A Montreal resident of Taiwanese extraction, Alex Zhang Hungtai creates music under the curious moniker of Dirty Beaches. An interesting character, Hungtai, is a sort of nomadic musician who claims he has no real home, and whose displacement is central to his aesthetic, perhaps hence the title of his debut LP, Badlands, which sounds like an outlaw journey through rugged vistas. It comes as no surprise that Hungtai cites the works of David Lynch and in particular Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway as his main inspiration for this abstract narrative about “someone that’s been possessed by the road.”
This is lo-fi heaven, gritty guitars loop over crushed drums, which sound like they are all being fed back through a cheap set of speakers from the 1970s. The influence of the 1950s too is inescapable, Hungtai’s vocals, which tie the music together, sounds like a sort of tortured Elvis, dripping with despair or, at times, anger. The track ‘A Hundred Highways’ is an apt example of the Dirty Beaches’ music, the looped bass track is a simple, overplayed rock and roll melody heard a thousand times, the drums are simple and minimal, but it is the muffled quasi-groan of Hungtai met finally by a noisy, destructive guitar ‘solo’ that manages to strip any sweetness and light from Badlands. Even the following track, ‘True Blue’, would sound like a sweet ’50s ballad, if played by anyone other than Dirty Beaches. Instead it indeed sounds like something from a David Lynch movie, tortured and unsettling.
As the album draws to a close things only seem to darken more, ‘Black Nylon’ and ‘Hotel’, the final two tracks, abandon the 1950s and move into stranger territory, not a million miles from the early avant-garde movement, noisy and abstract. Overall, comparisons to Suicide cannot be ruled out, Hungtai’s vocals definitely give a nod to Alan Vega and the lo-fi dirge is not too unlike Suicide either if only for the explicit ’50s influence. Badlands is dark, exploratory, a journey indeed. It is not original, but it is a breath of fresh air in an age where everything sounds so polished.