The Cult’s new classic and Vegas’ latest torch singer

For me, the top band of ’80s mainstream butt-rock was The Cult. Led by shaman Ian Astbury, the Brit group delved into different styles with every record—from goth-rock opus Dreamtime (’84) to biker-metal masterpiece Sonic Temple (’89). The Cult continues to release acclaimed albums, including 2007’s Born Into This. But the band’s latest, Choice of Weapon (released May 22), is arguably their choicest to date.

Much of this is due to the mid-tempo material and vocal melodies of “Love > Death” and “Wilderness Now.” I can easily imagine a jazz singer approaching these songs.

“There is more space in a slower tempo,” singer Astbury says during a recent phone chat. “It gives you a chance to focus on emotionality, atmosphere. Rock ’n’ roll is too often an exercise in firing the gun and sprinting to the finish. But with a ballad, things become intimate; you offer a moment of introspection, connection.”

Is it a selling point, I ask, to note that Weapon comes armed with more piano parts than any other Cult disc?

“I want people to see our depth,” Astbury says. “We’ve used piano sparingly for texture before. It made sense to rely on it for the grandeur of some of these songs; it offers the best voicing for specific moments.”

Indeed, The Cult—who perform 8 p.m. May 26 at M Resort with Against Me! and The Icarus Line—seeks to grow and make transitions. They’re not throwing in the towel, even if founding members Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy are pushing 50.

“The artists I love have the life experience to make their most magical work in their 60s. Leonard Cohen. Johnny Cash. Keith Richards.” Damn right.

Speaking of age and magical music, I met Vegas’ youngest—and best, I think—torch singer at the elegant bar of Oscar’s Beef, Booze & Broads (1 Main St., 386-7227) in the Plaza. Her name is Sarah Frances Johnston, and this 21-year-old New Zealand vocalist is as stunning visually as she is sonically. Her gorgeously simmering voice is like a coquettish Julie London. Jazz standards are her bag, but she also treats listeners to otherworldly renditions of The Cure’s “Love Song,” Portishead’s “Glory Box” and “Roads,” and the aforementioned Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Lacking a live band, Johnston relies on an iPod and a pro Bose system for softly arranged backing music (nylon-string guitars, piano). But the sight of her embracing an old-school jazz mic throughout her set is now forever seared into my imagination.

“I strive to sound as close to the original works as possible,” Johnston says. “I love the slow romance of ballads from the ’50s and ’60s.”

Johnston sings 7-10 p.m. Saturdays at Oscar’s until June’s end. Don’t miss her.

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