Review By Brian Werner, Photos By Ryan Kelly
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Badlands. It’s a type of terrain, most famously located near the Black Hills of Western South Dakota, which does a very nice job of living up to its quite literal name. Full of jagged, sandy cliffs with sharp shelves that fall into deep ravines and profound canyons, surrounded by prairie grasslands, it evokes a sense of loneliness in its deathly setting and remote location. It is in that loneliness and distance, combined with the contrasts between being a place designated as one of fifty-nine National Parks that still the Lakota felt necessary to call “Bad Lands,” that partially explains why it has served as a powerful metaphor in music and film.
I open with a geography lesson, in part, because the mastermind behind Dirty Beaches, Alex Zhang Hungtai, much like a Springsteen song or a short-lived spin-off band formed by Ozzy guitarist Jake Lee, named a piece of his art, his first full length LP, Badlands. In one word it aptly summarized and described the collection of eight songs contained within. Take one look at the accompanying cover art and you’d immediately get a sense of what Hungtai was trying to do. His slow baritone crooning over rockabilly loops felt like a Mountain Standard Time imitation of Elvis Presley – pomade and all. The overblown nostalgia was a conscious decision and even Hungtai admitted in an interview with Pitchfork, “…that’s a fucking character I made up.”
To me, it sounded like a soundtrack meant to back driving across the great plain of Nebraska toward Denver with Sal Paradise in a beat-up jalopy Ford. Like its namesake, it sounded gritty, rough, isolated and straight out of an earlier time period. It, along with stand out tracks like “Lord Knows Best” and “Sweet 17,” captured my attention as something unlike anything else I was listening to back in 2011.
However, much like the row crop farmer attempting to plant and cultivate corn or soybeans in the Badlands, if you came to Rock & Roll Hotel on Sunday night expecting to hear selections from the album of the same name, you would have been severely disappointed. For on August 31st, Hungtai wrote in his blog describing his current US tour, “Expect lots of drone and instrumentals, along with songs from Drifters/LITD. No songs from badlands. Over it. Done.” And show-goers were treated to exactly that – the entirety of his fantastic new album Drifters, often preceded by long droning instrumental openings. And while Badlands initially brought me to Dirty Beaches, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Dirty Beaches new double album, Drifters/Love Is the Devil, is most certainly less accessible, which I suppose is ironic in that his first major work was named after a place that is hundreds of miles from any major metropolitan area. Whereas Badlands was Hungtai’s conscious effort to create a persona and an aesthetic, Drifters feels more like his attempt to separate himself from that 1950’s pastiche.
Meanwhile, in certain parts of the internet and amongst ardent fans of Badlands, the consternation has been evident and the reception cool, especially toward the instrumental Love Is the Devil. The story of angry Internet commenters and negative fan reaction to ‘difficult’ follow-up albums is a story that has been told many times. In this case, I don’t necessarily understand it.
With hope for cooler fall weather, Hungtai emerged wearing a navy peacoat and opened with the aforementioned experimental, drawn-out, droning instrumental which was just long enough that when the first few bass notes of “Casino Lisboa” kicked in the crowd knew immediately that the anticipation had all been worth it. That was essentially the story of the night – extended instrumental openings which perfectly segued into stand-out after stand-out from Drifters.
A major highlight of the evening came when Hungtai played “Aurevoir Mon Visage”, a looped drum track over which guttural barks, stutters, and groans provided a sort of primal backdrop. Visibly limping on stage due to a failed jump out of a 2nd story window in Berlin while late for a flight out of Europe prior to this US tour, during the closing moments of “Aurevoir” Hungtai placed all his weight on his good leg and began violently throwing both fists outward, in perfect coordination with the drum track, like an elementary school boxer fighting for his life. At a show where large swaths contained little more than Hungtai carefully sliding a drum-stick along an electronic slab which created the droning atmospherics, the emotional outburst set itself apart.
The atmosphere of Drifters may not be as tight or fully formed as the overall aesthetic of Badlands. Not all albums need to have a ready-made metaphor in the form of a physical place that gives added meaning to the tracks nor will most follow-ups please the entirety of the fan base. Yet, the departure isn’t as severe as I was made to believe because as the pastoral keyboards of “I Dream in Neon” played underneath Hungtai’s echoed, distant vocals, I could vaguely imagine the next Tarantino spaghetti-Western, set in South Dakota, with our protagonist riding his horse into the sunset while the rugged cliffs of the Badlands frame him in the distance.