Tall, slender, tattooed and prone to combing his slicked-back coif mid-performance, Dirty Beaches’ Alex Zhang Hungtai looks every bit the unsettling and undeniably cool anachronism his music suggests. Though the name Dirty Beaches may make imply the kind of nostalgic, bleached-out and terminally chill brand of sunny-side-up punk rock the likes of Best Coast, Wavves and any number of other acts have been coughing up in the last couple years, Hungtai inhabits an entirely different world. The clock is rarely set any earlier than midnight on debut album Badlands, and nothing ever seems friendly or safe. This is rockabilly with a streak of David Lynch, or a more quietly ominous Suicide. Comfortable music this ain’t.
However, it is certainly good music. Suicide is an important reference point to Dirty Beaches’ music, as Hungtai’s reverb-heavy mutters and howls often bear a strong resemblance to that of Alan Vega. Yet where he occasionally let out blood curdling screams a la “Frankie Teardrop,” Hungtai sets aside vocal shredding in favor of a range between sinister whispers and a croon akin to a deranged Chris Isaak. Standout track “Sweet 17” perfectly displays such a range, its hypnotic groove underscoring Hungtai’s leap from sometimes indecipherable croons to a climactic series of yelps of the song’s title near the track’s end. On the murky “Speedway,” he howls lines like “We’ll take the ghost of the Cadillac king,” creating a dark and eerie aftermath to songs like “Dead Man’s Curve” or “Leader of the Pack,” while his obscured mutters on “Horses” play like the villain in the song’s ultra-cool noir groove.
In essence, Badlands is an ominous take on rockabilly, put through a filter of lo-fi loops and given a series of scrapes and scratches, rendering it beautiful in its own fucked up way. On a song like “A Hundred Highways,” Hungtai takes the very basic and accessible idea of a bluesy, ’50s-style ballad and slowly pushes it to a more menacing end, layering on wailing strata of feedback and noise until the squalls finally give way. There are, however, moments of tenderness and beauty without nearly as much terror, as on “True Blue,” another ’50s-style, surf-inflected ballad that finds Hungtai affecting Roy Orbison-like falsetto, as well as sing-speak lines like “I just want you to know… that my heart… will always be true.” Similarly, “Lord Knows Best” loops an infectious piano hook for a lingering slow-dance, but its atmosphere is so severely creepy that any sweethearts swaying to its leisurely beat would do well to keep a close watch over each other’s shoulders.
As strange and sometimes harrowing as Hungtai’s songs often are, the most deeply disconcerting moments occur during the two instrumental tracks at the album’s end. The first of these, “Black Nylon,” is little more than a slowly throbbing bass overlain with minor key synth, veering toward something from Joy Division’s Closer more than any of Dirty Beaches’ more explicitly rockabilly influences. Yet the album’s closer, “Hotel,” is easily the album’s most disturbing two minutes, building upon a repetitive low chime as if ringing a bell from a clocktower in the underworld, while its plodding beat approximates the slow shuffle of the knife-wielding maniac just out of sight.
Spanning less than 30 minutes, Badlands is a brief listen. But then again, it’s so intense, so quietly menacing and jagged that anything longer might be a bit much to take in one sitting. That doesn’t, however, mean it isn’t enjoyable. Its mixture of American nostalgia with deeply ingrained noir sensibilities is a perfectly measured recipe, yielding something that delivers both gorgeously hypnotic melodies and a subtly lingering sense of fear. It’s the perfect album to soundtrack a drive down an empty highway after midnight. Just think twice about picking up hitchhikers.
Suicide – Suicide
Roy Orbison – Crying
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Let Love In
Stream: Dirty Beaches – “Sweet 17”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.