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Dirty Beaches
Badlands Tom Killingbeck , April 18th, 2011 07:34

If Ducktails reconfigured Beach Boys harmonizing into bleached, hazy drones and Washed Out performed a similarly wistful translation of 80s synth-pop, then Dirty Beaches take the dusty-leathered sounds of rockabilly and attempt an equivalent process. Alex Zhang Hungtai's one-man project charts a tradition of desolate American rock 'n' roll and summons the tropes of its sonic history convincingly, especially when compared to the sometimes lazily half-remembered sounds that his peers perform. On this debut LP, he continues to work with the sometimes harshly cassette-orientated lo-fi aesthetic that made his celebrated early releases so eerily evocative.

That title says it all — Badlands seems rooted in the low-key melancholy of Springsteen's Nebraska, not to mention the Boss's source material, Terence Malick's wonderful 1973 film. But Zhang Hungtai goes even further in conveying the inertia and hopelessness of the latter-day American Dream and the same futility of small-town life that drove Charles Starkweather to take off with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate and drive across the USA on an indiscriminate killing spree in 1958. While it has often been mooted that the hollow howls that dotted the dusty highways of Springsteen's record were indebted to the vocalising of Suicide's Alan Vega, (seemingly confirmed when the Boss played 'Dream Baby Dream' live touring Devils and Dust) Dirty Beaches takes this connection to its logical extreme.

Zhang Hungtai's delivery is clearly in thrall to Vega's nihilistic rockabilly-aping yowl – just have a listen to the opening track, 'Speedway King', which is almost comically reminiscent of 'Ghost Rider'. Although the sphere of influence is blatant, Zhang Hungtai does perform interesting manoeuvres with the material. It's altogether far more heavy and oppressive than the occasionally dreamy Suicide – the clanging, dense clouds of noise reminiscent of half-derelict factories in the Mid-West. But Dirty Beaches' connection to rockabilly is traced back further than the punk-era appropriation of Springsteen and Suicide, as the record develops from its opening clutch of bleak road-to-nowhere narratives onto a more clearly 50s rock & roll slant. It's around 'Sweet 17' that Zhang Hungtai evokes the wind whistling past a certain grave in Graceland, Memphis.

That undead-Elvis moan, as perfected by Lux Interior of the Cramps, is employed in abundance with the classic jailbait rock & roll narrative deconstructed until it reaches a frenzied repetition of "sweet seventeen! Sweet! Seventeen" - a tortured holler from the blue collar abyss. It's like something from David Lynch's Wild At Heart, a tune Nicolas Cage's character might croon to his adoring paramour. The record atmospherically roves throughout, summoning that troubled Starkweather 'on the road' image with a host of referential Americana sounds. The author seems to have spent a life travelling nomadically; born in Thailand, he's since inhabited everywhere from Toronto to Honolulu. Indeed, as we veer into psychedelic country, there's a hint of the Hawaiian-kitsch hillbilly boogie of Moon Mullican.

It's on 'True Blue' that you sense Zhang Hungtai is capable of creating something truly special. To propose a Lynchian allusion again, it seems like he's working in the same minimal rockabilly framework as the Twin Peaks song 'Just You and I'; ghostly beautiful masculine melancholia that taps into the uncanny. It's clear, reverb-drenched guitar line and shimmering percussion dredge it from the grinding engine-throb of the rest of the record to stunning effect. His Vega wail mutates into something more tragic and tough/camp – think John Waters' Cry Baby. Likewise, 'Lord Knows Best' reveals a hoodlum heart, crooning "I've walked through the valleys and lord knows best / That I don't give a damn about anyone but you."

Humming with squealing distortion, his instrumentation is a gnarled Chevrolet car crash, complementing the greasy bad boyfriend vocals in an ideal refashioning of the record's musical lineage. But, while there's plenty here to admire, Badlands comes nowhere close to seating itself in the company of its influences. At 27 minutes in length, there's no room in this album for filler, and the choice of two dull instrumentals to bring it to climax is unforgivable. The four tracks that make up the album's centre would doubtless make for one of the year's most fascinating lo-fi EPs, but in navigating such an esteemed road of ancestry, Zhang Hungtai simply can't afford to pad out his record in the way he does. He's operating within an appealing rock & roll convention, and this is an enjoyable enough ride; yet as in the case of his home-made sounding, out-of-focus contemporaries, its hard to recommend something that borrows so much without bringing any true innovation to the table.