Essential New Music: Cocteau Twins’ “The Pink Opaque”


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.)

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: The Membranes’ “Dark Matter/Dark Energy”


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.

—Tim Stegall

Essential New Music: Miguel’s “Wildheart”


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

Essential New Music: Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures,” “Closer,” “Still” And “Substance”


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.

—Corey duBrowa

Essential New Music: Eszter Balint’s “Airless Midnight”


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.

—A.D. Amorosi

Essential New Music: The Dream Syndicate’s “The Days Of Wine And Roses”


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.

—Matt Hickey

Essential New Music: Mariachi Los Camperos De Nati Cano’s “Tradición, Arte y Pasión”


It’s hard not to pick up a spring in your step while listening to mariachi music. The uplift of the brass, the soaring strings, the ay-yi-yi of the vocals … Sadly, most of our connection to mariachi music comes from Mexican restaurants. It’s deeply depressing that there’s so much intensely innovative music being made by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the U.S., and so little of this is ever reported on in the mainstream press. That’s on us, so let this new album of seminal Los Angeles band Mariachi Los Camperos De Nati Cano be your guide to discover more.

Tradición, Arte y Pasión references everything from classic Mexican films to sentimental ballads, popular brass bands and Mexican country music (ranchera songs), and features lyrics like, “I want to cry, I have a sorrow/I want to cry out to the four winds that I’m nothing, that I’m nobody/That I’m worthless without your love, woman.” Exceptional.

—Devon Leger

Essential New Music: Richard Buckner’s “The Hill”


To help commemorate the 100th anniversary of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Merge is re-releasing Richard Buckner’s 2000 album The Hill, which used Masters’ work as source material. Masters wrote more than 250 poems that were graveyard monologues, small-town Midwesterners revealing, after death, their grievances and recriminations with angry honesty. Buckner took a handful of them to use as lyrics—or inspirations for instrumentals—and the result was one of his best records.

Backed by Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico—who also worked with Buckner on 1997’s Devotion + Doubt (another Buckner highlight)—the album is full of unsettling, empathetic and poignant portraits. “Child, death is better than life,” claims one character, and Buckner resurrects Masters’ words and makes them persuasive. As always, Buckner’s voice has an inconsistent relationship with pitch, and here he sounds ancient, as if he himself could be singing from beyond the grave.

—Steve Klinge

Essential New Music: The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Live At Barrowlands”


Old indie-rock bands don’t fade away anymore—they merely fester and split, then inevitably reunite for a lucrative run through the internet-fueled nostalgia circuit. More often than not, they then turn to the tried-and-true formula of touring their “classic” album in its entirety. And really, who can blame them? It’s a win/win situation for both band and audience—the musicians get to revel in crowd adoration and are handsomely compensated, while the fans get to relive their dim and distant youth. And thus, we have erstwhile East Kilbride art-pop terrorists the Jesus And Mary Chain currently touring their unhinged masterpiece and bona fide game-changer, Psychocandy, in all its febrile, demented glory, 30 years on.

And for the most part, they still sound astoundingly good, despite the dubious value of live albums in general. With typical perversity, they play their encore first, and so the set begins with a seven-song run through sundry classics, an especially bruised and gorgeous “Some Candy Talking,” being a standout. That said, JAMC do sound relatively restrained until they hit “Reverence,” where they suddenly shift up a gear—howling squalls of feedback begin to grow in intensity, the sound of the impending apocalypse is upon us, and all is right with the world.

While Jim Reid comes on like Leonard Cohen’s surly reprobate nephew, as Psychocandy unfurls in full, brother William revels in his role as one-man guitar army. Their heady blend of industrial white noise mixed with the pop suss of the Shangri-Las reminds you of just how genuinely incendiary they sounded first time around back in the shiny, glossy vapid mid-’80s. Cheap nostalgia and cynicism be damned. They still sound—on this evidence at least—utterly majestic.

—Neil Ferguson

Essential New Music: The Band’s “The Capitol Albums: 1968-1977”


Anyone acquainted with the Canadian collective’s rootsy approximation of rural American soundscapes—true rust-bucket takes on folk, blues, R&B, country, gospel, rockabilly and brass band music rolled into one funky, hunky, forlorn vocal blend—knows that the Band’s original vinyl and CD pressings didn’t have oomph. The hillbilly curl of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rich Danko’s smoked voices (all deceased), their Biblical texts, the rhythmic kink—even Garth Hudson’s bittersweet organ swells and accordion wheezes—were muffled.

Thankfully, what this newly remastered collection does is maintain that the Band’s mystery murk—the ambiance of Appalachian hills, the mossy lushness of Kentucky greenery, the honk of everything New Orleans—is still in place. That’s the group’s thing. Yet, a greater clarity to the Band’s rickety bass/drum partnership and its overall vocal mix gives Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright, Cahoots, Rock Of Ages, Moondog Matinee and latter-day, often-ignored gems such as Northern Lights: Southern Cross and Islands a necessary shineup; like gold glinting through the dust of the Sierra Madres.

—A.D. Amorosi