Lo-fi, high lonesome: The scratchy sounds of Dirty Beaches and Robert Johnson

Lo-fi, high lonesome: The scratchy sounds of Dirty Beaches and Robert Johnson

“Speedway King,” the first song on Dirty Beaches’ full-length debut, Badlands, drones like an industrial-strength washing machine clanking away on a pair of military boots at the end of a long, echoing hallway. On paper, it’s not a sound anyone would actively seek out. On headphones, it’s not exactly a toe-tapper, either; “Speedway King” is easily the most alienating song on Badlands, and hardly a warm welcome to an otherwise poppy (though frequently peculiar) record. But even though “Speedway King” is an outlier, it still fits with the lo-fi skeeziness that permeates Badlands —“that punk flier ‘photocopy of a photocopy’ feel,” as Dirty Beaches’ Alex Hungtai puts it. In other words, Badlands sounds like shit, though if you can handle “Speedway King,” the rest of the album will go down as smooth as Little River Band.   

Of course, you might be like me and be drawn to records like Badlands precisely because they sound like shit. I’ve been a fan of lo-fi recordings ever since I came of age as a music fan in the early ’90s, a time when seemingly every young, aspiring tunesmith with a grasp of classic-rock songwriting fundamentals and a head full of punk pretensions was playing into four-track machines in search of a magical mess of noise, melody, and “truth,” whatever that meant. But the antecedents of lo-fi go back many years before then. 

Modern lo-fi recordings are generally split into two groups. The first are “basement tapes,” which collect music never intended to be captured for posterity, or at least disseminated for public consumption. (See, obviously, Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, as well as pretty much every concert bootleg ever shared among fans.) The second group we’ll call “Nebraska tapes” after Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 home-recorded classic of populist folk strums and desolate harmonica wails. Here there’s a conscious effort to escape the artifice of traditional pop production by presenting songs with the unadorned starkness you only get in bedrooms and garages, with limited technology, and without any cigar-chomping big shots telling you to fix the mistakes or polish up the emotionally ravaged rough spots. At least that’s what true believers in tinny, treble-heavy music like to imagine. In reality, lo-fi production is the most “produced” production there is. It’s the musical equivalent of the shaky cam, which is intended to convey “reality” but really only points out that there is some consciously artistic filmmaking going on here. 

This is where those ’90s tunesmiths like Robert Pollard, Stephen Malkmus, and Elliott Smith come in, as well as, it would seem, Hungtai. A native of Taiwan who’s talked frequently in interviews about how moving around a lot in his youth (he currently lives in Vancouver) has influenced his music, Hungtai imbues Badlands with alien landscapes and uneasy juxtapositions, delivering heavy-breathing ’50s rockabilly and malt-shop balladry with an effectively disturbing mix of arms-length irony and psychopathic intensity. (The twee highlight “A Hundred Highways” repurposes Little Peggy March’s 1963 hit “I Will Follow Him” as a torch song sung by Buffalo Bill from Silence Of The Lambs.

Much of the album’s creep factor comes courtesy of the production; Hungtai originally wanted to make movies, and his cinematic sensibility informs Badlands’ crushing waves of dread cloaked in sonic subterfuge. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hungtai talked about his music in the language of the cinephile: “You cast the sound that becomes the look and the soul of the film. But that alone doesn’t carry the film. So you have to have a strong background story with characters that are carved out of flesh and blood. And that’s where I come in.” Hungtai takes on a variety of characters on Badlands—a brooding greaser boy, a lovelorn sentimentalist, lots of guys you’d cross the street to avoid—but it’s all shot in grainy black and white.

But no matter the central role fuzz plays in Badlands, Hungtai was talking long before the album’s release about parlaying the attention his 7-inches have gotten into making music in real studios, financed by recording budgets. “Now that there have been a few offers from labels and stuff, I’m hoping I can get out of this recording setup, because it’s all budget home recording,” Hungtai told The A.V. Club earlier this year. “I don’t think the lo-fi thing [is] a necessity as an aesthetic. It definitely plays in … but it’s not something I would want to keep doing if labels could give me more funding.”

Hungtai is a good songwriter with the potential to develop into an interesting record-maker. But I’m not sure I want to listen to a Dirty Beaches record that I can actually hear; it’s tough for me to even see what the point of that would be. The bombed-out sound of Badlands is what ultimately sticks with listeners, more than any lyric or melody. Take away the scratchiness, and the album loses its texture. 

It’s possible that the problem here isn’t with Hungtai, but with me, and the romantic notions I’ve got tied up in lo-fi. What is it about a bad recording that evokes so much atmosphere and mystery? Why do I imagine guys like Hungtai being lonely freaks bleating out hymns to their never-ending loneliness and alienation, when they really just want to make their own versions of Appetite For Destruction and The Chronic, something really bright and bitchin’? Like so many rock ’n’ roll myths, this one might have originated in the Mississippi Delta. 

Along with Badlands, I’ve been listening a lot lately to the forthcoming two-disc Robert Johnson compilation, The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Collection, which includes all 29 songs the venerated bluesman recorded in 1936 and ’37, plus 13 outtakes. It’s basically an updated version of the million-selling 1990 box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, with new essays and one extra song. Unfortunately, there’s not much Johnson music left to discover. Before his death at age 27 in 1938—supposedly caused by downing a poisoned shot served up by a jealous girlfriend, though nobody knows for sure—Johnson spent a grand total of five days recording his music. In that brief amount of time, he laid down a number of future blues and rock classics: “Love In Vain,” “Stop Breaking Down,” “Cross Road Blues,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “From Four Till Late,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and more. As historian Ted Gioia writes in the liner notes of The Complete Original Masters, “You could listen to Johnson’s entire oeuvre in less than two hours … and then devote a lifetime to probing its depths.” 

Johnson was not a true lo-fi artist; he was recorded on what was considered state-of-the-art equipment, under circumstances typical for country-blues musicians. H.C. Speir, a retailer from Jackson, Mississippi and, in Gioia’s words, “the closest thing to a music industry talent scout in the state of Mississippi,” discovered Johnson. Speir would record demos upstairs from his store and refer local talent to record companies. (He also helped launch the recording careers of Delta bluesmen Charley Patton, Skip James, and Tommy Johnson, though he passed on future country star Jimmie Rodgers.) 

Speir referred Johnson to the American Record Corporation based on “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” and soon recording sessions were scheduled. The first occurred the week of Thanksgiving 1936, on Nov. 23, 25, and 26, at the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio. (Today at the Gunter you’ll find a plaque and show window presented in Johnson’s honor.) The second, and last, session was on June 19 and 20, 1937, in an ARC warehouse in Dallas. Johnson was situated on the third floor, as removed as possible from the nearby street noise.

Johnson was paid no more than $15 per song, a criminally small amount in light of how valuable the tracks ended up being, but not a bad pull for a struggling traveling musician that was going nowhere as a recording artist. According to an essay by Stephen C. LeVere in the liner notes of The Complete Original Masters, “the original pressing orders indicate that the quantities of [Johnson] records pressed on the ‘dime store’ labels were small, in five cases only in double digits.” The smallest order was for “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” and “Malted Milk,” which only pressed 50 copies. The worst bar band in your town has likely sold more CDs than Johnson sold 78s in the ’30s. 

Johnson’s popularity didn’t come until more than 20 years after he died, when Columbia issued King Of The Delta Blues Singers in 1961. Among the first of the prewar blues reissues, King Of The Delta Blues Singers presented Johnson in a far different context from what his music had when he was alive. Johnson was now seen as a mythic figure: dead before his time, unappreciated and unjustly forgotten, and haunted by visions of his star-crossed fate. Very little was known about Johnson’s life in the early ’60s—the album didn’t even include a photo of him, just a drawing—so the gaps were filled by the breathless “He sold his soul the devil!” legend that even people who can’t name one Robert Johnson song know by heart. 

King Of The Delta Blues Singers was released just as the folk movement was picking up steam, and it connected with listeners who believed pop music (specifically rock ’n’ roll) was sellout corporate garbage. In contrast, King Of The Delta Blues Singers offered ancient-sounding music rescued from decaying 78s, made by a dead black man who sang in spine-tingling cries and accompanied himself on a battered guitar. For young idealists searching for “purity,” it didn’t get any purer than Johnson.

Johnson’s music hasn’t lost any of its power to move listeners who feel disconnected from the world around them. I first heard Johnson late one night in high school, when I was driving around with my friend Craig, listening to Rolling Stones tapes. He put on “Hellhound On My Trail,” Johnson’s bleakest blues, the one where he sings, “I got to keep moving, blues falling down like hail,” because an eternity of damnation is about to come down on him. I was driving Craig home, and I frankly couldn’t wait to get him—and his tape—out of my car. Not only was the combination of Johnson’s voice and the post-midnight darkness starting to freak me out, the music was too harsh for my ears.

I’ve since come around on Johnson and the incredible songs and performances he left behind. Would I like him as much if he were alive today, working in a modern studio, playing the exact same songs but with back-up singers and horn sections and guest-star appearances from Eric Clapton? Hard to say. Actually, it’s not: I wouldn’t. I like the scuzz. I like what it conjures, whether it’s about a shadowy blues guitarist or a well-traveled Taiwanese indie-rocker, even if it’s images and fantasies that only exist in my imagination.