BEIRUT

The Flying Club Cup

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(Ba Da Bing)

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The one-sheet story behind Beirut bandleader/singer/songwriter Zach Condon's latest flight of fancy is that it landed him in France rather than the hazy Eastern Bloc of Gulag Orkestar. The album name comes from an early-20th-century hot-air-balloon festival held in Paris; Condon cites French chansons as an inspiration. The album's artwork consists of found photographs from Paris and a vaguely Dadaist narrative written by Condon's brother.

After the conch-shell orchestra tuning of "A Call to Arms," the album opens with the subdued bossa-nova lilt of "Nantes," Condon dourly singing, "It's been a long time, long time now, since I've seen you smile" before giving in to swaying brass and wandering accordion. This is followed by the drifting, drunken uplift "A Sunday Smile." As always, Beirut's arrangements (here aided by the Arcade Fire's Owen Pallet, who also sings lead on the elegiac "Cliquot") are baroque without being bombastic. But the centerpiece remains Condon's singular voice, a sonorous croon that easily rises above the orchestra pit but sounds just as sure with only a ukulele as accompaniment (as on the stunning first part of "The Penalty"). There are unexpected turns—the oriental strings of at the opening of "Forks and Knives (La Fete)," and the Peanuts-meets–Sufjan Stevens jazz piano lope of "In the Mausoleum"—but for the most part The Flying Club Cup sticks to Condon's well-worn map of Europe. Condon's lyrics, which were at times overwrought or overreaching on Gulag Orkestar, have grown more tempered and true.

Beirut's albums are like flipping through an old box of postcards—the Balkans blur into East Germany into Paris back into Brooklyn—and whether they're yours or someone else's hardly matters. The maudlin "Guyamas Sonora" even seems to say as much: "No, I was not there/on the church stairs/the wind in my hair...." The New Mexico–born, Brooklyn-based Condon's far-flung geography has always been at least half remembered or imaginary. But his remove doesn't make his musical forays feel inauthentic or touristy. Rather, that distance lends his settings and subjects a sincere sense of longing and weight. ERIC GRANDY

BAND OF HORSES

Cease to Begin

(Sub Pop)

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Like most clichés, there's enough truth to the hoary record-industry myth of the sophomore slump to make it stick. A great debut can create impossible expectations, and a sequel even of equal merit will still lack the element of surprise that made its predecessor seem revelatory. A band can spend their whole lives making one record, and only a year or two making their next. And a lot can change in the meantime.

So it is with Band of Horses' sophomore album for Sub Pop, the aptly titled Cease to Begin. In the time since the breakout success of Everything All the Time, the one-time Seattleites have lost the considerable talents of guitarist (and sometimes songwriter) Mat Brooke (now of Grand Archives), they've relocated back to South Carolina, they've swelled to a six-piece live band, and they've licensed their hit "The Funeral" to everything from movie trailers to a Wal-Mart ad campaign.

Opening track (and lead single) "Is There a Ghost" is almost enough to make the listener forget all that, though. The surging refrain is the album's most triumphant moment (though it lacks some of the rush and thrum of the live rendition) and also it's most similar to the pop grandeur of Everything All the Time. So it's a perfect transition, but also a dangerously early peak. From there, the Horses successfully channel Neil Young's dirge stomp on "Ode to LRC" and lay down old live favorite "No One's Gonna Love You." "Detlef Schrempf" is a plodding slow dance. "Islands on the Coast" is another brief, soaring pop arc. Singer/songwriter Ben Bridwell has said that Cease to Begin would sound more country or Southern than their partially cloudy debut, and "The General Specific" makes good on that—it's a full-on piano-pounding, knee-slapping, hand-clapping honky-tonk jam—as does the church organ and dusty gospel warble of "Marry Song."

Cease to Begin isn't a bad record, but it falls short. Maybe it just isn't possible to be More Everything More of the Time. ERIC GRANDY

THE BLAKES

The Blakes

(Light in the Attic)

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The Blakes' new full-length starts out strong: A few fuzzy plucks on a guitar bleed into a sea of distortion, a steady shaker and a deep bass line dance together to make a simple but sexy beat, and the singer snarls complaints about loving an irresistible but impossible woman.

It's catchy, but it's been done. And just as the Blakes seem to hate to love the woman in the opening track "Two Times," I hate to love the Blakes.

The trio has been a blip on Seattle's radar for years, but their well-worn rock 'n' roll didn't get much attention until the release of their EP Little Whispers, which earned them heavy airplay on KEXP in 2006. In fact, KEXP's golden boy John Richards was so impressed with the band, he signed on as their comanager earlier this year. Richards continues to play the band on his morning show.

With that added (and potentially controversial) support, the Blakes inked a deal with Light in the Attic, the beloved local label that has built its reputation on uncovering rare gems of years past.

But Light in the Attic's solid-gold catalog only makes the Blakes' hollow revivalism all the more glaring. The band aim for classic in both sound and aesthetic—they've got the leather jackets, jeans, and moppy hair down to a tee—but musically, they're insubstantial.

After "Two Times," the guitar ditches the distortion for a glittery keyboard sound in "Don't Bother Me." The bass gets brighter, the drums get lighter, and the lyrics become power-pop poetry. "Magoo" is garage rock with fast twangs of guitar and tambourine, "Modern Man" is a Strokes rip-off (so, a copy of a copy), and "Lint Walk" is the token romantic song with Cure melodies.

The Blakes are good at what they do, but what they do is take cowardly stabs at a number of sounds. It's sure to appease the mass market—so, love 'em or hate 'em, the Blakes probably aren't going away anytime soon. MEGAN SELING

The Blakes play Fri Oct 5 at Vera Project at 7:30 pm, all ages. And later the same night at the Crocodile, 21+.

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