Badlands, Alex Zhang Hungtai's first full-fledged album as Dirty Beaches, is cleaner-sounding than his prolific output of cassettes and singles, but only by a matter of degree. Hungtai is still charting the triple point where punk, rockabilly, and lo-fi industrial meet, and Badlands calls to mind a parallel universe where Eddie Cochran recorded in a grimy New York loft in the ‘70s, or if Suicide's Martin Rev and Alan Vega were able to break into Sun Records and lay down some clandestine tracks. Badlands evokes the nasty, gritty underbelly of teenage rebellion, as captured by the album’s cover image of Hungtai's greaser profile wreathed in smoke; there’s an urgency to his ‘50s meets ‘70s nostalgia that makes it feel largely unexplored, and even if songs like “Sweet 17” sound familiar enough to trace their basic outlines, they crackle with a weird energy that feels ghostly yet fresh. Hungtai's artfully lo-fi production adds the perfect atmosphere to each track, whether it’s the noir chug of “Horses” or the sexy yet morose “Black Nylon,” a veritable peep show of brooding strings set to an unchanging, hip-swaying beat. His reliance on loops makes Badlands feel all the more abstract and endless, as if the roads his characters travel never had a destination in the first place. A chiaroscuro mix of innocence and darkness leavens the album and provides many of its highlights: “A Hundred Highways” pits sugary chord changes straight out of a teen idol ballad against squealing feedback and a monotonous rhythm that lends a subtle tension; “True Blue” borrows hints of Roy Orbison, the Walker Brothers, and the Ronettes for a sweet yet shadowy love song; and best of all is the single “Lord Knows Best,” a prayer with selfish undercurrents set to an instantly familiar piano melody that evokes every last dance and closing time ever. While the closing track “Hotel” manages to be dread-inspiring and anticlimactic at the same time, it doesn’t detract from the evocatively tattered songs that came before it. It feels like Hungtai is still developing his sound to its fullest, but Badlands is still an intriguing and often haunting official debut.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares