Friday, April 1, 2011

Comments on BADLANDS

I really don't have any idea how to talk about this Dirty Beaches album. To start, I guess, I could say that it really exemplifies the falsity of a perceived connection between originality and goodness. This album is incredibly original: it combines post-rock, lo-fi, early rock-and-roll, classic rock and numerous other influences into a relatively cohesive style, one that I have never expected to experience. Is it good though? Eh.

These days its pretty common to see different bands pulling from various eras and styles of music from album to album, to the point that we hear a song by an established band and say, "this sounds like Men at Work." The most recent Strokes album probably showed the dark side of this reappropriative stylistic exploration. We see the Strokes doing Men at Work, as opposed to the Strokes developing a new multi-faceted sound. On the other hand, you have people like the late LCD Soundsystem who similarly pull from influences, but do so fully enough that variation on their part doesn't seem like LCD Soundsystem doing Gang of Four, but rather LCD Soundsystem exploring their abilities and developing within their sound that has been inspired in some way by Gang of Four. Dirty Beaches occupies a middle ground between these two extremes. There's no way to deny that this sounds like a guy doing an Elvis impression, but there's no way we can say that the band is trying to sound like Elvis as a whole. Elvis wasn't this weird.

So, to be honest, the best songs on this album are those that sound most like a "real" song, with verses, choruses, bridges etc. This is not necessarily because their less melodic songs are too "out there" in their derivations, but because their more complete songs allow them to more fully embody the mix of styles that they have grabbed. The beginning and end of this album are, to be frank, boring. "Speedway King" succeeds in being thoroughly ominous+Elvis, but that's about it. It takes the sort of repetitive post-rock approach, with repeated extraterrestrially throbbing instrumentals, but with none of the growth that allows bands like Boredoms to make compelling music. It is, in other words, impossibly anticlimactic. "Black Nylon", similarly, sounds like the soundtrack on an Akira Kurosawa print: interestingly creepy, but there would be no difference if this song was three minutes or ten. Its not developed enough to create a textured mood.

These songs, however, are almost the building blocks of the album's better (much better) tracks. "Horses" has a similarly constant unchanging loop, but it moves, it implies that more things will happen. And they do: Alex Zhang Huntai, the guy with the voice, actually goes through various, relatively well defined segments. There's even a terrific guitar solo, distilling the atmospheric body horror of the song into a series of viscerally creepy clicks and booms. All of this succeeds in making the songs constantly yet intricately and kinetically creepy. It doesn't change, but it seems like its always moving.

The best moments on the album occur when this mixture of influences truly congeals into pretty unsettling combination of old and new, of old subtly developed restraint and modern repetitive and equalizing disorder. The combo succeeds in making the restrained elements seem foreboding and the relatively explosive elements seem costly. It solves the old rock problem, that shock needs contrast. Here the various elements serve to widen the distance the emotion has to move, making the difference seem all the more drastic. My favorite song ("A Hundred Highways"), for example, sees Huntai crooning almost calmly over a reminiscently methodical blues bass-line, while razor sharp guitars lick the higher register. Its all very tense until the guitars erupt into a solo that is so steeped in anger and loss that I could swear that the guitarist had just suffered some sort of major life-changing trauma, sounding like the hell-fire of Hendrix, just less positive and purpose driven. Its effective in an almost physically relatable way: sputtering, moaning, vibrating out the pain. The lo-fi, surprisingly, just serves to make it more universal, in the sense that a certain distance serves to make the eccentricities of their sound seem foreign rather than weird, allowing the universally relatable sounds to rise closer to the surface.

Unfortunately this sort of relatable tension and release only seems to happen once or twice. At other times it seems that the band is simply concerned with either being eccentric, poutingly moody, or both. "True Blue", for example, just seems to be all eccentric restraint filtered through flattening lo-fi hiss. At this point I just don't know what to do with them. What are they getting at? Nostalgia? If they are I'm not feeling it.

Overall, its a hit or miss album that, if it is worth it, is worth it for the promise of more consistency later on. Hopefully Huntai will be capable of separating the creepily touching wheat from the boringly eccentric chaff.

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