Badlands: Album Review

Imagine if you would for a second, a lonely highway.  Your open-top Chevy is speeding down a poorly lit Route 401, when it suddenly breaks down by the side of a deserted train line. You’ve got a pack of smokes, a bottle of bourbon in the passenger seat, a guitar in the trunk and a memory of the girl who you’re driving away from.  You hear a dull noise in the distance, and suddenly a freight train rattles pass your face, roaring into the night, kicking up the dust and knocking the sixth cigarette from your mouth, while a dark stranger watches you from the other side of the track.  This could well be the opener to a David Lynch film, but it’s also what Badlands sounds like, the third album by Alex Zhang Hungtai, or by his gritty neo-noir name Dirty Beaches.

Hungtai’s music evokes an alienated, tortured figure; that mysterious lone traveller wondering through motels, cafes, broken towns, singing rockabilly to an empty saloon bar.  Hungtai himself was born in Taiwan, but has lived in Hawaii, America and Canada, bringing forth this mismatched wanderer.  Similarly, the diverse styles of music, sees do-wop rockabilly mixed with monumental use of the reverb and Elvis style vocals with whelps and yelps. Like Elvis, he dons a distinct and well-kept pompadour (live footage sees him pausing between songs only to keep his do, do-wop) yet there is nothing squeaky-clean-Elvis-heart-throb about Hungtai. Dirty Beaches is dirty, dark and Lynchonian to the end – Elvis, if he was allowed to record on acid.  When you hear Badlands, you would not be blamed to assume your speakers were broken, or someone had attempted to record this off the radio.  Yet the echoey, grainy sounds which may have very well been recorded in a dank basement, half submerged in water, in the middle of nowhere, sounds so basic, so archaic that it induces a nostalgic drift through troubled and delusional times, a time between post-war and pre summer of love.  The US in the 1950s was full of prosperity, wealth patterns and the rise of materialism and technology from household appliances to the Cadillac, and the rise of popular culture forms from Ed Sullivan to Marylyn Monroe.  Despite the glamour, there was a rising climate of fear with the Red Scare, minority groups and those who weren’t able to latch on to this boom were social aliens; isolated and alone as sprawling decay struck small towns and smaller lives.  Obviously I don’t really know what that was like, but listening to Hungtai as he rips through amps or croons painfully through songs, calls to mind this idea of lonely isolation in a cold-war climate, making his music very compelling, like watching a film.  His music is like Jim Stark, Terry Malloy, Travis Bickle and even Gordie Lachance, plus obviously many obscure Lynch characters and creations (Sailor Ripley for example).

As you might have established, Badlands is no easy listen.  The opener Speedway King feels like that open-topped driving discussed above, full of hard guitar, inaudible lyrics and as many have cited the ‘Suicide + loads of reverb one’.  Horses continues with menace, while album highlight Sweet 17 is very listenable; a two note riff which never stops, a rhythm which is almost drowned out by Hungtai’s swapping between shouting and whispering ‘Six out of ten’ – whatever that means.  A Hundred Highways is slower but still retains a Lost Highway edge to it, but is full of the most grotesque guitar/amp treatment which sounds like the inside of a bell tower at midday.

But Hungtai can also do a pretty good ballad as well.  True Blue is beautiful and sad, as one feel’s a sense of Hungtai’s disillusionment with his own identity, having been immersed in so many cultures his entire life.  He also mentions in interviews his desire to connect to his father through his music, creating a deeply nostalgic piece, in line with the recurring concept of the album.  There is also a wonderful (deliberate to not) ode to Elvis Presley with his Are You Lonesome Tonight style spoken word ‘Well I just want you to know, that my heart will always be true, true blue, for you’Lord Knows Best is also a slow number, which is probably the most comprehendible song on the album and is accompanied with a catchy piano sequence.

There is still time on this quick fire eight-song album to strike fear into the listener.  Black Nylon is a genuinely terrifying instrumental to listen to, and as I listen I keep one eye of the door to make sure Dennis Hopper doesn’t burst in with a canister of amyl nitrite (‘Don’t you fucking look at me!’).  Disappointingly the rather anonymous Hotel closes the album, another instrumental full of repetitive blips, ominous chords and crackles, It’s probably some abstract Lynchonian reference I’m missing out on, as it does confirm the filmic nature of Badlands (Hungtai make’s no secret of his inspiration for Lynch).  Gritty openers and the damn right cool, followed by slow ballads, then the dénouement; terrifying and ominous instrumentals, as the credits roll.

So like a good neo-noir classic, Badlands is compelling, if at times, quite uncomfortable to endure.  The style is certainly from another time, yet since bands are so often caught up in recreating well-used sounds of the past, Dirty Beaches nostalgic sound is one of the most unique sounding things around at this time, and perhaps a fitting contribution to a modern day alienation.

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