherwise stolid ‘Straight To Hell’, and combining playground rhymes with deadpan nonsense about “third world democracy”, cash registers and gunshots. The remix just adds a couple of nifty verses: Rich Boy sing-raps about an older woman (or possibly a car – these rappers love their metaphors!) in a style that’s somewhere between Nelly, lovers rock and southern soul; Bun B sounds like Bun B always does, which a lot of people like, and ends his verse by suggesting you “get your Robin Hood on, put some pressure on The Man”, which is a great thing to say, I reckon.

MIA (feat. Bun B & Rich Boy) - 'Paper Planes' (remix)

Brandon uses the remix as a jump-off point to air some strong reservations about MIA’s patronising attitude towards her ‘edgy’ and ‘marginalised’ collaborators (read: poor, and occasionally possessed of some strong opinions that she might not share). Fair points – MIA’s easy to expose as a liberal dilettante passing herself off as a visionary radical. Most of the time I can’t stomach her, any more than I can take the over-egged production and unalloyed, humourless unpleasantness of UGK, or the production-line shirtless southern rapper-dom of Rich Boy. But sometimes pop works best when it rides the fine line between exploitation and inspiration (or something) – “from Elvis to Eminem!”, as a Guardian music journalist might write – and the remix does just that. Trashy and transcendent, what?

I was planning to carry on in this pretentious vein and write something comparing ‘Paper Planes’ to Beirut’s new album The Flying Club Cup, another piece of work that gleefully robs from ‘authentic’ sources, this time appropriating Balkan folk arrangements, together with a heavily-romanticised vision of France. Nothing on the album stands out as much as the MIA song, but overall its Boho-schtick is much more successful, at points recalling GMS faves Menlo Park, or a cross between Neutral Milk Hotel’s more funeral songs and the gypsy oompah chaos of Emir Kusturica’s outstanding Black Cat White Cat. There are plenty of reviews out there. The ones that give it 8 out of 10 are about right.

Menlo Park – ‘Bicycle’ (from Greetings from Montauk, N.Y.)

Black Cat White Cat OST – ‘Bubamara’

Instead, I’ll direct you to the album’s website, which does something a bit magical. Each song has a video, in which we follow Beirut’s ‘Orkestar’ around Brooklyn, through bars, apartments, a garage full of ice cream vans, down to the river by night, and finally into a church, playing their ukuleles, fiddles, accordions and horns as they go. It’s not an altogether original device: the format simply expands upon French film-makers La Blogotheque’s guerilla-gig approach. Arcade Fire, who also bring the bells and whistles, made a similar one in support of Neon Bible earlier this year. Plus, if you’re put off by Beirut’s “I’ve been to Europe” aesthetic, you probably won’t warm to the inevitably romanticised Brooklyn that he roams here.

People have written a lot of about the communal experience of downloading the Radiohead album, listening to it and reviewing it at the same time as everybody else, amateur and professional. It certainly felt like a new way to experience music, but none of the chatter stopped my attention drifting after track three or four. Beirut’s gimmick, like their album, is better: instead of downloading or streaming the album while doing some work, the visuals forced me to stop, look and listen. Like a live gig shorn of all rock-performance clich├ęs and presented in a style sympathetic to the music, the compositions, the instrumentation, and the human element were enhanced. If every band did this … I’d probably skip the videos because there isn’t the time. But if it occasionally forced me to give a little more space to an album, that’s only a good thing.

Beirut are still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to demanding a fixed price for their art. But 40 minutes on the web and a fiver at amazon should suffice.

Beirut – ‘The Flying Club Cup’ (final track)

Menlo Park’s myspace

Buy Menlo Park

Buy Black Cat White Cat OST

Beirut’s Flying Club Cup Website

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