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Dirty Beaches

Badlands

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: Zoo Music


Badlands, the debut album from one-man show Dirty Beaches (a.k.a. Alex Zhang Hungtai, a native of Taiwan who has spent the majority of his life in Canada), is by no means an easy record to pin down. Equal parts grunge, rockabilly and lo-fi pop, it’s an album that, despite its mishmash of genres, commits itself to a single atmosphere and never lets up. Badlands is the sound of Elvis doing bong hits while listening to the Doors’ L.A. Woman or J.J. Cale’s Naturally; it’s one hell of an addictive and mesmerizing sonic exploration and for a debut album, it feels surprisingly fully-formed.

More than anything, Hungtai seems interested in re-purposing and re-imagining the golden age of rockabilly music. From Johnny Cash to Carl Mann, he channels these legends, dismembers them, and then reassembles the parts to his own satisfaction. The hollow, chugging guitars of opening track “Speedway King” scream of a wide-open Mississippi road, but the lurching loops and yelping vocals add a sinister tone to the vision of freedom. This might be a Mississippi road, but the sun-drenched melodies have been replaced by a haunting vision of night. “Horses” works to similar effect, as static and barely discernible vocals obstruct the straightforward rock and roll melody before finally barreling into the sultry surf rock jam “Sweet 17.”

Like How To Dress Well’s Love Remains or Sun Araw’s On Patrol, Badlands revels in a deep, lo-fi sound, using simplicity to exaggerate and obscure just about every sound, riff and solo. “Black Nylon” and “Hotel” close out the album, each of which is an instrumental track that perfectly encapsulates the foreboding atmospheric techniques that Hungtai employs throughout. They’re ominous tracks, with guitar loops and synth lines churning like rusty machinery, but also deeply affecting at their core. They instill emotion and ambiance at its most basic level, leaving the listener in a gripping, hazy headspace.

Still, Badlands isn’t all about the brooding tones and shades of reverb. It’s an album with plenty of soul to spare; a soul best exemplified by the mid-album one-two punch of “True Blue” and “Lord Knows Best.” The former is a strummed slow-dance a la “Earth Angel,” while the latter is a vulnerable love song anchored by an infectious piano riff. Like some of the best rock and roll songs of the ’50s, these two tracks are heartfelt evocations of a pure love that feels right at home amongst the warm vinyl-static that permeates throughout Badlands.

Badlands presents a dichotomy of sorts in both its musical and thematic explorations; sonically, it’s a love letter to the days of clean guitar runs while also serving as supporter of lo-fi noise rock and vocal obfuscation. Thematically, it revels in the eternal optimism of homegrown American recordings, but can’t help letting the vulnerability and a certain amount of 21st century apathy shine through. It’s a compelling blend of something old and something new that’s relentless in its dedication to atmosphere. With most acts taking their lo-fi aesthetic to the bedroom, it’s nice to see an act come along, subvert the sound and move it to the back seat of a ’57 Chevy.

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