by brian kagel (kegs1287) - Oct 01, 2007
Alaska in Winter - Dance Party in the Balkans
I recently just watched A Night at the Roxbury for the first time since I was in grade school. The movie was about as consistent as the old SNL skits that inspired it used to be, but near the end of when Doug Butabi (Chris Kattan) holds up a boom box blasting that old club hit "What Is Love?" all Say Anything-style, interrupting his brother Steve's (Will Ferrell) wedding, it made the movie. For that moment, I even liked that song. I'll admit it; I even bobbed my head.
So, how does this relate to Alaska in Winter's debut album Dance Party in the Balkans, you ask? Only that most of the album's lead vocals have the same echo-heavy and club-ready feel to them that left you wondering: "What is love?" Now, depending on whom you ask, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. I currently would be in the latter group, so I do believe the best tracks on the album are the songs with the least amount of vocals from band creator and leader Brandon Bethancourt. "The Beautiful Burial Flowers We Will Never See" is a beautiful mourning piece that runs right into the perfectly titled "Balkan Low Rider Anthem" with a pouncing piano line and crying strings, and even the vocals near the end of the song sound good because they sound just like another instrument in this case.
I wanted to like this album a lot, but maybe I was just hoping for a substitute Beirut album until their new one comes out. I probably came into this album with the wrong mindset, but I really believe a lot of listeners that find Alaska in Winter (and a lot will because of the Beirut namedrop) will have the same expectations and assumptions I did (warm horns with a dynamic real percussion section and an expressive singer) and will be left feeling a little alienated by the deliberate icy vocals and music. Why such robotic vocals would be put to electronic Balkan-infused music is not beyond me. I understand that Bethancourt wrote these songs among the glaciers and loneliness of Alaska, and he wanted to represent that in the music, but he should have left the Balkan inspiration out then. In fact, when the horns do drop out to just beats and vocals, it sounds good, really good, but when the brass starts back up, everything starts to sound out of place.
Some will call this completely jumping on the bandwagon of success that Beirut and A Hawk and A Hacksaw have had in the European-by-way-of-Arizona music. I know it crossed my mind, but Heather Trost of A Hawk and A Hacksaw contributes violin on the album and Zach Condon himself adds trumpet and ukulele and even takes lead vocals on the last and undoubtedly best track of the album, "Close Your Eyes - We Are Blind." This track starts off with the familiar solo ukulele strum of some of the best Beirut tracks such as "Elephant Gun" and "Postcards From Italy," with Condon's voice slowly rising to the introduction of horns, beats, strings, and group vocals around him. It is the perfect conclusion to the album. With two of the bands that inspired Alaska in Winter contributing so much to the album, it would appear that they are digging the tunes Bethancourt is creating, so who are we to say who is ripping off whom?
Here's how I picture things: back in the old country, Beirut is outside gathering a crowd, dramatically playing and swaying and singing in full voices for the peasants in the streets. A Hawk and A Hacksaw is out in the countryside, standing in a green, grassy valley, playing outside a rundown tavern before the sun goes down, and they move inside and really get things going. Then there is Alaska in Winter, inside the church raining down beats and sterile choral voices for a funeral. With this in mind, Dance Party in the Balkans does not necessarily deliver on what the listener would assume by the title. It really does sound like electronic funeral music, and sure, a lot of the time they also sound like they belong on the Garden State soundtrack right next to "Let Go" and "We Will Become Silhouettes." Depending on whom you ask, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.