Review Summary: Summer's here, and it's got bite.
Before we jump into Cults
, let's get one thing out of the way: this is some seriously
twee stuff. Anybody who heard the Brooklyn band's self-released 7" on Bandcamp last year could tell you that Madeline Follin's voice is a precious, high-pitched little thing, and that the band's penchant for twinkling keyboards and reverb (not to mention their fashionably un-Google-able name) practically screamed "indie pop" in capital letters and red print. Cults can't help the fact that they fall squarely into a genre riddled with annoying signifiers and industry-constructed wannabes, but they can
take those basic elements that make the best '60s-inflected indie pop tick and combine them into fantastic songs that have an uncanny ability to lodge their way firmly into your head. That's hardly easy to do, but Cults pull it off - and then some.
Because while Cults
' songs are far from complex, they aren't simple
. The little guitar slide in "Abducted" that kicks the album into high gear is a perfectly placed flourish executed tightly and efficiently, a far cry from the self-consciously lazy stylings found in bands occupying similar mid-century revivalist territory. Clever touches abound, providing these songs with an appealingly quick pulse and just enough bounce to be completely charming. The phrase "summer music" has been invoked so many times with regards to this album that I'm loathe to use it again, but this stuff just sounds
sunny and breezy. All of which makes the album's decidedly sinister touches that much more effective. "Never Saw The Point" starts out cute enough, with Follin singing, "I never saw the point in trying / 'cause I would only let you down". But then she sings, in that exact same tone, "And I just couldn't bring you down there with me / I just can't stand to see you drown". All of a sudden, the song's lilting arrangement takes on another dimension, suggesting recurrent anxiety instead of buoyancy.
This contrast between light and dark was found on the band's very first single, "Go Outside", which opened with the notorious cult leader Jim Jones intoning, "To me, death is not a fearful thing. It's living that's treacherous." In its earlier incarnation, the quote felt a bit like an extraneous addition for the sake of giving the band an "edge" that befitted their name, but in context, it feels appropriate. Because while it's a stretch to say that Cults are exploring the relationship between life and death with their music, the delicate push-and-pull between heartbreak and humor is a constant presence here. When they revert to the latter mode, as Follin does when singing, "I could never be myself, so fuck you," the result is winning. But then we have "You Know What I Mean", a deceptively cheerful ditty filled with uncertainty: "Help me 'cause I'm feeling shaky / tell me what's wrong with my brain, 'cause I seem to have lost it." The sentiment is intensified by Follin's deliberately sweet tone, which could just as easily be interpreted as being eerily clear-eyed. There are brief moments in Cults
where a more nuanced approach to vocals would be much appreciated (and the superb, Belle and Sebastian-esque "Bumper" hints at how galvanizing such a development would be), but for the most part, the singularity that Follin communicates is immediate and convincing.
It's largely due to this urgency that Cults
is such a breathless and exhilarating album, and such a fun
one - for all its darker hues, this is music that slams a smile onto your face. Listening to it, I'm reminded of Sleigh Bells' superb Treats
, not because Cults is a particularly close sonic relative of that Brooklyn boy-girl duo's decibel-busting pop; rather, both bands establish their aesthetic clearly, work within its narrow boundaries, and spin aural bliss out of it. Sure, it's a bit homogeneous, but when the songs are this good and exciting, that's hardly a major drawback. Besides, if Cults can't win you over with their music, they'll win you over with sheer force. As they exhort themselves, "rave on". Who am I