[11 April 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
To get a mental picture of what Dirty Beaches’ aesthetic is, just try to imagine what karaoke night at the roadhouse in Twin Peaks might be like. More than anything, it’s the work of the film auteurs like David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai, whom one-man-band Alex Zhang Hungtai is known to admire, that might first come to mind when you hear Dirty Beaches’ eerie, intense, slow-burning music, which creates its own alternate universe that still feels uncannily familiar. Listening to Dirty Beaches is like entering another dimension without realizing it and unearthing an otherworldly hit parade. On the aptly titled debut effort, Badlands, Dirty Beaches delve into the darker side of human nature so vividly and viscerally, conveying existential heft through the worldly weariness and quiet desperation that comes naturally to the Taiwan-born, Hawaii-raised, Canada-based Hungtai. All in all, Badlands is a noir-pop melodrama on which Hungtai takes his anti-hero star turn.
Musically speaking, Hungtai’s a throwback whose idea of nostalgia isn’t girl groups like pretty much every other retro-minded indie band, but something grittier and heavier that finds direction from the blues and rockabilly, if not exactly in sound, then at least in spirit—put it this way, these Dirty Beaches ain’t no Best Coast. Come to think of it, Badlands actually sounds like it could’ve come from the ‘50s or early ‘60s, especially when Hungtai tries out a hound-doggy Elvis drawl or an almost Orbison-like falsetto backed by static-clung soundscapes that might as well be piped in from an old-timey AM station or sampled from a jukebox. So while the method to Hungtai’s madness appears simple, with basically each track built on rudimentary instrumental loops and crapped-out production, there’s a tight conceptual vision going on in the songs. It’s like Hungtai’s idea of a stroll down memory lane is to mine oldies gold from the dustbin of pop history.
But don’t think what Hungtai achieves on Badlands is just the sum of his influences and cross-references—his vision is uniquely his own. On the anxious “Horses”, for instance, he speak-sings like he’s doing a karaoke version of Elvis, getting hot-and-bothered on the vocals to match, then intensify the antsy, rough-edged guitar-and-drums composition. But Hungtai tweaks the mix just so, adding some clacking lo-fi electronica noise to heighten the effect. On the ominous “Sweet 17”, Dirty Beaches give their own take on the coming-of-age theme song, as Hungtai’s voice breaks and careens in its poor man’s take on Elvis, only to turn his homage to the King outside in, more introspective than extroverted. And when a sample of some abrasive, metallic strings comes to the fore, Hungtai creates something that’s the reverse negative of orchestral pop, using the arrangement to suggest inner turmoil in its most stripped-down state rather than any swelling of sentimental feeling.
Indeed, Dirty Beaches’ strong suit is to take well-worn images and tropes from yesteryear and give them new life by warping and twisting them. Like a one-time-hit you barely catch on some oldies station with a weak frequency in the middle of nowhere, “A Hundred Highways” is Hungtai’s idea of road trip song (“So I drive / On a hundred highways / With you”). Rumbling and bumping along, you feel like you’ve crossed over to the other side when you hear the echoey feedback of the closest thing to a guitar solo interlude you’ll find on Badlands. And “True Blue” could soundtrack a slow dance at the prom, just for the leather jacket and greased-up pompadour set, taking what comes off like the verses of “Be My Baby” and transforming it into something forlorn and surreal. Most compelling, though, is “Lord Knows Best”, on which Hungtai might as well be auditioning as a dive-bar lounge singer in a Happy Together follow-up. But there’s more substance than style going on here: Hungtai sounds more vulnerable and bare on the track than anywhere else on Badlands, as his voice comes through clear enough that you can hear poignantly scarred lines like, “But you know that I don’t give a damn about anything / But you / Oh, yes you do,” while muzak melodies tug at your heartstrings.
The only shortcoming of Badlands is that the trip is too brief, with only eight tracks and clocking in at less than half-an-hour. So while the poor-man’s glitch experiments on the last two instrumental numbers, “Black Nylon” and “Hotel”, are interesting in their own right and fade to black nicely enough, it’s hard not to miss Hungtai’s distinctive, signature voice as part of the picture. When you have someone who’s both gifted in setting the scene and telling the story as Hungtai is, you wanna live out the illusion as long as possible, and not just wait for the sequel.