The monotonous ravaging of heavy machinery, looping dizzyingly over and over, engages Alex Hungtai's muffled shouts in dance as Dirty Beaches' Badlands begins. His first and only LP to date, released in March 2011, sounds like a scratched record found in the back of a 50s nostalgia shop. Employing old samples that breathe life into dusty barrooms, filled with half-empty whisky glasses, Badlands is an exercise in control over mood and feeling. Its protagonist is always on the move, lingering long enough in the shadows to allow only brief recognition of his existence. This sense of displaced traveling abandonment is a blend of Hungtai's personal experiences and artistic inclinations.
"Nothing really prepared me for life in North America except Michael Jackson's Thriller video that had a world wide premiere, and The Cosby Show," the Taiwan-born musician recently told me. Hungtai, now 32, moved to North America in 1988, growing up primarily in Hawaii (from 1994-2004).
With increased interest in the samples in MF Doom's work, Hungtai crafted Badlands with "old timey sounding music that had this strange cinematic feeling to it." The intersection between cinema and music is most evident in Hungtai's proclaimed adoration of Wong Kar-wai films, particularly Days of Being Wild (1990). Days chronicles the story of Yuddy, an insatiable playboy in 1960's Hong Kong, grappling with the feelings he has for his former prostitute adoptive mother and his biological mother of aristocratic Filipino descent. Hungtai's relationship with Kar-wai's films was forged at age 16, acting as formative impressions on his visioning of Dirty Beaches.
"I identified with his protagonists a lot, as they are often people in transit, there's that sense of displacement that spoke to me on a very personal level," Hungtai said of Kar-wai's work. Romantic yearning coupled with this sense of constant movement drives the haunting "Lord Knows Best."
"I've traveled through the streets,
And I've walked through the valleys,
The Lord knows best that I
Don't give a damn about anyone but you."
So goes the chorus issued longingly through what sounds like a 50s Shure Brothers microphone, the kind that one would imagine old air traffic controllers used. The lyrics echo hollowly over a barroom crawl of a repetitive piano riff. It all sounds like the tune of a man wasting his years in a slovenly, smoky neon-lit dive, howling the same song at the moon each night. And it's magical.
Alex Hungtai doesn't travel back to Taiwan as often as he'd like to, especially without the promise of visiting his parents who moved to Shanghai ten years ago. "I miss it very much, the food, the island, the motorcycles, and the neon lights and night markets," the current resident of Quebec said. This overwhelming nostalgia for times and places past permeates the entirety of Hungtai's songwriting process, which he describes in the context of Dirty Beaches as "semi-fiction." It's a simple hybridization of truths, semi-truths, and fibs which allow for the blossoming of a new character to emerge, one who picks up where journal entries and Polaroids may have left off.
Badlands provides a quick visit to this world, eight songs amounting to a 27 minute capsule in time, a brief pit stop on the highway Alex Hungtai's character - and perhaps himself - calls home.