By Jennifer Graciano
With a shaky demeanor, trill tones, and rough production; the debut full-length “Badlands” from lo-fi nostalgia king, Dirty Beaches, proves to be a first-rate throwback with a matchless spin. With this relatively short album (under thirty minutes), Dirty Beaches, also known as Alex Zhang Hungtai, might as well have popped out of a time capsule from the mid-50s. There’s a definite attitude to this album that creates an atmosphere of a brooding narrative; while tense at times, you’ll feel as if you’re following a story, or listening to a film score. It’s lo-fi sound littered with fuzz that aids “Badlands” to, not only sound as if you’re listening to this live, but give it a sentimental kick. Thick layers of noise and garbled vocals give off the impression this album is truly a remnant of times past, rather than a new piece attempting to emulate a different era.
“Horses” is a stripped down nod to the mid 20th century; tunes Carl Perkins, or Johnny Burnette would have enjoyed. “Badlands” in its entirety is a salute to nostalgia, but not in the sense where it’s tired, or forced. Clear influences from the King and old pop ballads are prominent, especially on “Sweet 17” which has got the drive of an old rockabilly track with Hungtai’s husky barks, and a pleasing guitar rhythm that throbs at a rapid pace. Spotlighting Hungtai’s abilities to manipulate basic sounds, “Speedway King” has a singular note sounding like it’s been banged up and magnified. Like “Sweet 17,” “Speedway King” meanders between chaos and meticulous rhythm as sounds resembling a bell toll, rather than a guitar, emerge alongside Hungtai’s cries. It’s an abrasive introduction to the album, but pays off for the bravest of listener.
Screeching guitars, muffled percussion, and instruments drowned in fuzz make up “A Hundred Highways.” Its looped distortion coupled with Hungtai’s burly croons make it infectious and fairly catchy. “True Blue” and “Lord Knows Best” are easily my favorites off of the album; gentle ballads that exemplify Hungtai’s swoon-worthy vocals with grace. “Black Nylon” and “Hotel” seemed poor choices as the roundup closers for the album. Swift pace aside, neither left much of an impression. Both might appeal to the narrative aspects of Hungtai’s sound, but as an album, are easily forgotten.
Many valiant efforts are made by musicians towards the nostalgia gimmick, not everyone pulls it off. Dirty Beaches does things differently as “Badlands” never comes off as one focused on mimicking, rather it’s producing an homage, an accolade to the past. In doing so, Hungtai creates a sound all his own, something quite unique. “Badlands” only wavers at the tail end with the two instrumental tracks: “Black Nylon,” and “Hotel.” While they may play a hand in the cinematic appeal of the album as a whole, they’re dreary as closers and lack Hungtai’s enthralling nonchalant attitude present in the rest of the album. Both would have benefited by being nestled between some of the other songs. Recreating, or being heavily influenced by, sounds of whichever era is hard to execute well. Making something like this sound natural is hard, but when it happens.. it's fantastic and “Badlands” is a testament to that. While not everything on the album pans out, it’s an excellent debut from Dirty Beaches.