A good backstory can do much to help a fresh face’s chance at success, and in that regard, Alex Zhang Huntai’s a fortunate guy. The globetrotting, Taiwan-born musician behind the Dirty Beaches project has some pretty interesting parents — his father spent time in a motorcycle gang before the Cultural Revolution, as well as the Chinese military and a doo-wop cover band — and Huntai’s made a habit of using cracked, sepia-toned photographs from their youth to adorn his vinyl singles and press materials. It’s a somewhat peculiar way for a solo artist to form an identity, but certainly not an empty gesture: though Badlands is the first Dirty Beaches release to feature Huntai’s own likeness on the cover, it is perhaps the one most influenced by his family. After noticing his dad wasn’t enjoying one of his typically experimental performances in Shanghai, Huntai decided to revamp his sound, aspiring to “sing louder and try to be a pop singer.”
Although many are calling Badlands his proper debut, the eight tracks and 26 minutes here are mostly what Huntai’s been doing for years on a string of quality singles, EPs, and burnt CDs: lo-fi, occasionally sample-centric vignettes and snapshots, served in short supply. It’s a bit more focused and ambitious in nature, but the main distinction is that Badlands is indeed the loudest-sung and poppiest Beaches outing to date.
Interestingly, Huntai’s method for assimilating pop is simply to swallow it whole. For Badlands’ middle-run clutch of highlights, he grafts a few waxen chunks from the 60s hits of his dad’s youth, muddles the fidelity to make it sound like the vinyl’s been used as an ashtray ever since, and seamlessly blends his own additions (guitar and vocals) into the mix. Huntai’s reimagining of his source material tends to be pretty narrow in scope, as though consciously avoiding anything anachronistic: lead single “True Blue” snags its prom ballad groove from The Ronettes’ “Keep On Dancing,” and Huntai likewise channels Phil Spector’s contemporaries in draping some Beach Boys surf licks and Orbison-esque vocals on top. “Lord Knows Best” owes its mesmeric piano melody to Françoise Hardy’s “Voila,” and the deep-voiced mumble Huntai sighs along is a pretty clear reference to her collaborator and fellow countryman Serge Gainsbourg. The bass line watusi of “A Hundred Highways” comes from Little Peggy March’s 1963 million-seller “I Will Follow Him,” or rather, 60s Japanese psych band Les Rallizes Dénudés’ cover thereof. And the thickly reverberant vocals and noisy guitar Huntai splatters atop is reminiscent of… well, that same Dénudés cover.
The rest of Badlands doesn’t sample (or if it does, not as obviously), but is still characterized by an uncanny sense of the familiar. The first three tracks (the “sing louder” part of the Badlands equation) explore the synthesis of repetitive Krautrock rhythms and Alan-Vega-meets-young-Presley yowl, most effectively on the rollicking “Sweet 17.” On the flipside, the spectral, night-drive noir of the closing duo of instrumentals, “Black Nylon” and “Hotel,” ought to be familiar to anyone who’s been following Huntai for a while — they could very well be holdovers from 2008’s Horror LP, or last year’s Night City cassette.
In total, the most compelling thing about Badlands is the unusual role Huntai plays as a songwriter: he seems not as interested in doing something new, per se, as he is in meticulously forging antique pop and rock artifacts. These tape-worn tunes are like alternate takes from an alternate universe or covers of plausible what-if daydreams: Spector producing with Brian Wilson rather than telling him to sod off, Hardy linking up with Gainsbourg a year earlier than she did in reality, etc. It’s an enjoyable record (if somewhat slight, for a full-length), but its best moments are a lot like those faded mom-and-dad photos Huntai likes to use: iconic, intriguing, but not quite his own.