Cults appeared suddenly on my radar when some blog or another posted that their debut album, coming out that week (first week of June), was streaming in full. I checked it out based on the description and sure enough, tons of my favorite elements were contained in their songs–retro Motown grooves, reverb overdoses, surfy guitars, catchy chick vocals, glockenspiel–and I was intrigued. I got ahold of the album and jammed on it for a while, finding that yes, it is pretty damn good. But you shouldn't expect perfection from a band that materialized out of nothing.
When they signed to major label Columbia, they had only released three tracks on their Bandcamp and a 7". I don't know if they had played any shows. But take one listen to "Go Outside" and their signing makes sense–its hook is undeniable (and repeated nearly ad nauseam) and the appeal is timeless in that it sounds both old and new. In the aftermath of Cee Lo Green, Adele and Amy Winehouse's successes (even after her death, though this album was released before that), retro pop and soul was/is all the rage and I'm sure Columbia wanted nothing more than some more pretty young folks who could cross over from the indie markets to the older market full of folks who yearn for that '60s pop/girl group sound from their youth.
Though Cults dropped a few months ago, there is still little information about Cults on the web. A Google search turns up little. Their fake names are Brian Oblivion (guitarist/songwriter/vocals) and possible-real-name Madeline Follin (vocals). Both were art students in Manhattan, but according to their Pitchfork Guest List article, the best thing they've done at all this year is that they "dropped out of school. No question."
They aren't the first band to drop out of art school to pursue their rock band (especially in NYC; it's a cliché at this point), but I'd say they had good reason with tunes like this. "Never Heal Myself" has a great hook simply containing the title over and over until it breaks down and Follin adds a little not-so-retro sass: "I tried to heal myself / Turn around 'cause someone else / But I could never be myself / So fuck you." The bridge on "Walk at Night" thickens up wonderfully with Follin harmonizing herself and the guitars getting a little grimy. On "Oh My God", Follin sounds like a young Michael Jackson (I mean this as a compliment) while hitting those high notes on "I could run away-ay." They try a ballad on "You Know What I Mean" and with the reverb all the way up on some snaps and a killer build section, they pull it off no problem.
But my absolute favorite track by far is "Bumper", a little sleeper song with a unique structure. It's nearly all verse, getting by on a sweet bass 'n' piano-led bounce, with Follin and Oblivion spinning a "he said/she said" tale of a lover's quarrel, climaxing in the killer bridge with Follin scaling upwards with "Maybe I should star-ar-art a life with someone new-ewww / And give up all my hopes for...," leaving a gaping hole in the beat. It kicks back in to find the couple reconciling before the song's 2:42 finish. Like some sort of "Leader of the Pack", it tells a story with a danceable beat and one giant bridge hook that demands rewinding. It's a classic songwriting trick done well. Oblivion doesn't sing lead much on the album–I think they need to get him on the mic more in the future.
Other tracks are a bit lacking however. "Most Wanted" doesn't stick, even though the groove is decent. It just doesn't seem to go anywhere. "Never Saw the Point" suffers the same ailment; it has one great hook in the bridge but the rest stagnates without anything to catch the listener. "Bad Things" has a slow, spooky piano stagger, but fails to build much on it.
It's a solid debut from the mysterious new duo. With some more experience under their belts, I'm expecting great things from Cults in the future.