Teenage ghosts

Pub date March 22, 2011

MUSIC Hold a séance on a wet afternoon or rainy evening. Party down and commiserate with the ghosts and dancing skeletons of wrecked love past as they float from your stereo. Put on Dirty Beaches’ Badlands (Zoo Music) and Hunx and His Punx’s Too Young to Be in Love (Hardly Art) and invite the dead boyfriends and lonesome girlfriends of ’60s teenage rock and pop to shimmy with your ex- memories in the living room. Meet 2011 with them, alone.

The motor at the center of Dirty Beaches’ “A Hundred Highways” is the melody of “I Will Follow Him,” an emphatic-to-the-point-of-crazed declaration of affection made popular in 1963 by a four-foot nine-inch 14-year-old named Little Peggy March. A man-band from Vancouver, B.C., Alex Zhang Hungtai transforms the vocal of March’s hit into a brittle, rusty bassline that’s like a piston from the title vehicle of John Carpenter’s 1983 film Christine, and then douses it with corrosive flames of distorted guitar, brooding into his mic all the while.

The sinister allure of “A Hundred Highways” is enhanced by a cultural connotation that flickers outside of the song itself, namely Kenneth Anger’s use of March’s version of “I Will Follow Him” (as well as her pathos-ridden 1963 ballad “Wind-Up Doll”) in the 1964 film Scorpio Rising. In Anger’s movie, March’s song strikes a comic note, accompanying Hollywood footage of Jesus, but the malevolent spell characteristic of Anger’s overall work is what carries over to the sound of Dirty Beaches, as much as the anguished yelps and cries and sonic minimalism of Suicide, the group always referenced in writing about Hungtai’s music.

History, personal and societal, has a way of adding dark undercurrents to songs that might seem innocent at first. David Lynch and Martin Scorsese learned this from Anger, and the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis mines this to revelatory effect in the 2009 movie It Felt Like A Kiss, which uses songs produced and recorded by convicted murderer Phil Spector — most potently, the Crystals’ 1962 “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss” and Tina Turner’s 1966 “River Deep, Mountain High” — to score an account of the 1960s that’s as attuned to all-too-human triumphs and failures as it is to the insidious undercurrents and machinations of governmental forces. Good times go bad.

Hunx of Hunx and His Punx is familiar with a different kind of Badlands than the war zones zeroed in on by Curtis, or the Jesus and Mary Chain-esque one invoked by Dirty Beaches’ album title. The songs on Too Young to Be in Love are overtly gay, in the sense that he’s singing about boys and men, but to pigeonhole them as gay music would be not just blinkered, but blind to the innovative aspect of the group’s dynamic, which refashions and outright recasts old rock and pop sounds of female and male desire and emotion in new ways.

The traditional if not downright hoary emblem-bearer of “gay music” is the dancefloor diva, ever ready to express the need for everlasting love or tonight’s trick via a sampled or studio-processed wail. Hunx and His Punx create a different dynamic, with Hunx (a.k.a. Seth Bogart) and bandmate Shannon Shaw trading vocals in a manner that counters unbridled true romance with an irony gleaned from experience.

Too Young to Be in Love‘s opening track “Lovers Lane” sounds as classically ’50s-’60s retro as its title, yet Shaw’s untamed, hair-raising voice haunts the deathly boy-loses-boy scenario that Bogart stars in and narrates, arch and sincere in turn. We all want to go to lovers’ lane, but do we want to stay there, in the dark?

At other ingenious times, Hunx’s band is a girl-gang warning bashers and bullies to back off from his romance (“My Boyfriend’s Coming Back”). They harmonize with Hunx as he traipses faux-innocently away from heartbreak (Too Young to Be in Love‘s sublime title track) and with Bogart as he stares down the legacy of his father’s suicide (the closer, “Blow Me Away”). On the classic “The Curse of Being Young,” Hunx does his best Mary Weiss while his bandmates supply the sophisticated boom boom, adding a little more yearning with each chorus, until the listener is left alone with Shaw’s feral, fateful incantation. Games of keep away have lasting impact. Bad boys navigate badlands and sometimes wind up bad men. Maybe you’re never too old to be too young to be in love.