A lot of times when things seem too good to be true, they are. When “Go Outside,” the debut single from New York twosome Cults, was unearthed way back in February 2010 the principles of this premise started to bubble up. Without much derision, that track elevated Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion to instant hype-band status. But the question of how they might grow after such an impressive start remained. How could this pair, so heavily indebted to the bubbly radio pop of the 1960s and 70s, flesh out their sound and retain the same magic? Turns out, the answer is pretty simple: just stick to the script.
See, the Cults aesthetic isn’t that much of a mystery. Oblivion lays down the arrangements on a foundation of guitar and percussion, then fleshes things out with an assortment of peripheral gear and technique that includes bells, xylophones, piano, and light distortion to identify the sound simultaneously with throwback hits of past generations and with modern indie rock’s latest trends. Over top of all this floats Follin’s sugary sweet voice, ripe with innocence and curiosity. Her style borrows from old Motown and R&B singles, often replicating the stuff you’d hear if you drop a couple quarters into one of those table jukeboxes they have at retro diners. But this is just the part of Cults that’s obvious. It’s the same stuff we heard on “Go Outside” that made us question sustainability in the first place. The thing that sells the band — that really ignites and extends that magic — is in the hidden evil lurking behind their pretty, peppy, cuddly outer shell.
“Abducted,” a single released in April that went a long way towards proving the band wasn’t just going to be a one-off outfit, begins with chugging guitar and the sound of voices off in the distance. Later, similar voices surface again on the aforementioned “Go Outside,” “Most Wanted,” and easily one of the album’s standouts, “Oh My God.” These voices, as it turns out, belong to neither Follin nor Oblivion, but rather to famous cult leaders Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Patty Hearst. Coupled with lyrics about growing up, feeling suspicious of a relationship’s future, and even substance abuse, the contrast between content and sound gives the band the sort of inner turmoil we appreciate in the characters from our favorite movies. Their harmless, playful melodies paint Cults as well-intentioned folks, but like anyone you’ll meet, the deeper you dig the more skeletons you’ll find. This isn’t somehow glorifying evil though, but rather highlighting that sometimes wonderful things can be born out of tumultuous events.
But on an album full of phenomenal tracks built perfectly for summertime, the best comes in the form of “Bumper,” a he said/she said song that analyzes a crumbling relationship from the perspective of both involved parties. Follin’s voice is great, but the effect gained from tossing the microphone back and forth is what really sets this song apart, giving it a sound unique to any other on the record (though it still follows the general blueprint, of course). It’s also chock full of great quotables: “I threw his shit on the floor,” Follin sings with the sauciness of a tried and true diva, while Oblivion snaps back, “she rushed me out the door.” Later it gets even better, with Follin reciting “I’ve had it up to here/I can’t take this anymore,” only to have Oblivion fire back with the hilarious and completely identifiable “if she’s this crazy now/there’s no telling what’s in store.” In between each of these exchanges, Follin’s vocals flutter around in reverb in the background, simply offering up “la la la la la.” Again, it’s this whole dynamic of pretty sounds laced with venomous subjects that gives the band not only its identity, but a fountain of ways in which to stretch that identity.
Any apprehensions about whether or not Cults could turn “Go Outside” into a successful full-length should be hastily put to rest. In every feasible way, Cults punctuates that discussion. Not only that, but it illuminates promise that Follin and Oblivion may have many more indelible pop treasures still to come.