Release Date: May 21, 2013
Record label: Zoo
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Dirty BeachesDrifters/Love Is The Devil[Zoo Music; 2013]By Zachary Corsa; June 14, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG"I don't care about pleasing your expectations. I was crying my fucking eyes out when I wrote this and punching myself in the face. This is why I'm doing this record. It's for myself and my life." So wrote an impassioned Alex Hungtai, in response to a disgruntled YouTube commenter who took issue with his gorgeously flowing instrumental "Love is The Devil" when the track surfaced last winter.
Alex Zhang Hungtai of Dirty Beaches isn't shy about his influences. A year after 2011's breakthrough Badlands elicited comparisons to retro-damaged ancestors Suicide, he released a recording of an improv-heavy performance in Norway that featured a "loose adaptation" of Suicide's "Ghost Rider". Earlier this year, Hungtai shared the title track to the second disc of his new double-album, Drifters/Love Is the Devil, accompanied with a quote attributed to wastrel poet and professed inspiration Charles Bukowski: "Love is a fog that burns with the first daylight of reality." And the YouTube account used to host the song was an abused portmanteau of Chinese director Wong Kar-wai's name.
The double album Drifters/Love Is the Devil is Alex Zhang Hungtai’s cathartic response to 2011’s cinematic Badlands. The somber man behind the Dirty Beaches moniker, Hungtai has mastered the shadowed soundscape. You can almost see the cigarette smoke hanging in the air with the leather jacket bravado of “I Dream In Neon.” His growl is the centerpiece of the records, traveling to the very baritone depths paved by Jim Morrison with a gasping immediacy accentuated on tracks including “Casino Lisboa” and “Aurevoir mon visage” (translation: “Farewell, my face”).
It’s a generally unspoken but well understood fact that the more of yourself you put into your art, the harder it can be to handle even the slightest bit of criticism. Alex Zhang Hungtai, the sole member of lo-fi recording project Dirty Beaches, set the standard for this recently after erupting towards a disapproving YouTube comment for album single Love Is the Devil, a sparse instrumental featuring little more than some forlorn synthesized viola. “I was crying my fucking eyes out when I wrote this and punching myself in the face,” Hungtai replied back, claiming that the album was written for him and has no desire to fulfill anyone’s expectations.
Dirty Beaches, or Alex Zhang Hungtai, is accustomed to pulling away. Those who thought Hungtai would release something more normative, sellable, and digestible for his sophomore statement have never known a true physical and psychological nomad. But then, how am I, the reviewer, supposed to speak concisely and effectively about an album that intentionally avoids concision and effectuality? At under 27 minutes, I never felt cheated by the length of Hungtai’s last proper album, Badlands: it created a world in those minutes memorable enough to sustain itself well beyond side B’s locked-groove.
This release isn't a double album in the traditional, White Album or The Wall sense of the term. Rather, it's comprised of two entirely separate LPs that share a jacket for purely practical purposes. Of the two, Drifters is more likely to illicit comparisons to Dirty Beaches' 2010 breakthrough, Badlands, as its taut bass lines and drum loops provide a hypnotically repetitive foundation for reverb-swathed croons and squalling guitar muck.
Frankly, it’s hard to grasp exactly how to listen to electronic act Dirty Beaches’ latest LP Drifters/Love Is The Devil. But maybe that’s the point. And really, it doesn’t matter. In the two years since Badlands, his rockabilly-obsessed debut LP as Dirty Beaches, Taiwan-born, Canadian native Alex Zhang Hungtai has traversed the globe, working through existential crises in Berlin, thinking about death on the Danube, catching the lights in Paris, and so on.
1 of 2 2 of 2 Dirty Beaches' 2011 LP, Badlands, broke through with an arresting aesthetic - 50s rockabilly put through a grainy lo-fi filter. But clocking in at under 30 minutes, its style more memorable than its songs, it felt slight. Drifters/Love Is The Devil, Alex Zhang Hungtai's new double album, does not. The Taiwan-born Canadian composed the album while drifting between Montreal, Berlin, Belgrade and Paris, and it echoes that feeling of displacement.
Two years ago, Alex Hungtai (a.k.a. Dirty Beaches) still had a day job. Last month, he was touring Russia and Europe and Southeast Asia in advance of the release of an ambitious double-album set. That’s a remarkable shift in status in just two years, and it would be a proud accomplishment for nearly any performer, but for a purveyor of sounds as uncompromising and intense as Dirty Beaches’, it’s all the more notable.
Last time round, Dirty Beaches was looking out across the states. His breakout record Badlands was a brief 27-minute detour through the dark underbelly of Americana, littered with reference points that suggested someone deeply intimate with the subject. The title evoked the double-denimed menace of Martin Sheen in the Terrence Malick film of the same name.
Reflected in the titles of his albums and globetrotting songs – and even the stage name Dirty Beaches – is the strong sense of place and atmosphere Alex Zhang Hungtai evokes in his music, conjuring up visions of paradise after the fall as a setting for his snapshots of love gone wrong and bad. Born in Taipei, growing up in Honolulu and Canada, recording in Montreal and Berlin, Hungtai seems most at home when he’s not at home, a feeling that definitely stood out on Dirty Beaches’ striking debut Badlands, which worked like a mixtape of reconstructed old-timey rock ‘n’ roll for a road trip to an alternate reality. On the ambitious, enigmatic double EP Drifters/Love Is the Devil, Hungtai has swapped out the open road for a more urban backdrop with an ominous experimental sound that’s coated in the scuzz and grime of big city streets.
Along with numerous singles and limited-edition releases, Dirty Beaches' Alex Zhang Hungtai released the score to the documentary Water Park between two of his more widely released albums, Badlands and Drifters/Love Is the Devil. Given his flair and fondness for atmosphere, it's no surprise that Hungtai branched out into film music, nor is it a surprise that this filmic feel also permeates Drifters/Love Is the Devil. A generous 75-minute double album, the set blends Dirty Beaches' growing ambitions with the project's spooky, lo-fi rock roots.
Roald Dahl once said 'Never do anything by halves'. Whether Alex Zhang Hungtai is a fan of the Welsh author is unknown, but he's certainly taken the old adage at its most literal if the dual combination of Drifters/Love Is The Devil are anything to go by. Already regarded as one of the most prolific writers and musicians in the current climate - having put out a staggering 25 releases in just five years - Canadian Hungtai aka Dirty Beaches has somehow managed to go the extra mile here.
Vancouver-based Alex Zhang Hungtai has focused on the cinematic side of his Dirty Beaches project on this double album. First half ‘Drifters’ is action packed. ‘I Dream In Neon’ is a dangerous-sounding minimal take on glam-rock with filtered vocals and starlight twinkles, while ‘Belgrade’’s throbs sound like a car chase from a twisted Guinness advert.
Alex Zhang Hungtai sounds like a broken man. Maybe he’s been betrayed one too many times. Maybe he sits in the dark a lot. “Greyhound at Night”, “Alone at the Danube River” — even the song titles reflect solitude. His lyrics are often unintelligible, obscured by a haze of tape hiss and ….
Listening to a Dirty Beaches album is the aural equivalent of bloodletting. The musical catharsis one felt during Alex Zhang Hungtai's breakout album, 2011's Badlands, was entrancing and deeply meditative. Odd strains of 1950s Americana still course through the Taiwan-born Canadian immigrant's work. David Lynch films, early rockabilly, the minimal punk of Suicide, and lo-fi ambience return in mutated forms on the epic musical travelogue Drifters/Love is the Devil.
‘Drifters / Love Is The Devil’ is a bit like life. It’s long. At times it seems to bob around aimlessly. There are moments of chin-jutting audacity and moments of soul-crushing despair. And then, when the end arrives, you look back and wonder if it was supposed to make more sense.If Dirty ….