Dirty Beaches – Badlands

written by: April 8, 2011
Release Date: March 29, 2011


Buzz band Dirty Beaches is the pet project of Alex Zhang Hungtai, whose debut album Badlands is creating a groundswell of Internet commotion. Falling squarely into the indie rock rattle of acts like Japandroids and No Age, Hungtai embraces bedroom aesthetics in a way that is admirable in theory but wincingly gaudy in practice.

Hungtai’s shtick lies in embracing rockabilly licks and ’90s nostalgia. The result is a collection of hollow-sounding songs that are languid and rarely appealing.

The album’s standout track, “True Blue,” is a Roy Orbison-channeling take on a breakup tune. In a way, the song is a sort of microcosm for the album as a whole: The idea is fine—Hungtai is obviously hyper aware of the more kitschy aspects of ’50s rock aesthetics—but there’s much straining on his behalf. His unyielding attention to detail betrays the congenital sound he seeks.

This straining is painfully prevalent on the album’s second half. Hungtai’s suffusion of dark, atmospheric tones is an attempt to create an air of menace—something seemingly incongruous to the buoyant sounds of a typical Chuck Berry song. He completes this objective by subverting the jumpy bass lines and jangly guitar rhythms of the era and making them sound hollow and resonate, yet can’t escape the realm of novelty.

These tactics mostly stay on the backburner until the album’s closer, “Hotel,” turns the dial to 11. By that point, Hungtai’s myriad influences have come and gone—there’s nothing left but pure gimmickry.

Hungtai’s music has been given such annoying monikers as “lo-fi rockabilly” and “Wavves meets Jerry Lewis.” What’s more likely is he heard Suicide’s eponymous debut and proclaimed, “I wanna do exactly that!”

Awesome, bro.

Admittedly, bringing together old-timey standards with gritty emotionalism in such a DIY fashion seems like a good idea on paper. It’s wrong to chastise Hungtai for being ambitious. His capricious deconstruction of blue suede shoe-isms is an interesting idea formally, but the product feels entirely inauthentic.

There remains a grand distinction in art between what is considered avant-garde and what’s merely fashionable. If you hear Badlands the next time you’re in Urban Outfitters, you’ll know exactly why.

Though Badlands clocks in at a meager 28 minutes, it’s heavy-handed tonality makes an eight-song effort feel as lethargic as a double album. Hungtai is just trying so hard, the result of which renders his music completely inorganic. In stretches, Hungtai sounds downright desperate. His flailing approach to songwriting seems less driven by a desire to create and more by a need to be taken seriously.

Which gives way to more incongruity: Badlands is far too piecemeal for a lo-fi record. Its deliberate, overtly methodical pacing completely defies the minimalist aesthetic presented.

Apparently unbeknownst to him, part of the appeal of lo-fi is the sort of anti-style it employs. In fact, the low-grade production quality of their music was more an act of pragmatism than anything else. Back before it became chic, artists like Lou Barlow and Stephen Malkmus unpretentiously worked within the genre. People responded to their earnestness, not their irony.

As Hungtai borrows tropes from each of these forms, he never establishes himself as the genre alchemist he perceives. Rather, Badlands is an amalgamation of his unboundedly great taste in music. Nothing more.

Dirty Beaches – Badlands Tracklist:

  1. “Speedway King”
  2. “Horses”
  3. “Sweet 17”
  4. “A Hundred Highways”
  5. “True Blue”
  6. “Lord Knows Best”
  7. “Black Nylon”
  8. “Hotel”