Potential Polaris Pick #1: Dirty Beaches – Badlands

(With the first round of Polaris Prize voting rapidly approaching, I’ve decided to post some thoughts here on albums that’ve been tossed around for consideration, in no particular order. If there’s something that came out between June 1, 2010 and May 31, 2011 that you think I’d be a fool to ignore, just drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter.)

Pro: Atmosphere like you wouldn’t believe. Alex Zhang Huntai makes music that sounds like a David Lynch movie, if Lynch was obsessed with early 60s rock and rockabilly instead off semi-sinister jazz. It’s smoky, lo-fi rock drowned in an ocean of reverb with a healthy dose of drone just in case, and Huntai himself croons and hiccoughs like a rock ‘n’ roll vampire, straddling the line between spooky and seductive.

There are real songs underneath the stylistic tics, too. Badlands is full of artful stabs at pure pop that Huntai does whatever he can to bury, scratch, stab and mangle. Rather than coming off detached or overly self-conscious, the extra layers make the album feel like a puzzle to be put together, or a transmission from some half-remembered alternate past.

Con: Sampling isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but Huntai’s handling of his source material is occasionally a bit uncreative for my taste. “True Blue” does a great job recasting a Ronettes prom night from the view of the creepy kid leaning against the wall, but then there’s “A Hundred Highways”; even with its white squall of a breakdown, is it that much different from the Les Rallizes Denudes track that it nicks its main riff from?

Plus, at eight songs and under half an hour, it’s a little scant. That wouldn’t be an issue if there weren’t any wasted moments (concision’s a plus in my book), but the back-to-back instrumentals that round off the album both feel underdeveloped compared to what comes before them.

Verdict: There’s a lovely sense of melancholy and genuine pop instincts underneath the layers of grime and cigarette burns. As appealing as its scrappiness is, though, I can’t see it climbing much higher than the bottom of my top 5 at best.

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