Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dirty Beaches-Seaside EP (2007)

 "I knew my youth couldn't last forever/so I got the band together...."-T.V. Smith of The Adverts, 1977
"This person's had enough of useless memories..."-John Lydon for PiL, 1980

Dirty Beaches is one of maybe five current bands worth caring about. In an era where creating music consists of little other than selecting a previous era's art and ruthlessly (mindlessly) cannibalizing it, Alex Zhang Hungtai and his collaborators manage to be quintessentially nostalgic, without any of the necrophilia that adjective usually, implicitly, entails it in the early 21st century. At the risk of alienating those of you who hate reading, it's worth unpacking what I mean by that.

Before the advent of mass consumption and above all of the internet, nostalgia meant something quite different from our current understanding of it. To label something "nostalgic" today is to dismiss it: sentimental, perhaps, intensely emotional, hopefully, but fundamentally retrograde and derivative because of said qualities. It constitutes an objective, damning judgment that somehow grants the judge a certain gravitas.This was not always the case. Before the adjective and its attendant emotional state became pejorative, "nostalgic" was an intensely subjective, personal affliction: that of a person wrenched away from his/her homeland or natural setting, and deeply, desperately yearning to return to it. Melancholy, that strange, liminal state between depression and futile action, was its typical accompaniment. In the 19th century, American doctors treated nostalgia as a disease and a threat to masculinity, curable by warfare and the near experience of death it grants.*

My point is that Dirty Beaches' work, whatever form it takes, is fundamentally concerned with capturing a particular place, and all its attendant feelings and sensations, at the exact moment it slips away from you forever. Hungtai's records sound quite different from each other superficially, but this moment of transient attachment is what sticks them together like the glue holding faded photographs to a scrapbook nobody's read in decades. Dirty Beaches creates scenes of bittersweet beauty, only to shatter them. If only because all songs have to end, just like all relationships, and all lives, ultimately.

What better name for his best pre-LP work, then, than Seaside? For me, in any case, large bodies of water have always had a fiercely magnetic appeal. Oceans, rivers, and lakes are comforting, somehow, yet menacing. Especially the ocean: the noises of the sea are calming, but one is immediately overwhelmed by the relentless, inexorable continuity of the sea. Whatever subjective memories you have of la mer, it doesn't give a damn about you in the end.

Just like most lovers, in fact. Another reason Dirty Beaches' work is so good is that Hungtai manages to meld ambient landscapes and subjective feelings together much like particular places become indissociably tied to former lovers once they're gone. This is why Seaside is the best of the pre-Badland EPs: each song is a carefully crafted reconstruction of a particular place or relationship, that manages to gel with the other tracks.

I read a story, once, about a Greek leaving the Pelopponese for the U.S.A. around 1900. She had carried a stone from her village on board the steamer with her; her mother had told her that once the ship was out to sea, she should throw the stone into the Mediterranean. It was a ritualized, symbolic divorce from the Motherland: Americans would think of this as a brave severance from tradition, but for me, it sounds like a drastic attempt to cut short nostalgia before it starts. This is also the scene I think of when I play this EP: a definite departure that isn't anywhere near joyful.

"On the Streets of Shibuya" is a beautiful sonic landscape. It's simply begging for orientalist reconstructions of "The East," so I won't go into detail on it. "Sud Dud Bud Mud" hints at the more propulsive, destructively energetic tracks from Badlands: the chugging, retrograde synth beat in the background, the impossibly archaic, fleeting vocals, twinkling chimes in the distance. "A Hundred Languages" is the core of the EP: nothing but acoustic guitar and Hungtai's vocals, it's heartbreaking. At times Hungtai doesn't bother with real words, but simply hums. There are certain pieces of music that summarize in a single, savage, transitory moment all the misery we experience in any relationship worth starting, and for me, "A Hundred Languages" is one of them. "Blue Birds" is even better: again, nothing but vocals and guitar. These simple instruments say more in three minimal minutes than most bands manage to say in several albums' worth of overproduced garbage. "La Barca" manages to hover somewhere between obscenely obvious nautical sounds and another successful take on marine-based yearning.

Reading this review, you've probably come away thinking that Dirty Beaches and its music is nothing but depressoid, schizoid garbage made by and for depressoids (such as this author). Not true! And in any case, the whole point is that nostalgia, as an emotion, hovers somewhere between depression and exultation: Depression, because of our severance from the object of our love; exultation, because we anticipate returning to it. That's a clumsy reconstruction of an inexpressible feeling, so I'll shut up and tell you, once again, that Dirty Beaches deserves your fervent support and/or money.

....When I cross the border....   In large part, I'm posting this EP because DB just dropped a double LP that is well worth buying-get it HERE. DB is also on tour, so catch them if you're in Europe! Hungtai runs a blog that's well worth following, as well.

*Most of this spiel on the genealogy of nostalgia is heavily indebted to my reading of Svetlana Boym's "The Future of Nostalgia". It's a good book and one well worth reading. I first heard about it through reading interviews with Hungtai.


  1. What a well written and thoughtful review. I often dismiss music simply on the name of the band alone. I know this is idiotic, but in the overwhelming tide of music and info on the interweb, names start to blur together.{Beach Fossils, Beaches, Dirty Beaches, et al}. Thanks you for consistently providing such an insightful take on a wide variety of musical genres

  2. Thank you! I know what ya mean about names determining interest.

  3. Dirty Beaches is one of maybe five current bands worth caring about..............
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