Whereas most music creates or at least retells stories, Alex Zhang Hungtai and his home brand nostalgia is in itself a fiction. The pseudonym Dirty Beaches merely provides the catch; a western moniker to hide a somewhat unmarketable Taiwanese birth name. This is however where Hungtai’s dismissal of his own identity begins and ends.
Hungtai once admitted that that it was film, not music that first inspired him as an artist. An appreciation for the visual is apparent in the faded sepia portraits that framed the pre-release tracks from Badlands- the pencilled faces of his mother and father adorning their covers. Video footage of Dirty Beaches is similarly muddy, serving as the visual epitome of the band’s lo-fi sonics. Were we to judge the book by its proverbial cover, the most rational conclusion would be that such a presentation is true representation of Hungtai’s inner most urges- the desire to reupholster the old upon the walls of progress. In making this judgement however, a disservice is being paid to the film maker. Biographical films are rarely eponymously titled, so why should Dirty Beaches be any different?
Badlands is not Dirty Beaches’ debut as most would have you believe, yet it is Hungtai’s first as a self proclaimed ‘pop singer’. Like many contemporaries, sampling of 60’s artists provides the melody upon which Hungtai can layer his personal staples of lo-fi reverb and delay. Never is this more evident than in the bravado soaked coda to ‘Sweet 17’ in which his swollen vocals cut the tape, leaving behind nothing but the burnt aftermath of last night’s sentiments. Into the void comes the Undertones reminiscent ‘A Hundred Highways’, simultaneously exuding Elvis croon in equal dosage to punk braggadocio. ‘A Hundred Highway’s’ exultancy does however signal the end of the record’s driven beginning, bringing with it a lull into ballad harmonies and romantic tones.
Personally speaking, tracks 5 and 6 save Badlands from mediocrity. Not that the opening lives unappreciated, I just feel that Hungtai is at his most comfortable in these blissful clouds where instead of clashing with his production, the songwriting and effects truly complement one another. Just as for many other lo-fi artists, reducing the discordance between melody and fidelity appears to be the key to stopping tracks weighing ten tonnes apiece. Here the result is startling in its change of direction yet refuses to abandon the structures and approach that define the album. Although high points remain amongst the rest, during ‘True Blue’ and ‘Lord Knows Best’ Hungtai’s artistry least borders artisanal incessancy.
In truth, Dirty Beaches probably should have stuck to this formula for the whole of this record. Somehow Hungtai hasn’t quite managed to mash together the moving images that seethe behind a producers eye, just waiting to reach fruition in their eventual incarnation. Cinematically, Badlands does nothing but cement Dirty Beaches sentimental values, blurring memory onto century old photographic paper. Sadly, the paper feels like it has worn too thin and the colours have all but blurred together. What is left however is a perfectly marketable painting, a perfectly watchable film, only lacking in the sense that its not quite the coherent and interesting artwork that it should have been.