Dirty Beaches, Outro Mundo & Where Dead Voices Gather Last Night at The Trunk Space

Dirty Beaches, Outro Mundo, Where Dead Voices Gather
The Trunk Space
Friday, April, 29 2011

My favorite review of Dirty Beaches' latest LP, Badlands, is also the most negative one I've read. In a review for Dusted Magazine, Doug Mosurock states:

So, the '50s sucked, right? They sucked pretty hard as a decade, and we're nostalgic about them solely because of the Greatest Generation's commitment to framing every piece of shit they ever laid as some sort of cherished momento of the way things used to be...Alex Zhang Hungtai straps on a guitar (maybe) and croons like Alan Vega on top of asymmetrical, cloying samples of '50s and early '60s greaser pop crap. The songs can't go anywhere due to the length of the loops and the conceit of assembling them, so Huifang hisses over the "music" in this hiccuping, Fonzi-fied affectation that is one of the most blatant and unoriginal guises to come down yet in our lazy, near-sighted approximation of what we construe as challenging or worthwhile music in 2011.

Now don't misread me. I don't agree with Mosurock's --in fact, I think Badlands might be my favorite album of the year. It's just that I see where he's coming from: Is this some obnoxious hipster trend? Are we really listening to 50's style rockabilly in 2011?

The answer is yes. And no. The music of Alex Zhang Hungtai, under the names Dirty Beaches, does cling to the melodies and pathos of greaser youth culture, but it does it the same way David Lynch does in his films, deconstructing it down to the bone, and rebuilding it in a captivating, frightening way.

If the three bands that played Trunk Space last night had anything in common, it was a communal sense of mystery.

Openers Outro Mundo accomplished it through sheer volume. It was hard to tell what was going on, but I could vaguely discern the pleasant pop melodies under their grinding, distorted blowout, and I'm fairly certain that would they were doing was rad. I just could barely tell what it was, though it's hard to imagine the band doesn't like it that way.

Where Dead Voices Gather, the latest boutique project from downtown DJ/drummer Shane Kennedy, featured Turn Back O Man singer Daryl Scariot, Lauren Farrah, Rick Heins and Jess Pruitt. There's only one problem with the band: they are too good to quit playing. After a scant few shows, Kennedy is disbanding the current project to focus on Swell Adios with Farrah. The band's gospel-noir take on "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" and "True Religion" were taut exercises in restraint and melody. It's a real shame to see them go.

When I interviewed Dirty Beaches, I asked him about playing with a band vs playing solo. Watching him last night, I understood the theatrical approach he takes to playing by himself.

Slicking his hair back and cradling a mic and a white Fender Stratocaster, he howled, yelped and screamed over minimal backing tracks, using the guitar to occasionally create snippets of melody, but more often to coax reverberating swaths of noise from his amplifier.

Tracks from Badlands like the Suicide-inspired "Sweet 17" and "Hundred Highways" where met by older tunes, and a cover of Portland band Mattress' song "El Dorado."

Zhang Hungtai seemed genuinely surprised when the crowd (packed, by the way-- apparently endless internet buzz will do stuff like that) cheered for an encore as he finished "Lord Knows Best." He played one more, my favorite track, "True Blue."

"True Blue" may go the farthest in confirming what I quoted from Mosurock earlier. It's a sentimental, Roy Orbison style ballad, but Zhang Hungtai doesn't play it too straight, adding in a harsh edge to the soulful tune.

What Zhang Hungtai does is as much performance art as music, and in recreating a character based on his father's rockabilly, Zhang Hungtai achieves an interesting synthesis, marrying the golden melodies of an imagined past to the distorted, clanging sound of the present. Even when it gets schmaltzy, it never stops being good, and never stops sounding like the work of someone who's too far away to get caught up in the retro-act of looking back on anything for very long.

Critics Notebook

Last Night:
Dirty Beaches, Outro Mundo and Where Dead Voices Gather

Personal Bias:
I avoided Dirty Beaches for awhile, confusing their name with the glut of similarly titled "beach-bum" garage rockers.

The crowd: A nice mix of art kids, scenesters and the curious.