Badlands is the debut album by Alex Zhang Hungtai, whose project goes by the name Dirty Beaches. Don’t be confused, while there are traces of some sunny DNA in the eight songs contained on this album it would require a CSI team to connect this to any kind of true surf rock.
The Taiwanese musician has led a nomadic life that has taken him a little bit of everywhere in North America; he has referred to his own tracks as songs about people being in exile or away from home and stated that he is unsure what home actually means. Coincidentally, the album evokes this kind of free-wheeling, Doc Holliday I’m-your-huckleberry feeling that is two parts reckless, two parts cool coated in sinister.
Badlands is set at a frenetic clip, though not in the vein of your usual driving rock anthems. It’s pace comes from the sounds that were chosen to supplement the experience, creating an atmosphere of urgency like the soundtrack to a thriller. Speedway King jangles on through the desert with Hungtai’s vocals echoing out over the noise like a man chasing or being chased; I’m really not sure which.
In Sweet 17 Hungtai alternates whispering, haunted vocals with a raspy wail while the beat echoes all around. The song is very seductive, if more than a little disconcerting. True Blue has more than a little bit of similarity to The Strokes Is This It (the track). It’s melody is very similar, and while the track feels very beautiful it is tinged with despair. The compression only increases the feeling of nostalgia inherent in the entire album.
The beautiful Lord Knows Best is a gateway back to the 50’s. When I hear the track I can see a gentleman holding a woman and staring deep into her eyes, telling her “You know that I don’t give a damn about anything but you.” And then he’s back off into the desert. I don’t know that this is what Hungtai was going for, but it’s moving and that’s what matters, yes?
A little Elvis, a little pain, add in some new age juice and a bit of punk rock edge and you’ve got the recipe for Badlands by Dirty Beaches. This album packs a punch (bar the two instrumental tracks which are basically mood pieces) and really sets the scene for something grandiose.
I don’t know who the Badlands character in these songs is running from, but I hope he gets away.