Christ on a bike, this takes me back a bit. The inexplicable thing is, though, it takes me back to something I’ve never experienced. Weird, no?
I’m not trying to instigate a protracted metaphysical debate over whether music can be synonymous with a precise age, time, place etc, but the debut album from Cults seems to be the sound of summer at approximately age 19 or 20 in early 1960’s America. I say ‘seems to be’, as I’m pretty sure, what with being irrevocably bound by the laws of time and space, I was never there. That’s my alibi, and I’m sticking to it.
Follin’s piercing, girlish tones enunciate a delectable melody. It’s not hard to see what all the fuss was about.
You may have heard of Cults before. Over a year back, their single ‘Go Outside’ was swept up by the hype machine and they had the neon target of ‘next-big-thing’ pinned firmly to their backs. Naturally, hype breeds more hype, which breeds haters, and thus more hype. Admittedly, the fact that they have signed to an imprint of Columbia records after only two singles is a little mystifying. It stands to reason, however, that there must be something they’re doing right to justify the attention they’ve been getting.
The cute couple that comprise Cults are San Diegans Madeleine Follin and Brian Oblivion (damn- surely there’s better rock-star pseudonyms out there than characters from Videodrome- I mean, seriously, Videodrome, sweet Jesus!). It comes as no surprise, after hearing their output, to discover that neither has notched up more than a tender 21 years on this earth. In style and lyrical content, ‘Cults’ absolutely screams ‘youth’, slathered in saccharine and sunshine.
One of the most cringeworthy labels to apply to a band, or anything else, for that matter, is ‘retro’, but it’s hard to avoid, considering how deeply in thrall to the past Cults are. Their somewhat belated debut finds them delving back through the decades and immersing themselves in classic 50’s/60’s girl-group bubblegum pop.
Musically, touchstones include the likes of the Shirelles and the Shangri–La’s, Lesley Gore, the vast majority of Phil Spector’s pop productions, and a smidgen of pop-soul, but parallels can be drawn to the recent likes of Best Coast, Summer Camp, Sleigh Bells, and a veritable smorgasbord of Scandinavian twee-popsters, with an overall wash of shoegazey fuzz to evoke the summer haze, and an utterly modern electronic undertow. This is, mostly, major-key melody land, where glockenspiels twinkle, pianos tinkle and everything comes with free candyfloss. It doesn’t, however, mean their music lacks bite, or a contemporary edge, as the booming bass drums and humming Hammond organs do battle with odd, piercing synthesized sounds and echoing, distorted guitars.
Additionally, possibly in tribute to the confusion googling them causes, tracks are interspersed with recorded snippets of cult leaders addressing their faithful (though, fortunately, no tributes to the Cult). Not obvious enough to seem gimmicky, there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to this addition, but it at least shows that clouds often pass across the sun of Cults’ world, and gives a hint of mystery and greater depth behind the pretty façade.
This is reflected in opener ‘Abducted’, at least lyrically. A choppy acoustic strumathon embellished with chiming glockenspiel (a Cults favourite), the tune belies a darker undertone. An analogy of love as kidnapping, an emotionally wracked Follin plays the abductee to Oblivion’s vocal turn as the shady heart-snatcher. It doesn’t stop the tune from being darned gorgeous, though.
Once you’ve listened to one track, you’ll have pretty much grasped Cults modus operandi, and, it must be said, there are very few big surprises, though the fact that they’ve somehow produced the sound they have, fully-formed, is fairly startling in itself. Though most songs are built around extremely basic structures, there are plenty of intriguing touches. The main thing, though, is the tunes. Cults have hit upon a seam of pop gold that was previously presumed redundant, and several blinding songs emerge as a result.
Last year’s attention-magnetising ‘Go Outside’ remains a definite highlight. Riding a thumping soul beat and bassline, more glockenspiel (your personal experience of this album really depends on your disposition toward said instrument) and a bubbling organ, Follin’s piercing, girlish tones enunciate a delectable melody. It’s not hard to see what all the fuss was about. Like the majority of the album, there’s a timeless air about it, the kind of song that could easily have been heard twelve times a day blasting from the radio as teens supped their milkshakes in an early 60’s diner. Dainty as it may be, the sheer melodic savvy is astonishing.
This is, mostly, major-key melody land, where glockenspiels twinkle, pianos tinkle and everything comes with free candyfloss.
‘Most Wanted’ is fantastic, the simplest of repeated motifs plinked out on a piano, a two-note bassline, sparse percussion and a child-like vocal melody conspire to form a near-flawless facsimile of bygone pop perfection. The prom-night waltz of ‘You Know What I Mean’ crams an epic romance into two-and-a-half minutes. ‘Rave On’ is, hopefully, a signpost to even more interesting territories in Cults’ future, with swirling, woozy dynamics and a skyscraping chorus. Signing off in stunning style, the bouncy boy-girl tag-team of ‘Bumper’ re-imagines the classic duets of the past, and possesses a tune fit to sit easily in their company.
This album is designed to provoke wave upon wave of nostalgia, be it for long hot summers, teenage flings, or bygone years, it’s all woven into the musical fabric of Cults. Madeleine Follin’s main lyrical concerns seem to revolve around the universal truths of lovelorn youth- you know, the kind of uneasy, tantrum-prone emotional confusion that seems exctutiatingly embarrassing in hindsight. On the whole, though, it works perfectly with the musical backdrop, only occasionally lapsing into whiny brattishness, for example her frustrated ‘fuck you!’ in ‘Never Heal Myself’ .Ooh, rebel… Yes, her high-pitched, wailing voice can verge on the tiresome at times, but she generally sounds peppy and sassy enough to carry it off.
If there’s a downside, it’s the relentless chirpiness. Not to be a misanthrope (though I do love a bit of good ol’ fashioned misery), but I can’t help but feel ‘Cults’ could get a tad tiresome beyond the end of summer. As long as the sun’s shining, so much sugar-coated major-key melodiousness would probably put a smile on anyone’s face, but too much could easily give you toothache.
Still, if it’s summer vibes, retro style and a teenage sugar-rush you’re looking for, look no further. Have they justified the hype? Well, probably, but at the end of the day, your experience of it is purely subjective, so why let yourself become biased? Cults’ debut, if not a great album, is a very good one, and, while not ‘new’, it’s an original take on a sorely-missed style of music. So what if they’re a ‘buzz-band’? The more people that get to hear their often excellent songs, the better.
‘Cults’ by Cults is out now on In The Name Of/Columbia