Back in 2008, it seemed that Alex Zhang Hungtai’s – a.k.a. Dirty Beaches – music was destined to be heard by only the most devoted of fans (really outside of Said the Gramophone, herohill & Weird Canada, his sound collages seemed to be lost in the quagmire). Admittedly, that had less to do with the musical creativity and talent he displayed on his tape recorded EP and debut LP, as both were somehow unassuming and still completely engaging, and more to due with the fact he penned tracks as a traveler moving undetected amongst the crowd or as a sonic experiment driven by fear.
All things considered, seeing the internet band together to sing his praises months before the release of Badlands is rather shocking. That praise however, is well warranted and largely due to a shift in sound Hungtai has revealed on his latest 7″ releases (and even as a part of the amazing Master Chef). Alex has adopted an alter-ego; the lo-fi sound collages and conversation loops have been abandoned for haunting, film noir soundtracks, reverb soaked vocals, rockabilly chords and enough hip shaking melodies to make Elvis blush (just check “Sweet 17″). Alex has stepped out from the faceless crowd and developed a swagger that helps give these well-constructed, minimal compositions the charisma and grit that seemed to ooze out of 50′s greasers and their muscle cars.
Alex moves between dark noise experiments, ominous yelps and touching crooning over this all-too-brief LP, but maintains cohesiveness by filtering each song through his own unique lens. I refuse to lump him into the lo-fi movement that is dominating indie-rock, because like a chef deconstructing recipes, Alex removes any unnecessary note, layer or effect ensuring only the sounds he wants you to hear are showcased. In lesser hands, echo-heavy riffs and droning sound experiments (“Black Nylon” and “Hotel” are brooding numbers that finish the LP on a darker, suspenseful note) might sound a little one-note, but with tape-noise and a complete understanding of the sounds he wants to incorporate, he adds nuance and depth to each composition.
What really helps Alex stand out is the strong structure he exposes in the middle third of this record. Tracks like “True Blue” and the sample laden “Lord Knows Best” would still sound fantastic with every rough edge buffed until they shine, and although he makes the smart decision to never abandon the hook, Hungtai’s creative distortions make the beautiful songs captivating and lasting. Even the infectious, twangy beach ready hook “A Hundred Highways”, is skillful transformed over the last two minutes, turning the sunny skies into a dark, cloudy, swirling storm and proving why Badlands is a record that needs to be heard. Without a doubt, this will be on my Polaris ballot, close to the top.
MP3:: Dirty Beaches – Sweet 17