In the early '80s, news stations were abuzz with rumors of tainted Halloween candy. It was mostly urban legend, but our parents nonetheless checked every Hershey's miniature and Bit-O-Honey for needles and pins, every apple for a razor blade. It signaled the slow death of trick-or-treating as we knew it; these days few parents take their kids door-to-door.
Cults is the New York duo of Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion (they're a couple, too.) The first time I heard the band, earlier this year, the image that came to mind was tainted candy—a pink piece of bubble-gum shot through with a needle. Cults' songs are perfect, sugary tributes to Phil Spector and '60s girl groups. Songs rarely clock in over three minutes, and each are glazed with Follin's wistful, girlish voice. But there's something dark and defiant that runs through these songs. It begins, obviously, with the band's name (which is maybe even a nod to the '50s/'60s music industry cult of the teenager), but gets pushed into the actual architecture of the songs—insolent lyrics, creepy metaphors, tinny lo-fi production, distortion and reverb.
There are three types of people when it comes to Cults: there's those who love the band, and those who don't, only because they haven't heard them yet. (That's two, I know.) And then there are The Doubters—those who are suspicious of industry buzz, or anything they might be likely to hear over the loudspeaker at Urban Outfitters. They're quick to dismiss well-connected musicians—they wrote off The Strokes entirely, and will write off Madeline Follin for being the child of parents who regularly hung out with Dee Dee Ramone. The Doubters are the kind of people who cling so desperately to their need to be individuals that they're actually more susceptible to having their identities wiped out by cults, musical or otherwise. (I'm kidding! No, I'm not.) Don't be a Doubter! Don't be turned off by the hype, or the way Cults endears itself to American Apparel shoppers and wearers of clip-on feathers. This is a totally solid album, with nary a clunker in the bunch.
The album opens with my favorite song, "Abducted." (If they'd consulted me, I'd have moved the track to the middle—this album gives it up too quickly.) "Abducted" is the most indicative of Cults' sound and of what's to come: the distortion, the edgy metaphor of love-as-abduction. This song makes me squeal like a lovesick teen. "Go Outside" bops along nicely as a transition into the standout Supremes-esque ballad, "You Know What I Mean." The next track, "Most Wanted," is maybe my least favorite. Follin's voice takes on a snotty pre-teen quality, but in context of the lyrics ("I'm leaving my family for my foes"), even that works—it's Gidget or Skipper's farewell note before she skips off with Charles Manson. The next six tracks are unremarkable, but don't take that as a critique—they're good. This is the album you put on poolside and just let spin out all its silver-tinged sunshine. It ends with another favorite, "Rave On," marked by a jarring chorus that booms in stark contrast to Follin's bedroom murmur, and feels like a fitting place to end. In keeping with the band's name, several of the tracks are laced with audio of cult leaders addressing their followers—Manson's at the party, as well as Jim Jones, Patty Hearst, and possibly Warren Jeffs—the samples are often so well integrated into the songs, that they're hard to decipher.
I vaguely remember a passage from Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, describing the wonder-verging-on-fear felt by the daughters' father—so many teenaged girls under one roof almost frightened him. Cults seems to hint at the same idea—girls are scary!—with eleven kicky tracks perfectly suited for the dark, cool corners of summer's hot heart.