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Album Review: Cults - 'Cults'

The cutey-pie pair’s debut is doe-eyed enough to charm despite its sickly poses

Ben Rowland/NME
Photo: Ben Rowland/NME
In the throes of puppy-eyed passion, music holds a peculiar sway over lovers, coaxing out insufferable sweet nothings. Not to mention the heinous idea of an “our song”. Of course, when you find yourself catapulted out the arse-end of a “serious relationship”, that heady cocktail of sound and memory that once inspired lusty reverie will inevitably turn sour. Yet, for all the rose-tinted flashbacks you’d probably rather forget, there’s a very private joy to be had in collecting these musical trinkets over the years. As debut albums go, ‘Cults’ is a veritable swoonfest of the things.

Early in 2010, couple Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion divulged to NME their very own “our song”. On the surface, ‘You Don’t Own Me’ by ’60s songstress Lesley Gore was an unremarkable pick. But its fundamental themes of liberation and the bloated optimism of youth make up the very fabric of this San Diego twosome’s fuzzy aural blanket, and it’s hardly surprising how in thrall their debut is to the song, as well as the movement it helped define.

Still, while their debt to swashbuckling Golden Era pop suggests a studied precision, there’s no doubt they’ve done their homework. Latest in a long line of couples capitalising on their ‘cuteness’, Madeline and Brian lace traditional rock’n’roll subjects with quotes from mass murderers, ladling on a tasteful glaze of reverb for good measure. Indeed, Cults have quite patently done a little studying of the current musical zeitgeist as is evidenced in the My Bloody Valentine swirls of ‘Walk At Night’ and ‘Never Heal Myself’’s jangly Shins-with-xylophones stylings, all the time deftly sidestepping accusations of irony or homage.

Elsewhere, the band strive to temper their treacly textures with a darker tinge. In so far as beige is darker than white, they find a degree of success. ‘Most Wanted’ takes the sullen barstool blues of early Elliott Smith and spits a healthy wodge of bubblegum pop into its scruffy mane, lumbering it with a hangdog refrain – “What I most want is bad for me, I know”. Less effective are the aforementioned ‘chilling’ interview snippets of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. Wading in like ambassadors from
the darkest corners of the human psyche, their punch is a tad diluted when they’re tailed by puppyish, hummable bouts of musical boyfriend-bashing.

Musically it’s the cream of nostalgic pop, and the lyrics exhibit a wafty élan; but in purely conceptual terms, ‘Cults’ is too busy flying on clouds of giddy adolescent wonder to plunder the depths of its pretensions with conviction. Instead, the album’s finest moments arise out of straight-down-the-line ’60s chic. Fortunately this occurs often. ‘You Know What I Mean’ is a crushingly lovelorn waltz, rife for big-screen appropriation, and opener ‘Abducted’ thrusts elegantly skywards with the kind of romping first-song-on-the-album bassline ‘Is This It’ spent its entire duration dining out on. Ebullient finale ‘Rave On’, too, plays on ‘Cults’’ endlessly pleasing trick of being instantly familiar, yet smart enough to remain vital.

For the most part, the album isn’t quite the tremulous voyage of hearts and minds it wants to be. But then, what did you expect of two sweet-tongued twentysomethings who, seemingly oblivious to the hipster stereotype, just finished “studying film” in New York? For all the attempts at alchemising their half-arsed media approach into ‘mystique’, the album thrives on heart-on-sleeve honesty, making it quite the collection of “our song”s to be – and, ah, what’s so wrong with that, after all.

Jazz Monroe

Order a copy Cults' 'Cults' from Amazon

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