Friday night at the Echo saw a collision of two very different acts. The first was a dream-pop band fronted by the drummer of Dum Dum Girls, a woman who is very much based in Los Angeles. The other was a near-indefinable mixture of lo-fi beats, samples, loops, and experimental electronica by a Taiwanese-Canadian who is based in Montreal but appears to have lived just about everywhere (the second half of his much-acclaimed new album was recorded in Berlin).
Fronted by Sandra Vu, a drummer who has actually worked with Dirty Beaches before (which would explain the unlikely support slot), SISU offers the artist an opportunity to explore her own sound and try out being a frontwoman. With her band touring on the back of the impressive Blood Tears album, the Echo show gave her a good opportunity to prove that SISU is much more than a time-killing side gig, and indeed there is no evidence of this being a mere vanity project. With the likes of the latest single “Harpoons” and especially the head rush that is “Return The Favor” (one of my favorite songs of the year so far), Vu displayed her songwriting craft and her penchant for two-part vocal harmonies Friday night.
She really deserved better than a muddied sound mix that did her no favors. Vu’s vocals were barely audible at times as the Echo’s sound system seemed to have the balance wrong, and the minimal drum kit sounded, for want of a better word, cheap. SISU’s music relies on a clarity of sound and a crystalline vibe that doesn’t work particularly well if the sound check is as poor as it was on Friday. It says a lot about the quality of the aforementioned singles in particular that they managed to transcend the technical difficulties and still sound good.
Dirty Beaches had no such issues. Given that the music of Alex Zhang Hungtai relies partially on the sound of atonal distorted guitar anyway and that the music has a deliberate low-fidelity sound, it made sense that the show was perfectly suited to a small packed venue like the Echo.
Zhang has been working under the Dirty Beaches moniker for a while, but no doubt the recent release of double album Drifters / Love Is The Devil has magnified his profile, leading to a big turnout for this Friday gig. The solo project has been expanded to a trio on record, and for this live set, it became a duo with Zhang sharing the programming and effects work with his on-stage partner.
For 45 minutes he played his unique mix of hypnotically looped, sprawling music that almost entirely defies explanation and certainly does defy categorization. The most surprising aspect of his recently increased fan base is that it comes on the back of a double album that makes no concessions to its audience, being as it is an experimental work that becomes more insular as it progresses.
However, it is in Zhang’s live show that the generosity is more noticeable. He performed with zeal and energy, and his conviction and passion were contagious, getting a room full of people to dance along to the most unlikely soundtrack (there was even a mini moshpit threatening to break out at one point). An unnecessary encore put a minor dampener on the performance, but by that point I, along with the rest of the audience, had been thoroughly convinced by Zhang’s talent and personality.
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