Neon dreams on neon streets

imagesJust noticing something rather strange happening to…

Dirty Beaches

Dirty Beaches is the stage name of a Taiwanese/Canadian multi-instrumentalist called Alex Zhang Hungtai whose first widely-available LP, Badlands, was released in 2011 and was generally lauded by the people who know. I’m not sure I actually, er, lauded it, as such, on these pages but I did certainly buy it. A pretty enjoyable reverb-heavy, Suicide-obsessed record it was too.

The follow up, last year’s Drifters/Love Is The Devil, was a double album and a genuine one at that, the Drifters “side” being recorded in Montreal, and (after a relationship breakdown) the Love Is The Devil section in Berlin, with Hungtai having dismissed the rest of the musicians and recorded it during evenings alone. Two quite different projects.

The second of the two sets is almost completely instrumental, stripped back and beatless, and rather over-shadows the first, being very different to the Dirty Beaches “sound”. All in all I remember being left a little cold about the whole affair. Well, the “something strange” I alluded to is that Hungtai has recently announced the retirement of the Dirty Beaches name altogether, through Twitter and on his Blog:

“I know its not the smartest move…and a painful one as well.  But sometimes, you need to let go in order to grow and move on.  I wanna thank my family, my friends, all past DB contributors for their help and friendship.  It’s been a fun and crazy ride…RIP DIRTY BEACHES 2005-2014. Can’t wait for what the unknown holds ahead.”

To go with this announcement there’s a final 4-track EP which is again all instrumental, largely ambient and seems even more devoid of musical clutter than the (hardly muddled) Love Is The Devil record. The titles of the four tracks are disturbingly informative – “Displaced”, “Stateless”, “Pacific Ocean” and “Time Washes Away Everything” – and indicate something of a personal crisis going on. In the blurb for the new EP, Emusic suggest the image of a man gradually shedding himself of everything and wading out to sea, which I think is quite appropriate (although to anyone of a certain age, it’s hard to shake off the image of Leonard Rossiter on Chesil Beach…)

All this seems a shame, really, as I’ve recently started listening to Drifters/Love Is The Devil again and rather enjoying its dark, satanic twists and turns. It’s funny (although perhaps not surprising) how a different perspective allows you to enjoy a record in an entirely different way. If you’re looking for another rockabilly, Vega-style Badlands record, as I was, you’ll find some pretty exhilarating passages still, such as the confident strut of “I Dream in Neon” and the relentless Bo Diddley beat of Casino Lisboa, but in the end you might be disappointed…

 

But if, say, you’ve just spent the last couple of months reading about Krautrock, it’s easy to put on your Rother / Eno goggles, and suddenly it’s an entirely different affair…

(This, by the way, worries me. What about the other records I have dismissed in high-handed fashion, confidently predicting their demise? What about the records I’ve slagged off, completely out of hand? Worse, does these mean I need to go and give Boards of Canada another try?)

The more satisfying tracks of D/LITD (I don’t care, I’m doing it…) are, now I’m tuning in better, definitely on the second half of the record. Harsh and inarticulate they may be, but the more you listen to them the more compelling they become. Tracks like “Belgrade” with its jarring sheets of metallic sound encircling you; “Woman”, its automated squeaks and squawks overpowering a series of tentative piano pieces; and “Mirage Hall”, its thunderous tensions and stresses eventually erupting into a stream of unintelligible Spanish expletives (even after it had seemingly come to a halt once – “… and another thing!”). And there are many more moments of arcane trickery to keep a normally limited attention span intrigued and fascinated.

Here’s a rather fine 15 minute clip of Dirty Beaches in Paris last December which gives you a pretty good flavour of the record, in which he appears to be playing a piece of sheet metal. It eventually leads into Nightwalk from Drifters.

 

In all of this troubling abstractness, there are tantalising shreds of meaning and clues that cry out to be solved but, as with much of the Krautrock stuff, you can quickly start to look pretty silly assuming one thing implies another. It’s best to sit back, try not to grip the arms of the chair and let it all come on…

What is certainly undeniable, though, is that from the relative breathless (and breathy) calm of Drifters, many, many wheels are definitely starting to come off as the listener moves into Love Is The Devil. By the time you reach my favourite track, “Alone at the Danube River”, there is an unambiguous sorrow within the music. By now, the Hungtai yard sale has got rid of pretty much the lot – a plaintive guitar, drenched in clumsy feedback, is all that is left. There are no rhythms, no effects, and no warmth at all until around the 5:00 mark when an unexpected burst of Eno-esque sunshine floods over the guitar all but washing it away for good.

A lonely, chilling, attractive record… What is to become of Alex Zhang Hungtai?

 

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