Dirty Beaches Dirty BeachesBadlands
Since he was born in Taipei thirty years ago, Alex Zhang Hungtai has lived almost like a nomad, living in Asia, Canada, the United States and Hawaii. Rootless, without a real home to go back to, to exorcise the demons that don’t allow him to feel like he is from anywhere, he chose to take hold of some of the deepest roots of music and milk the rock & roll of the fifties, creating a sound especially aimed at those who feel as alienated as he does. With his Dirty Beaches solo project, Hungtai mixes elements of fiction with some pieces from the biography of the rockabilly biker his dad used to be, heavily influenced by the out-of-place character of the beat generation. His music has a strong filmic component. The man himself says he sees his music as a film and that he interacts with sound as if it were an actor. The result on this, his best work to date, is a kind of soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist but should be directed by Wong Kar-Wai or David Lynch, two directors who inspire him like no other. Hungtai claims that “Wild At Heart”, “Blue Velvet” and “Lost Highway” helped him tell the tale on “Badlands”: “an abstract narrative about someone that's been possessed by the road.”
Apart from the misty atmospheres in his sound, it’s that narrative that makes this unexpected revelation one of the most pleasant surprises of this year, because, apart from the form, there’s more to Dirty Beaches than meets the eye. A kind of summary of Hungtai’s trajectory to date, on “Badlands” the best elements from his singles, EPs, cassettes and bootlegs come together. Its seven songs, asphyxiating and uncomfortable, are trapped in some examples so explicit that they can’t escape themselves. However, the way the rewrite the tradition of the fifties, with favourites Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Link Wray and Johnny Cash present at all times, they trap you like a carnivorous plant. “Badlands” sounds unusual, erotic and painful, burying ghostly sexy voices under drum samples and tons of fat, much like Suicide and The Cramps did, back in the day.
“Speedway King” opens the record with “the ghost of the Cadillac king” warming up motors on the asphalt, and together with “Horses” and “Sweet 17” it forms an opening trio that attacks psychobilly exactly like Alan Vega used to do. They’re followed by two exquisite ballads that change the point of view: “True Blue” is like Roy Orbison up to his neck in the water and the beautiful “Lord Knows Best”, that has a French sound to it, is the best example of Hungtai as a lyricist rather than a stylist. The short (26 minutes) album closes with two instrumental pieces in the vein of his previous album “Horror”: “Black Nylon” sounds like Julian Lynch shitting himself with fear before entering a “Hotel” where the shadows dance in the quiet hallways. The structure of the tracklist is crystal-clear and emphasises the poetic character of the album. Because Dirty Beaches hasn’t yet opened up completely as a total project; he simply presents a voice experimenting in a field he has yet to get to know. Like Tom Krell ( How To Dress Well), with whom he shares the vision of a carnal voyeur, Hungtai assures that he records this way, capturing everything on tape by himself, because he has no money to do otherwise, but he claims he wants to form a band with his best friends, to open up to dub and dance, and have the money to hire a proper studio. “I think Dirty Beaches’ stuff works because it’s trying to recall a psychological landscape from the past. It has that punk flyer ‘photocopy of a photocopy’ feel. That works, but it’s not something I would want to keep doing if labels could give me more funding,” he said in an interview, and that’s what the finest labels on the indie scene have heard. Now the offers are coming in and he just has to choose.