Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Dirty Beaches and the Fine Virtuosity of Theft

After this, Douglas Martin is instituting a moratorium on beach bands. My friend Conor just sent me a quote from Jim Jarmusch, and it kind of embodies the ethics and attitude behind my work and...
By    March 23, 2011

After this, Douglas Martin is instituting a moratorium on beach bands.

My friend Conor just sent me a quote from Jim Jarmusch, and it kind of embodies the ethics and attitude behind my work and beyond. There are no rules and no right way to do things, you do your best and hustle your shit out there. Listen to some golden words of wisdom right here, mang:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”

The preceding is courtesy of Dirty Beaches impresario Alex Zhang-Hungtai, written on his blog back in December. The concept of originality is a loaded subject; if you’re turning over the proverbial furniture of the music world in 2011 looking for something fresh and prescient and truly creative, chances are you’ve only come up with handfuls of lint and a dime with a glob of bubblegum stuck to it. The ratio is staggering: for every Shabazz Palaces, there are three or four groups like Yuck, content to rehash sounds from an era they were barely alive to see, in ways that you‘ve heard at least two or three times before. But then again, which bands you enjoy all depend on the aesthetics you’re into, what aesthetic you’ve patterned your own after. What you pretend to be is eventually what you will become.

The first thing you need to know about Badlands, Dirty Beaches’ debut full-length, is that it’s deeply inspired by the movie of the same name. But it’s more based on the feel of the movie than the content; it’s more Martin Sheen in a leather jacket and a 1959 Cadillac than a collection of songs about a teenager and her 25-year-old boyfriend going on a killing spree. Rockabilly is cited, David Lynch is name-dropped. As the barrel of music genres still holding fresh water become emptier and emptier, more and more indie musicians– most of them living in the Bay Area– have been turning to the aboriginal days of rock music as their chief inspiration. The Taiwan-born, Montreal-based Zhang-Hungtai not only sees this as fertile territory to build a sound, but as a way to reconcile his past by creating a version of the music his father used to listen to.

All of this would equate to shallow nostalgia if it weren’t for the way Zhang-Hungtai dives headfirst into his songs. Opening with droning opening track “Speedway King,” he conjures the image of a man having a nervous breakdown, completely wrecked over guitars so dissonant they border on atonal. Upon my first listen of the album, this track carried the metallic reverb and unhinged lunacy of David Byrne falling down a bottomless garbage incinerator.

On a broader scale, this and freewheeling, driving “Sweet 17” have been favorably compared to Suicide, due to the way the cracked vocal stylings on these tracks sound a great deal like those of Alan Vega’s whoops and screams. But while the 50’s-influenced synth-punk of Suicide’s first self-titled album was eons ahead of its time in the late-70’s and is still oddly progressive by 2011 standards, “Speedway King” and “Sweet 17” sounds like the duo in an alternate reality, recorded on the cheap in an airplane hangar with conventional rock instruments. The other thing that Zhang-Hungtai does well in relation to Suicide is share their love for hypnotic repetition; with exception to outbursts of whirring summoned from his six-string (and the synth wandering of instrumental “Black Nylon”), the songs here are delivered in two- and four-bar loops. It’s easy to paint a picture of the wayfaring open road when your song “structures” are so blatantly uncomplicated.

Badlands is divided into two halves, and these halves are separated by the shuffling, Roy Orbison-like “A Hundred Highways”. This particular song is bisected as well; the first half finds Zhang-Hungtai delivering an irresistible croon (something you will later find out that he’s really good at), while the second half is split open by a spate of ear-splitting noise. After the cacophony is brought to an abrupt halt, you are led to the gorgeous section of the album. Starting with “True Blue,” Zhang-Hungtai employs that low croon of his again to great effect, eliciting genuine yearning by the time he gets to the end of the first verse and employing a halfway-crazed falsetto during the chorus. An earworm of a piano line and huge synth chords carry “Lord Knows Best,” where his AM Gold vocals are at their most romantic, cantillating, “The Lord knows best that I don’t give a damn/About anything but you.”

The final two tracks are instrumental mood pieces, reminiscent of the car on the highway running out of gas, the cops catching up to the runaways and having a standoff, and the imminent execution, all in slow motion. The pacing of Badlands is definitely one that goes from whirling daze to a slow crawl, and just like the movie, you have to give it your undivided attention to fully absorb its charms. The routine of pilfering art from the past is quite obviously something that will remain a part of music for as long as it’s around. The trick is injecting bits and pieces from other places, as well as your own personality. On Badlands, Alex Zhang-Hungtai does exactly that, creating a stirring, relentlessly intriguing full-length in the process. Artistic thievery is a subject likely to spark a lot of debate, but if you steal something and pretend it’s yours for long enough,  it eventually does become a possession of your own.

MP3: Dirty Beaches-“Sweet 17”
MP3: Dirty Beaches-“True Blue”

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