As oh so many bands know in this day and age, hype can be a very dangerous thing. The cycles move so quickly that you can wind up abandoned just as fast as you were picked up. One of the biggest success stories as of late has been Cults. The duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion first met in San Diego, transplanted themselves to New York, and quietly composed some music they were self-conscious about sharing with anyone. When they finally did hand over a couple tracks to friends, those songs eventually made their way to the inbox of Chris at Gorilla Vs. Bear, who made quick moves to sign them to his brand new label Forest Family. The “Go Outside” 7″ single turned Cults from unknowns to one of the most hyped acts online in a matter of weeks. The buzz was and remained high for such an extended period that many larger labels sought to sign the band, with Columbia ultimately winning out (and Lily Allen’s label In the Name Of getting UK distribution rights). The hype has died down somewhat, given the amount of time that passed between their initial impact and what will finally be their self-titled debut out the first week in June, but one gets the sense that Cults wanted it that way. The initial impact may be lessened as a result, but this band appears to be in it for the longer haul anyways.
Those that have been paying close attention to the comings and goings of Cults in the last year will likely have already heard the first three tracks on their debut full length. If perchance you missed them, Soundcloud seems to be your friend. Starting with “Abducted”, things take on a very lo-fi aesthetic for the first 40 seconds of the song. It sounds like a microphone was placed in the middle of a room and Oblivion stood on one side playing his acoustic guitar and Follin stood on the other singing and playing a glockenspiel. There’s an all natural impact straight into full stereo sound though, complete with everything cozying up to your traditional studio quality. That’s also the first time the immensely catchy chorus hits, sucking you in not only to the track but the album itself, done in the most lively and fun way possible. That’s the first big sign that Cults appear to be more than just a flash in the pan act with one great single. Speaking of that one great single, “Go Outside” is next, and it’s as hard-hitting and wonderful as ever. If you thought you listened to it too many times last year, taking a short break and returning to it finds the song in just as great of a form as when you left it. With a whole new set of fans ready to discover this band, expect to hear a lot more “Go Outside”. For “You Know What I Mean”, the band makes a much more defined statement as to what the rest of the record will sound like. While anything you’ve heard prior only hinted at it, this is the track that feels truly retro, reaching back to the girl groups of the 60s for inspiration. It’s a very sweet and again catchy song where the waltzy pace, combined with Follin’s syrupy vocals and some well-placed finger snaps only enhance the impact. Those intimately familiar with the “Go Outside” 7″ single from last year will also recognize the b-side “Most Wanted” showing up towards the middle of the record. The retro style continues with a positively lovely piano and glockenspiel groove that mixes together rather effortlessly with everything from keyboards to a light touch of cello.
Nothing else on “Cults” is as strong as those first few tracks hitting you one after the other like a boxer with tremendous speed and agility. Just because there’s not another massive, drool-inducing single on the second half of the record doesn’t mean that it’s slouching in any way whatsoever. It’s like walking into a room full of supermodels and then exiting to find a group of very beautiful women on the other side. They may not be supermodels, but they’re still very satisfying to hear. There are no flat out ugly songs on this album, and being entirely listenable not to mention enjoyable from front to back is a rarity to accomplish anyways. At 35 minutes too, it’s a breeze to get through and you’re almost naturally inclined to hit the play button again and restart the thing. Earworms such as “Never Heal Myself” and the sprinkled electronics of “Oh My God” continue to make strong use of the glockenspiel and help push the band’s material from an indie pop range into something people will likely call twee. There is that certain preciousness present in most of the songs, particularly the Belle and Sebastian-leaning man/woman call-and-response of “Bumper”, but the bits of darkness found within the lyrics help to lessen the cute factor. There’s a distinctive fear echoed in a few of the songs that deals with a range of topics. Relationships is a big one, but also growing up and more general ways we live our lives all have bits of apprehension or paranoia associated with them. Follin wonders, “What’s wrong with my brain/cause I seem to have lost it” on “You Know What I Mean”, and doubts her ability to be genuine on “Never Heal Myself” with the lines, “I could never be myself, so fuck you”. The small bit of irony is how the line is sung, with Follin keeping sassy in a song that feels decidedly upbeat and cheerful.
Most of “Cults” maintains that same lighthearted nature, melodies bouncing along practically oblivious to some of the more ominous lyrics paired alongside it. That’s just one part of the appeal of this band and why their debut is so great. The songs they’re making aren’t necessarily doing much if anything new that we haven’t heard before, it’s the WAY they’re doing it that makes them more compelling than average. A little twist on the verse-chorus-verse here, a little extra instrument popping up there, and it goes a much longer way than you might think. There’s also a strong unifying principle across these 11 tracks in the similar qualities that they share. Nothing sounds like it doesn’t belong there, and it’s oddly reminiscent of another much-hyped band’s debut record last year, Sleigh Bells’ “Treats”. Oddly enough, Shane Stoneback produced both “Treats” and “Cults”, though his work on the latter record was much more of a tweaking role than a sonic shift. But while Sleigh Bells and Cults essentially sound nothing alike, the emotions that both their records evoke are close to one another. It’s the energetic, party vibe that makes you want to throw on a pair of sunglasses and spend some serious time outdoors. Seasonally speaking, both are very much summer albums as well, making now the perfect time for Cults to be putting this out there. Prepare for the hype cycle to once again start fresh for these two, because as their self-titled debut proves, Cults are the real thing. Be a good boy or girl and drink the Kool-Aid like the rest of us.
Cults – Go Outside (7″ version)
Cults – Most Wanted (7″ version)
For a limited time, stream the entire album at NPR