A Dirty Beach seen through Microfiche
by Domenic Maltempi
I will not start off this article making a joke that has British Petroleum paying me thousands of quid to write about a relatively obscure artist going by the name ‘Dirty Beaches.' The idea did provide some much needed laughter as I hit the jelly-brain mark in a thicket of traffic trying to get out of the borough of Queens. Although I do wonder what forms the future of green-washing and corporate damage control in the extractive industries will take: I leave that for another writer. Instead, I will take a few steps into the strange, sticky, and sometimes sinking terrain of this artists work. It has something of the faux-minatory about it, an accidental drop of blood on a single scoop of iced cream. Under the boardwalk, filthy fingers enter my eyes; staccato pokes from a diseased drum machine take me to that space the artist invents. We don't have to be under the boardwalk. We could be in a smoky arcade on Alpha 7B, but the Dirty Beaches do have a peculiar granularity that makes the name more apt than most. Sometimes a duo, Dirty Beaches is primarily the work of Alex Zhang Hungtai. He's lived in many places (including Queens). This constant journeying is a pertinent point as you begin to make your own foray into his sound. It is a sound that includes the thrill and curious monotony of peregrinations both desired and hopelessly necessitated by in internal and external force. I will be touching on the two full-length releases: Badlands (2011), and the recent double album Drifters/Love is the Devil (2013).
Its Cleveland 1978, "Life Stinks"-- by Pere Ubu--- ricochets from a squalid….. No, it's 1985. The band Asylum Party is playing in your head. You're passed out standing up, leaning on a tottering book-case in Courbevoie, France. The denuded and pointedly emotional sounds festoon around each other sending one into dreamy orbit. Or it might as well be 2013 in Berlin sometime. It is! Hello Berlin! Dirty Beaches have released Drifters/Love is the Devil. This was recorded in Montreal, and Berlin. Berlin is Hungtai's new home.
The "Drifters" portion of the record reaches out to a listener, rather than walking quickly away with an enticing glance at one's face before doing so. It shows a little raw skin, keeping one's ear close, head moving about a bit--- but not richly swallowed up in what is to come on the second half of the album. There is more movement in the synths, exposed flesh in the cool oscillating pressures that push around a track such as the almost danceable Belgrade. The first tune "Night Walk," is strong, playfully-ribald, crepitating, viscerally metallic-- stomping not always so seriously into that tenebrous stretch of the 24 hour cycle. There is a layer of night walking in almost all the recorded songs that live together on this latest release. The albums are not constructed loosely, or lazily stitched together, although a low-fidelity sound might cause a listener to ignore or challenge those claims.
The songs on Drifters/Love is the Devil-- are intensely personal, and share the same conceptual blood. I couldn't stop their procession once I began listening. It was tough to tune out once the carousel got spinning and bobbing. A sensation formed of being led to a quiet screening room where the sounds were presented visually, strongly inscribing themselves as a unitary creature wandering a unique shifting landscape, at turns painfully enshrouded in minimal murk, and quietly brimming with pulchritude. The artist was/is dealing with the loss of love. That harsh loss accompanied, him, drove him, sat in the saddle of the tone.
Badlands is far from the peculiar out-pouring of pain and anger that can be ascribed to its younger brother double album. Its creative impetus is not whipped into agency by an emotionally violent push to be on one's itinerant way again as the work of making music is being done. Badlands has been lambasted by some critics and fans as a poor man's Suicide (the band) -- a lame sample based appropriation of Americana sounds from the post WW2 gee-whiz---Leave it in the Beaver era. Others have given the album kudos for the way it soaked in certain cultural fluids of this period, and distilled a sound from it as tight in its construction as it is amorphous in texture, heavy with shadow.
There is a crooning going on in the washy vocals, but nothing that screamed like playing rockabilly, or some such fraud-frolicking, which one might find stunty. There is also the same 1st nuclear age deranged slow drag percussive burn and stroll in a song like Badland's opener "Speedway King," as one will later find in so much of the 2013 record. The artist shot and directed a video for the aforementioned song. In it, one might be able to gather more about the aesthetic of Alex Hungtai, who is highly inspired by the film-work of (among others) Wong Kar-Wai, an auteur from Hong Kong whose films (including In the Mood For Love) frequently feature protagonists who yearn for romance in the midst of a knowingly brief life. Brief life indeed, speed on in the dark of it while the carnival pitches its tents, and unpacks its cheap prizes that you might give to someone you love, which holds onto it for an unreasonable amount of time, flimsy stitches, and peeling stuffed animals tongues revered till disintegration time.
The black and white video is rife with images of that type of well-known greaser goody/baddy ‘50's romance split. So yes, Badlands is playing around with 50's era apple pie chewed in the alien's mouth theme, but is not reducible to that. One might just find roller-coasters, fuzzy people eating upside down pussy, surface domestic bliss, astronaut mind detective effluvia, 10 cent electric chair rides for freedom, and oh so much driving around in the black buzzing heart of the night through an endless road paved with rock ‘n' roll. The artist goes beyond the coating of some of the inside-out--sunny domestic/alien-dark qualities of that era that sticks to its sonic shape and gives it body. He creates these records using a cinematic process, or perhaps vision- some sort of cinematic way of bringing it together. It is palpable in the flow of the songs, and albums. Although necessarily bereft of direct images moving thematically, one might find themselves as I did--processing the sounds and connecting tissue of the works as so many long shots and unsettling close-ups, as an unreeling display of coherent themes that take on a cinematic revealing and enclosing.
‘The sound is the leading man' the artist tells an interviewer at WFMU radio. The albums are imagined as a film, the aesthetic supplies the uniquely shaped contours, the frame, the speed, the lights, the mood, the rooms, and so forth that the sound travels through. Perhaps that sound, that leading man is a lost note wondering if it's possible to get back to the score he was written into. The note is nervous, maybe shadowed by gorgeous killers and going flat, disheveled after days on the run, wondering about that fermata he fucked for too long-- ugly stubble growing on the staff of the missing note as it leans wounded after being shot by love or something else entirely. Maybe the score can go to hell, and he will evaporate into his disjointed travail with some sort of pleasure.
The leading man, the sound, it wanders sluggishly, strongly, not giving a damn about anything at times, much as the line has it, delivered with desert-night coldness in a song like Badland's "Lord Knows Best." The leading man, the sound is repeating his exile routine through ever expanding and changing landscapes. So easy to feel gassed up listening to these tunes, and then hitchhiking away from it, not even aware your thumbs still in the air.
It's interesting to note that the artist was also inspired to make his latest album upon finding out his father performed as a doo-wop singer in Communist China during its really Red days. If one's need for satisfaction as a listener pins itself on some sort of possible unadulterated earnestness, my guess is that the artist is not just dicking around, or playing lifestyle musician imposter. This music is deeply felt, if sometimes over etherized in sound or cinematic long-blue-breathing. It comes out visceral, twisted from a drag through various baths of fire. Smoke gets in your hair. Unlike other writers who have considered Dirty Beaches either cheaply imitative, or half-trick-pony Lo-Fi sample pokers with little to offer in originality, I'm unfamiliar, and not interested in comparing the approach to bands of the past or present who did ‘it' better. I don't find the recording quality such an enervating factor. There is something unique about what the band has to offer.
"I don't know how to find my way back to you," breathes the deep red gelid air of Count Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian Noblemen and madrigalist of the late 16th Century, who murdered his cuckolding wife and lover after he caught them in flagrante delicto late at night when they thought he would be away. Carlo knew what was up, and he took revenge. This track found on Drifters/Love is the Devil may not be possessed by the same, at times shockingly chromatic passages, sung with equal voices soaring dissonantly higher into space, and experimentally shaking the firmament sick. It does share a peculiar slow tempo that radiates out a wide flowing agony, heart stung with lashing and longing, other-worldly clam and terror---bridging to who knows where else. It is the track that feels like the central bridge between the two albums, a dissonant nexus.
"Sweet 17" comes off as lower-key Oh Sees, as played on a new planet. Pink bras and leather jackets whipping around smashing juke boxes be damned. An Ace-Tone delivery system paints Alex's vocals with a sonic chiaroscuro worthy of Caravaggio. The latter painter was constantly on the run, from Naples, to Malta, to Sicily, painting all the way. His paintings reached an apogee of despair and darkness during that time of intense personal trauma and fear. I'm not trying to make any quasi profound connection between these two, but the strong pull of light versus dark, and the sort of homelessness shared between these two individuals separated by so much time and much else, appealed to me as I listened to a live Dirty Beaches set that had the tune Neon Gods run right into the song "Funeral Strippers."
I admit it, I have these darkly imagined historical ‘Italian' types running in my head lately. I'm a bit of a slave to them. They trespass into my thinking as I hear these songs, or stare into space numb-free, wondering what to make of Dirty Beaches. But hey, as Melville has it in Moby Dick: "Who ain't a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about--however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way-- either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content."
The song "Berlin" closes Love is the Devil. The hardly dressed tune watches itself from a high-altitude, recrudescing together again on a small tight patch of jagged air-land. The air is thin and ennobling. The song is not of one thing. Though steady, and as grave as a funerary procession, repeating a trembling but becalming phrase; one can feel the splintering pieces of it, directed and held by a coruscating point of sound that is always moving just as much as is needed to keep the shape of the tune moving with purpose. Perhaps ones equanimity can be recaptured again, perhaps not. Perhaps this will be a continuing theme in the work of the artist. It is night and somewhere north of forlorn in relation to the rest of the latter half of the double album. There is wandering, and this spreading floor of wander is strewn with exilic objects casting long shadows. "Berlin" blends with crickets and true katydids well in its 7 minutes and 37 seconds. I leave you with a few facts about Katydids.
- In a Common True Katydid chorus, large numbers of singers may synchronize their calls, filling the woods with a resounding ocean of sound.
- Although Common True Katydids normally sing only at night, as the weather cools late in the season, scattered singers may be heard calling slowly during the day.
- Adults are first heard calling in June in Florida and in July farther north; singing ends in October.
Domenic Maltempi is a performer and writer living in NY
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