2015 seems like a good time to be the Chemical Brothers. Their familiar flavor of broad-minded psychedelic techno is worming its long way back toward hipness via spiritual successors like James Holden and Daniel Avery, even as the ever-more-vertiginous drops of the EDM boom make their iconically block-rocking bombast seem unthinkably subtle by comparison.
Following 2010’s streamlined synth-fantasia powerhouse Further, Born In The Echoes revisits the rockier, guest-studded template that elevated their classic ’90s LPs, but also marred much of their ’00s output, enlisting a crew of alt-rock vocalists (St. Vincent, Beck, Cate Le Bon) who contribute a bit of personality without overwhelming—or even dominating—their respective tracks. But vocals, despite appearing in some form on nearly every track, are rarely the focus—tellingly, this album’s appointed swirling, acidwashed “Setting Sun” analogue/“Tomorrow Never Knows” homage (“I’ll See You There”) is largely instrumental.
Two decades after their debut, the Chems remain committed to their singular vision, still plying those heady, slamming breakbeats and reverently swooning synths, continuing to breathe new life from the echoes.
—K. Ross Hoffman
The Continental Drifters were one of the great coulda-woulda-shoulda bands of the ’90s. They came with a pedigree that included the Bangles, the Bluerunners, the dB’s, the Dream Syndicate and even the Cowsills, the real-life inspiration for the Partridge Family. They had three lead singer/songwriters, a powerful live show, and the kind of chemistry that made bandmates feel they were part of a drinking club, not just a band.
So, what went wrong? Plenty. Critical acclaim for music hardly anybody heard. Drugs. Revolving-door membership. Hurricane Katrina. Bad timing. Put them all together and you’ve got three studio albums that still sound very good, plus this double-CD package to fill the gaps before and after.
The first captures the band’s early L.A. lineup, playing songs that would later appear on 1994’s Continental Drifters and 1999’s Vermilion. The second showcases the band after a move to New Orleans, with a set of covers and one-off tributes to the Hollies, Fairport Convention, Gram Parsons and Neil Young that didn’t make it onto 2001’s final Better Day. For the uninitiated, Vermilion remains the place to start, but if there are any completists still out there, fans who can’t shake the memory of seeing the Drifters play live, this note’s for you.
Hello? Yes, I’m standing alongside the Hume Highway outside Melbourne. We’re going to need an ambulance, stat. Send whatever driver is most prepared to handle a supremely dissonant scene. Ah, well, I can’t see much at all, but—as unlikely as it seems from both practical and metaphysical perspectives—it sounds as if there has been a devastating multi-van pile-up involving Joy Division, circa Daydream Nation Sonic Youth, and Slip It In-era Black Flag. Nope, not kidding. Seriously, it’s nasty—you can’t really tell where any one influence begins or ends. The whole thing is just melded together throwing o a shit-ton of heat.
Actually, to be completely honest, it’s terrifying … yet also weirdly gorgeous and enlivening. No, I can’t give you any more information. I’m putting my headphones on and heading into the smoke. There’s a very persuasive voice amidst the cacophony whispering, “Embrace the pain.” And my personal belief is we all should. Dial tone.
With his pointed folk sensibilities and his familial gospel thrust, this Olympia, Wash., singer/songwriter is always filled with good intentions and quiet intensity. A holy softness marks his secular work (think of Noah Gundersen as you would a male Leyla McCalla), and its lyrical touchstones include love lost and hope abandoned and renewed.
With Carry The Ghost, however, Gundersen applies his flat, sandy voice (Jackson Browne-ish, to be sure) to more existential lyrical matters and pulsing, syncopated sounds. Take, for instance, the elegant simplicity of “Slow Dancer”—its tiny synth-trap pulse and angry guitar fuzz set upon a bedrock of blocked piano chords. Or the philosophically weighty, but harmonically breezy “Show Me The Light.” Or the frank-yet-fussy (in a good way) musicality of “I Need A Woman.” These songs benefit from Gundersen’s past, yet leave hope (some of it, at least) and genteelness behind in a cloud of ambient smoke. Good. —A.D. Amorosi
Cocteau Twins was three albums and seven EPs into its career before its first U.S. release, The Pink Opaque, arrived in 1986, but by that time, the Scottish trio was already a cult favorite among the college-radio crowd. Opaque was a smart compilation that served as a perfect introduction; although Cocteau Twins recorded six albums and a slew of EPs over the following decade, it still contains 40 minutes of the band’s best work, including heavy, goth-leaning album tracks like “Wax And Wane,” heavenly singles like “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” and some of Elisabeth Fraser’s most memorable, ineffable melodies. like “Lorelei” and “Aikea-Guinea.” A few were alternate mixes and one track, “Millimillenary,” is still a rarity.
The Pink Opaque has long been out of print, so this vinyl (and digital) reissue is relevant, even among other Cocteau Twins compilations. The Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay EPs arrived in November 1985, and here they’re combined onto one album. They’re transitional, often more ethereal Cocteau Twins. (“Pink Orange Red” is the highlight of the eight tracks.)
These Blackpool musical anarchists burst upon Thatcher’s ’80s like an angrier, punkier colleague of Gang Of Four or PiL. ’Twas fucked-up post-punk for slamdancing, with bassist John Robb’s vocals grating as much as the guitar work, not to mention the rhythms Nick Brown’s hyper-adrenalized drums sent skittering all over the map.
Reuniting in 2009 (at the behest of no less than My Bloody Valentine) for their first studio release since 20 years before that, the Membranes take on heady stuff : a concept LP tying in quantum physics and, as Robb puts it, “the story of everything—it’s also about sex and death.” It works best on third track “21st Century Man,” as Robb snarls over a cement mixer bump-and-grind, “I’m a hanged man/I’ve got my head in my hands, man/I know too much, and I feel everything/And it disgusts me!” In 24 words, the Membranes pose the only sane reaction to the modern world.
On misfit’s miscellany “what’s normal anyway,” Miguel Pimentel touchingly enumerates his internal contradictions: “too opinionated for the pacifists,” “too far out for the in crowd,” etc. He’s a mess of them—a sensitive dreamer, a flamboyant bad boy, a wide-eyed romantic, a wantonly lascivious horndog. Wildheart is darker than its immaculately crafted predecessor, toughening up Kaleidoscope Dream’s paisley swirl of bedroom R&B and blissy pop with snarling rock guitars and hard-edged funk, but its palette remains expansive.
Take back-to-back sex jams that are—respectively—sweet enough to sing for your grandma (the luxuriously creamy “Coffee”) and filthy enough to make Prince blush (“the valley.”) Speaking of the Purple One … well, it’s hard not to, and hard to overstate his overarching influence on Miguel’s entire fearlessly polymorphic mien, which also makes it tempting to mentally position this set alongside his own similarly audacious, inventive (and dirtyminded) third, and dream wild dreams about what’s still to come. For now, if he’s still too hippy-dippy for the badasses, too edgy for the soul heads, too smooth for the punks, whatever—well, that’s their loss.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Thirty-five years on from “Love Will Tear Us Apart”—Joy Division’s magnum opus during a short career that was essentially a human highlight reel of concepts that would go on to form the backbone of what we now shorthand as “post-punk”—the band remains a mythical unicorn, a Mancunian magic act that briefly appeared on our collective horizon, sprinkled dark genius all over the yard, and then disappeared, morphing into a more commercial entity (New Order) that would still challenge our ears, if not quite our convictions.
Honestly, I know very few music fans of a certain age who don’t already own some or even all of the band’s oeuvre; these re-releases of four nonetheless essential documents may only be speaking to a few completists or hardcore superfans at this point (who will find alternative mixes of “Love” or a randomly unearthed techno-oddity like “As You Said” worth owning anyway on an expanded Substance). But that doesn’t mean that Ian Curtis’ courageousness—his ego and conscience stripped bare for all to hear on classics such as “She’s Lost Control,” “Isolation” and “Transmission”—and his band’s inexplicably tuned-in and empathetic collaboration isn’t still a marvel, years after Curtis’ demise.
If I learned anything as a young person about what it means to be an outsider and still face the day—with flaws and human foibles bravely embroidered on the heart like a glow-in-the-dark badge—I learned it from Joy Division. The future of the rest of our musical lives began here.
Eszter Balint is a fascinating face familiar to downtown NYC film lovers for her work in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, Woody Allen’s Shadows And Fog and a six show arc in Louis C.K.’s Louie. Yet, it’s her small-yet-captivating voice, her hard cabaretish songwriting skills and Baltic art-punk arrangements that form the center of third solo album Airless Midnight.
With the help of dierently skilled avant-guitar heroes (Chris Cochrane, Marc Ribot, Dave Schramm) and weary occasional co-vocalist Sam Phillips, the actress/singer lends dour punk theatricality to the noir-ish “Trouble You Don’t See” and “Calls At 3 AM.” Sleepy-yetchatty moments such as “Lullaby For Tonight” and the dire, dozy “Silence (After The Phone Call)” pack as much power and detail into their track time as any film. Yet, it’s Balint’s voice—small, squirrelly, yet full of blood and emotion—that draws you into Airless Midnight and keeps you riveted.
More menacing and Velvets-influenced than its jangly Paisley Underground brethren, the Dream Syndicate was born seemingly fully formed, creating a debut masterpiece—1982’s The Days Of Wine And Roses—that’s been sorely out of print since 2001, but has now been remastered and reissued. From the opening notes of “Tell Me When It’s Over,” the interplay between guitarist/vocalist Steve Wynn, lead guitarist Karl Precoda, drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Kendra Smith is incendiary and hypnotic, particularly on the scorching “That’s What You Always Say” and the thrilling, epic title track. The Days Of Wine And Roses is essential to any understanding of the college-rock era and represents a major gap in any record collection from which it’s missing.
The reissue adds six rough-edged rehearsal tunes, including two (“Still Holding On To You,” “Armed With An Empty Gun”) that ended up on 1984’s Medicine Show follow-up. Interesting and worthwhile from an archival perspective, they’re skippable because they take time away from listening to The Days Of Wine And Roses proper.