Dirty Beaches Delivers Otherworldly Performance

Katherine Dye

The bands Dirty Beaches and Sisu brought an otherworldly flair to the ’Sco at their show Tuesday. The pair were definitely well-matched in that both acts made heavy use of synths and reverb to create a distinctive ambience as well as a strong, driving rhythm that pushed the melody forward and prevented the music from becoming too static. Sisu’s sound is pleasantly mysterious and ambient, which made it a good complement to Dirty Beaches’ electronic soundscapes.

Dirty Beaches, the stage name of Alex Zhang Hungtai, born in Taipei but hailing from Montreal, characterizes his music as an expression of his feelings of alienation — of being a wanderer and of having no home to return to. Given that Zhang has lived in a variety of cities including Taipei, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Honolulu, to name a few, it is not surprising that the theme of the wanderer is dominant in his work. Zhang is also very open about his creative influences, citing the film directors Wong Kar-wai, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, as well as musical artists like The Cramps and the Norwegian band Suicide. Perhaps it is the presence of these cinematic influences that gives Zhang’s music its moody and highly atmospheric sound.

The evening began with a performance by Los Angeles-based band Sisu. With dreamy, haunting, occasionally ominous-sounding vocals by the band’s composer Sandra Vu floating over loud, droning guitars and electronic swells and drops, Sisu has a sound that is very reminiscent of ’80s and ’90s shoegaze and darkwave artists such as Slowdive, The Cure, The Smiths and particularly Cocteau Twins. The performance was loud and hypnotic, and the audience seemed transfixed, if not particularly energetic. The dreamy effect was heightened by the images of flowers and vintage photography projected on the wall behind the stage and the dim stage lighting, which left the band members in shadow.

Dirty Beaches started out with a more ambient piece primarily played on the synthesizer with a few unconventional acoustic flourishes. For the entire set, this ambient sound continued, while individual songs seemed to rise up out of it, creating an interesting, almost organic effect. Zhang’s vocals were crooning, low and seemed oddly nostalgic. In fact, much of Dirty Beaches’ music seems nostalgic, despite the heavy use of synths and other trappings of electronic music. There is a sense of longing and a consciousness of the past as well as a striking amount of emotional intensity. At times, the music seemed like the soundtrack to an old art house film or melodies coming from a strange old jukebox. As the set went on, the slow, hypnotic pace of the music sped up to become faster and more danceable. Zhang went from singing in a slow, low manner reminiscent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to vocalizing in screams and in a louder, more anguished tone. At the end, the music abruptly stopped, and Zhang and his partner high-fived onstage and nodded their heads to indicate the show was over. This was an oddly banal way of ending such a strange and otherworldly show.

This was a fantastic show. The audience, despite being relatively small, also seemed to enjoy the performance. A few audience members danced throughout the entire set, while others seemed transfixed by Zhang’s unassuming but engaging stage presence. The concert did not feel long at all, and perhaps this was due to the oddly transcendent quality of Dirty Beaches’ music. Their sound is at once introspective and nostalgic as well as forward-looking and innovative — the recipe for an ultimately satisfying show.