Cults open for Foster The People, September 20 at The Beacham
When Cults‘ “Go Outside ” first appeared on the web last year, it spread like wildfire. It was catchy and sweet, the kind of sing-along that felt like it was pulled from the air, with a sentiment perfect for anyone stuck in an office or addicted to the Internet. But how many communal sing-alongs can a band make before the approach goes stale? Cults have opted not to find out. “Go Outside” is on their debut album, and it still gives you your entire recommended daily allowance of vitamin D, but its dreamy drift is just one side of a band that proves it has the dexterity and songwriting chops to make a varied and memorable album.
Much has been made about the speed with which Cults signed to Columbia, as if they’re the first group to release a debut album on a major. That kind of rapid ascent isn’t anything new, but the speculation that came with it– online chatter pronouncing them destined for the one-hit-wonder bin– now looks grossly off the mark. At the center of the band’s appeal is singer Madeline Follin’s youthful alto. She has a tone that creates the impression you’re listening to a precocious tween fronting a band well versed in Phil Spector’s Back to Mono and three decades of climactic indie pop. The 1960s girl-pop element of their sound is pretty evident on the surface– “You Know What I Mean” even borrows its verse melody from the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go “– but what they’ve done with it is pure 21st century, cutting it with synths, guitars, and softly integrated samples.
The samples, of cult leaders speaking to their followers, could have been a distraction had they chosen to make a big deal out of them, but they’re woven tightly into the album’s sonic fabric and processed to varying degrees of decipherability, which turns them into an effective textural element. Those voices bounce around in the intro to “Oh My God”, originally released last year as part of Adult Swim’s singles program, but subtly remixed for the LP. The music hasn’t changed here but the beat is amped up, and the bass has been moved forward in the mix, giving the song a much more powerful groove to support its melody. And if Follin’s lyrics aren’t necessarily deep– “I can run away and leave you anytime/ Please don’t tell me you know the plans for my life”– she delivers them with relatable and affecting conviction.
This taps into a vein of petulance that runs through the album. “I don’t need anyone else,” from “Never Saw the Point”, may read as a tossed-off line, but in a strangely positive way, it feels like the record’s main message. Even the eternally sunny “Go Outside” ends on the lyric, “I think I want to live my life and you’re just in my way.” These are teenage sentiments, the kind of things you feel dumb for saying and thinking once you’ve navigated into your mid-twenties, but they’re also universal sentiments during that stage of life when you’re trying to figure out what kind of person you’re going to be. Cults’ use of elements borrowed from traditionally teen music– girl groups, 50s prom-pop, bedroom indie pop– plays along with the lyrics to create a little world where one minute Follin is singing a frustrated “fuck you” (“Never Heal Myself”) and dreaming of escaping the next. Even the more formal pop explorations play to teen melodrama. The surging Spector pop of the record’s anthemic opener “Abducted” compares falling in love to being kidnapped, and gives the other Cult, Brian Oblivion, a brief lead vocal to play the abductor.
At just over a half hour, Cults feels like the perfect length– just long enough for the bus ride to school (or to work). But more importantly, it executes what it sets out to do masterfully while allowing the group room to grow and mature. They’ve also set themselves up to take their sound and subject matter in any number of possible directions in the future, and that’s a good position for a young band to find itself in. Cults built up a lot of goodwill last year on the strength of just three tracks; on their debut album, they’ve rewarded it.
— Joe Tangari, June 6, 2011