In some indie-music orbits, obfuscation is the new hip. But with too many things to hide behind, it's too easy, really. In truth, it takes a lot to craft deliberately lo-fi music that's convincing outside of diehard cliques. It seems Taiwan-born abstractionist Alex Zhang Hungtai has struck upon something special with his one-man act, Dirty Beaches.
It's a rather expository name considering its sounds come in hypnotic tides polluted with filmy white noise. Indeed, Hungtai deftly invokes all the requisite touchstones like echoes, hiss and distortion. Despite this blurred palette, there's a sharp distillation to the vision behind Dirty Beaches' new album, Badlands.
A vibrant, colorful language, ranging from enigmatic film scores ("Black Nylon," "Hotel") to rock & roll kitsch (rockabilly, surf and oldies) percolates through the vintage lo-fi haze. Key to the album's vitality is the raw conviction of Hungtai's voice. Whether it's his tenderly arabesque crooning on the crestfallen "True Blue" or the rockabilly histrionics of primal surf drones like "Horses" and "Sweet 17," he brings a human heat to the restless vagueness.
Most importantly, Hungtai's vocals and critical instrumental hooks aren't nearly as buried in the mix as is the output of many of his peers. In fact, repeated listens reveal a considerable degree of care in sonic proportioning, separating the punctuation from the patina. This judiciousness is epitomized by "A Hundred Highways," a song made exceptional by the ribs of damaged guitar noise, Hungtai's romantic purring and the signature bass line from Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him."
But when you boil things all the way down to the bone like Dirty Beaches does, the risk is that there may not be much skeleton to show. The razor-thin margin of error of this starkly minimalist approach is what makes Badlands all the more miraculous. And instead of simply being stylishly dissociative, the album's austerity quivers with pulse, spirit and scuffed mystique.