On Dirty Beaches’ full debut, Alex Zhang Hungtai delivers eight songs of spectral ’50s/‘60s rockabilly. At points, the material isn’t particularly original, as he doesn’t shy away from using samples from ‘60s artists. But taken as a whole, it’s a fascinating, if brief document of Twin Peaks-style nostalgia as refracted through the prism of American underground rock such as Suicide and the Cramps.
On “A Hundred Highways”, his muffled, faraway vocals are set to the beat of Little Peggy March’s 1963 hit “I Will Follow Him”. But the peppy sound of the original is completely turned on its head; the sludgy, distorted bass guitar is actually sampled from Japanese psych-rockers Les Rallizees Denudes’ 1969 track “Night of the Assassins”. Layered atop this are sheets of white noise and guitar feedback, giving the track a haunting feel, like the ghost of Elvis traversing the deserts of Las Vegas.
“Sweet 17” and “Horses” have a similar vibe, although it’s quite obvious that that the vocal crooning and shuffling drum beat are following in the footsteps of Suicide’s Alan Vega, complete with the sudden yelps that made his vocal style so compelling. The throbbing, persistent bassline and noisy guitar riffs add a great touch of passion, energy and adrenaline.
The lonesome ballad “True Blue” is a triumph. The influences are what you’d expect; there’s bits of ‘60s girl groups like The Ronettes and ‘50s doo woppers The Platters, but Tsang’s deep baritone adds a sense of faraway mystique that complements the track’s sepia-tinged nostalgia nicely. “Lord Knows Best” nicks the keyboard melody from Francois Hardy’s ‘Voila’, but is solid as well, with Lee Hazelwood’s vocal imprint coming through loud and clear.
One downside is that the album doesn’t include “Black Silk Stockings”, which appears to be an unreleased song that appears to only have been performed in full for a Guitar Center video of all things. It has the perfect mix of Vega-style evil Elvis vocals, a menacing bass groove and noisy guitars that give the album much of its bite.
Badlands exhumes the exquisite corpse of an America that never truly existed. Think Route 66, neon-lit roadside diners and American Bandstand. The sound is immediate, and the atmosphere unmistakeable; but where Twin Peaks only hints at the squalor just beneath the surface, Badlands revels in it.