For Dirty Beaches, the sounds of the '50s are always on repeat.
Taiwan-born and Montreal-based singer Alex Zhang Hungtai gives old-time rockabilly 45s the remix treatment - using a sampler to whittle Brylcreem-slathered riffs into an endlessly cycling two-note pulse.
On Monday night at Black Cat, Hungtai performed a 30-minute set, hitting most of the highlights from his recent full-length, “Badlands.” Dirty Beaches is a one-man band and Hungtai's stage set-up is as stripped down as his music - just a roughed up electric guitar and a rinky-dink microphone. And he could only use one at a time. There was no mic stand. If Hungtai wanted to let it rip on guitar - which he did, often - he had to stoop to the floor, set down his microphone, and strap on his six-string. When it came time to sing again, he did the reverse. During the interim, the sampler held center stage.
On record, Hungtai's music is icy and cinematic. It's only a matter of time before "Sweet 17" - with it's bluesy washed-out tones and motorized chug- pops up in a Jim Jarmusch flick. The songs on Badlands are wrought from an innovative combo of low and high-tech impulses. The core of Dirty Beaches' schtick - heavily effected singing over samples - is thoroughly modern. But the twangy source material imbues the music with an organic, folk-art feel. It's a man with an electronic box, but it sounds like a band.
Live, though, it plays like high-concept comedy. Hungtai dresses to the greaser nines- wearing dark jeans and a white t-shirt, his jet black hair sculpted into a shimmering pompadour. He's got the moves down, too - the come-hither wave, the deep hip-swivel. When he's really in the groove, it's a bit like watching Suicide's Alan Vega doing a mic-check at an Elvis impersonator convention.
To his credit, Hungtai never winks. He whelps, howls, and works the stage. He's always in character. And though he skirts the shoals of parody, he can get you in the mood. "This song goes out to the lovers," he murmured, before bending down to click on a two second loop cribbed from some long forgotten baby-boomer make-out jam. "Just you wait, sweetheart."