(Photo courtesy of Tanya Traboulsi)
Conceived accidentally in 2007 by Serge Yared and Fadi Tabbal (a bastard band, sort of), The Incompetents is an ongoing musical project that has been delighting, infuriating, and perplexing the Beirut alternative music scene with upbeat folk-pop melodies, a constantly shifting line-up and unpredictable experimental tendencies.
The Incompetents debuted with “More Songs from the Victorious City” in 2008 when the band only consisted of Yared and Tabbal fiddling around in the studio with any and all instruments they could get their hands on. That effort was followed up by “I’m Really Important Back Home,” a 4-track EP released in 2011 with a more band-oriented approach. For this, Yared and Tabbal got a little help from some friends, including saxophonist Stephane Rives, keyboardist Vladimir Kurumilian, and drummer Malek Rizkallah of Scrambled Eggs and Who Killed Bruce Lee.
Their next step could be regarded as a sort of fusion of the two forms they have taken so far: “No Applause: The Incompetents Live at Tunefork” (2011) is The Incompetents’ first live album, recorded in Tabbal’s own Tunefork Studios. The lineup was once again whittled down to Yared and Tabbal, this time without the studio wizardry utilized on their debut release. The result: a collection of stripped down, minimal, sometimes altered on a whim, representations of past works: so pretty much, exactly like one of their live gigs.
That brings us to the band's latest release of their second studio album, “…Of Narcissism… and Minor Differences” (2012). This time around, the whole band is back. Yared and Tabbal joined forces once again with Rives, as well as newcomers Paed Conca and Maya Aghniadis, on bass and drums respectively.
The lyrics are a treat to read into because of how enigmatic they are. Love and relationships feature prominently as subjects, and there’s even some room for politics. When I say “love”, I am not referring to flowery ballads. There’s lamentation (It Could Happen to You), there’s heartbreak (This Gun for Hire), and there’s… love? (Breaking Point).
The one political song is “Stripped”, but there’s a twist here: “Stripped” is a vaguely political song detailing a list of essential humanistic elements that have been “stripped” away (home, dignity, family, etc.) However, despite that, there is still a sense of ambiguity to it, which doesn’t make it preachy, or even strictly political; it’s a matter of perception. The final track “Stripped (Exit)” is a reprise of the song, with an extra verse added in the beginning. In that verse, the elements recited are those of an individual (warmth, kindness, breath, etc.) Where the first version says “Stripped from my home” etc., the second says, “Stripped from your warmth” etc. So, it all comes full circle, and the song is revealed to cover the effects of political oppression on both the social and personal levels.
As usual, the beauty of the Incompetents’ sound lies in the bold variety of instrumentation. Harmonium, stylophone, banjo, you don’t hear those on the same album often do you?
A new feature found on this album is the instrumentals. The absence of lyrics left the band free to play around with instrumentation and structure, from the ethereal minimal electronic opener “Long Gone” to the raucous post-punk snippet that is “What Young Women Ought to Know”.
The band also flexes its compositional muscles with the alternating tones of a single song, for example, the semi-schizophrenic mood swings of “This Gun for Hire”.
There's one thing about the band that's produced a consistent love-hate attitude from audiences who listen to the Incompetents: Yared’s “unpolished” singing style. Some love it, others loathe it. He's certainly come a long way since “More Songs…”, where it wasn’t necessarily awful, but merely “raw”. It has been cooking for some time now, marinating in confidence and seasoned with experience. Despite that, Yared remains more of a treat for those with unconventional tastes. So does this entire album really…
Once again, The Incompetents fail miserably to live up to their namesake by putting out an album that successfully demonstrates their versatility and dynamism in a way that is their own. Maybe someday boys, maybe someday…
The Incompetents' latest album is available for purchase at the Beirut Art Center, Dar Bistro and Books, Chico Video shop and Music Now.
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