Album Review: Badlands

★★★★☆

Duality just might be the defining concept of the debut release from Dirty Beaches (née Montreal's Alex Zhang Hungtai).

On the surface, the album is just another jangling collection of lo-fi '60s-inspired surf jams. But look again and you may find that the similarities between Dirty Beaches and other like-minded bands such as No Joy and Beach Fossils are few and far between. A darker element arises from Badlands.

The opening track, "Speedway King," along with the darkly sensual "Black Nylon" and the downright sinister closing track, "Hotel," inject a more twisted sensibility into the album's core. Elvis, in effect, has been transposed into a Hitchcock film.

Hungtai's darkness is driven out from a repetitive bass line. The sound initially evokes the image of a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway but that insistent bass line begins to hypnotize the listener. This intensifies and adds the shadowy elements, plunging the listener into something of an alternative take on SoCal, the metropolitan area of south California.

True to its dual nature, the album has another side. Standout track "Lord Knows Best" gently waltzes with the help of Vincent Guaraldi-esque piano riffs and Hungtai croons that he doesn't "care about anyone but you." This track has been kicking around the blogs for a while now – and it's easy to see why. "Lord Knows Best" is one of those melodies that will irrevocably stick in your mind, making it a must-download.

Other intriguing aspects of Badlands include the fuzzy guitar sound on "A Hundred Highways" and the Beach Blanket Bingo-worthy "Sweet 17." The versatility of the album becomes truly apparent as Hungtai works to paint two very different pictures with a result he calls, "The sound of waves against a picturesque and putrid shore, the silent rumble of a Chevy as it speeds by in slow motion."

That Hungtai is able to produce such a superb album with such immense contrast is a testament to his ear for melody and sheer musicianship. Alternately menacing and inviting, Badlands and Dirty Beaches are certainly competing in today's multitude of lo-fi heavyweights.