Music Reviews

Dirty Beaches Badlands

(Zoo Music) Rating - 8/10

In capturing the true authentic spirit of rock n’ roll, there will never be a more iconic and influential artist like Elvis Presley. It’s astonishing how a single image can still carry a forceful wave of artists to adapt his character into their own. Elvis represented everything the American dream had to offer – his boyish charm, shiny pompadour, and cleverly devised moves won over millions of worldwide admirers. But behind that appealing mystique, Presley was a defiant performer. With those prominent sideburns and exhilarating moves, he deconstructed the conventions of rhythm and blues, forcing everyone to stand up and let loose to shake off the post-Korean War era.

This brings me to a young man carrying a new revolution for a new pack of eager devotees. Alex Zhang Hungtai sure is a faithful admirer of the fifties rock n’ roll affiliation, name checking a variety of influencers that round about the totality of American pop culture. His one-man band, titled Dirty Beaches, ricochets from one sound to the next, making it hard for young, perplexed listeners who want to dig deeper into a specific time in music history. Part of the magnetism in Hungtai’s sullied greaser rock is indebted to how nebulous it sounds – there are shades of rollicking tremolo, unsettling synth effects, and an array of sampling to underscore a disquieting atmosphere. 

Hungtai loans from past musical conventions and adapts them into his own, opening a Pandora’s box of American tastelessness and revealing it to a new audience. Badlands is forthright in sounding chillwave – the use of heavy effects processing, sampling, and melodic plainness place it right in that category without the slightest qualm. But Hungtai is up to something here; he’s not attracted in evoking synth pop pastiche or hypnagogic dance orgies. A vaporous gray cloud may coat Badlands, but Hungtai treats it with full-on ardor, tagging his idols without the slightest imprecision.

To his credit, Hungtai poses like a wanderer, for the most part because he’s never really settled in one place. He may have been born in Taiwan, but his transpacific excursions are reflected in Badlands’ road bound to nowhere. It may not be entirely obvious, but Badlands does adequately soundtrack a modern day hero’s scuffle with the everyday whilst examining himself in the process. Images like endless streetlights, road signs, and desert-like exteriors will conjure like that of watching Malick’s slow-paced naturalist settings. A Hundred Highways thunders in an open highway, repeatedly cycling a circuital distortion of sniveling guitars while the faint transmission of a busted radio faintly plays a Ronettes song. This isn’t before Sweet 17 enraptures with bursting determination, clouting a wallop of rockabilly guitars until a sadistic juxtaposition of Badalamenti-like distortion and illusory soundscape fumes too soon.

What may be a deal breaker for some is Hungtai’s yearning to howl an Elvis-inspired croon. A crisscross between self-parody and performance art, Speedway King doesn’t make a good first impression, straining a laughable yelp that cries Alan Vega’s early solo career more than the King. Once Horses kicks into high gear, his urgent goth-infused intonation begins to make sense of the swift three chord changes repeatedly marking the dust Hungtai leaves behind. Due to the shadowy lo-fi aura, most of his voice is indistinct, giving the impression that it sounds like intelligible phrasing. It’s not until Hungtai hits the diner in True Blue where he exposes his wild heart, slow dancing a Righteous Brothers-like sentimental dirge with his Lula. Before he has to hit the road again, Hungtai follows it with Lord Knows Best, now serenading to his true love with a surrealistic display of angelic voices while Fracoise Hardy’s Voila plays in the jukebox.

Badlands languishes when it hits its last two instrumental tracks, Black Nylon and Hotel, but maybe this is all part of his playful scheme. Instead of brashly self-confident, Hungtai gives the impression that he feels rundown and weary after a long day full of rollercoasting emotions. It closes the curtain on this peculiarly scenic nod to the art of replication.  The monochromatic tone and stifled meaning only adds to a feeling of unknowingness. Contrary to the lo-fi barrage we usually encounter with shades of sixties longing, Hungtai fully admits that he’s taking from known sources to portend something that may or may not be deeper than its counterparts. Badlands is the result of an artist who won’t fool himself into thinking that modernism will bring about some brand spanking idea. In doing so, he may have accidentally stumbled upon a conception that is very much his own.