Some music is meant for setting the mood. Some is meant for boogey-ing down. Some is meant to spur a good cry and hopefully catharsis. And some music is, well, less conventional in its aims. Music that is definitely art, and more symbolic tapestry than say, digestible pop art that is easily comprehended (or consumed) by the masses.
The many varietals of noise rock aren’t always so easy to define. How does one ascribe values to dischordant and often amorphic rhythms? To sounds that zig when our brains naturally zag? The vocabulary, in general, doesn’t really exist. And, in part, that is what makes Vancouver’s Dirty Beaches so interesting. Alex Zhang Huntai’s low-fi and hazy rockabilly-ish vocalizations form the heart of his songs’ melodies but lurk behind the smoky ruins of a fuzzy post-apocalyptic soundscape. Some might hear a little bit of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Some might hear a little bit of The Raveonettes. Some might hear early Sonic Youth. But ultimately, one hears Dirty Beaches.
Patterned rhythmic jams allow the listener to close their eyes and move along to the songs’ basic underlying structures while vocals reminiscent of early-era R&B seemingly wash above the audience. They don’t come straight at you; they’re seeping through drywall and they fly — not float — above. It’s a unique, ironic, and evocative combination of relaxation and anxiety as melodies attack and demure, demure and attack. And, depending upon your mental state, some listeners may feel more relaxed during the attack than in Zhang’s more reserved moments.
It’s a two-man show, and it fascinated a rapt audience content to watch as Dirty Beaches fretted over a variety of equipment and dials and knobs and pedals, supplementing a vintage analog synth and tricked-out minimalist guitar licks. Silence didn’t equate with boredom or diffidence, but was instead a reflection of an audience trying to wrap their heads around the highly textured sound that two people could create.
I couldn’t tell you how long they played; it wasn’t an epically long set but time flew by because it was epically interesting. It was also a set that would have fit nicely at last year’s ATP, meshing perfectly with the seaside vibe found in Asbury Park’s vintage venue in front of an audience that expected experimentation and innovation.
This isn’t to say that the Black Cat audience wasn’t similarly inclined — how enraptured they were was impressive — but just that it would have taken the experience to another level. Ultimately, it was a memorable performance that highlighted how gripping a show can be when actual emotion is displayed on stage. This all-too-neglected factor was particularly evident during the frenetic and captivating “Sweet 17.” Too many acts these days go through the motions, and don’t appear to be experiencing anything tangible on stage. The opportunity to watch an artist experiencing (rather than recounting) a visceral emotion makes a performance that much more authentic, and is highly preferable to those that phone in a mimeographed piece of music that they’ve played ad nauseum, and with which they no longer have any emotional attachment.