Review Summary: Dirty Beaches' debut possesses a very fluid sense of time and place, and it's all the better for it.
Alex Zhang Hungtai's music is notable for its sense of displacement. His debut full-length as Dirty Beaches, Badlands
, is many things, but it is never settled. On the one hand, this is due to Hungtai's dark and scuzzy production, which buries vocals, guitars, and tape loops underneath reverb and clouded distortion. On the other, there's the restless natures of the songs themselves; the propulsive loops and urgent, breathy vocals of the record's first half come to mind. Even Badlands
' most laid-back moments have a distinctly depressive tone; the prettiest track, "Lord Knows Best", finds Hungtai singing ruefully, "You know well that I don't give a damn." The song is oddly alienating in the best way possible, possessing a palpable space between the artist and listener. It's as if Hungtai is playing mid-century rock cassettes in the room next door, and we're listening in through the wall.
It's this distant quality that helps Badlands
distinguish itself as being much more than just another fashionable lo-fi nostalgia trip. "Sweet 17" and "A Hundred Highways" are rooted in '50s rock tradition, yet in their new environments, they take on a haunting quality that echoes the spooky ambience of David Lynch, who Hungtai has cited as an influence, as well as the markedly isolated tone of the Terrence Malick film from which Badlands
takes its name. Even when his songs lack a strong anchor for the ear to latch onto, as in the stagnant pool of sound that is "Black Nylon", the aura that permeates every second of Badlands
' 26-minute runtime keeps things compelling. Such atmosphere-driven music runs the risk of sounding stale at album length, but Hungtai mostly avoids the compositional nothingness that plagues his closest sonic relatives. Badlands
is far from a perfect record, but it is an impressive, cogent artistic statement that hints at greater things to come.