The music industry on both sides of the Atlantic will be watching the release of Cults' self-titled debut to see whether a buzzy blog-to-major label transit will now become a regular part of a band's rise to fame (and profitability). The American fuzz-pop duo began popping up on the internet radar in early 2010 and now find themselves on the verge of their major label release. Quick work by Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin. Maybe too quick. The boo-birds are looking for an excuse to cry foul, but they'll have to keep looking, because the debut is simply too adorable to dismiss. In eleven songs Cults soup up the Phil Spector-sound with enough contemporary quirks to make a memorable, if not 'game-changing,' summer record.
Other acts have made a similar buzzy blog-to-label jump, though Cults have the dubious distinction of a particularly thin resumé. With one 7-inch to their name ('Go Outside': released by boutique label Forest Family Records) and limited performance experience, Cults are being given the star treatment appropriate to a much more seasoned outfit. The signing announcement from Columbia Records included a perhaps unprecedented number of URLs as the major label scoured the internet for praise justifying its commitment. But however much the moneymen wring their hands over the details, no one has yet found cause for complaint in the music. Cults make singles. That's it. They have been a singles factory since 'Go Outside' in the ruthlessly catchy vein of Sixties pop jingles.
The publicity people have tried, in vain, to connect up Cults' sound with a wide swath of musical influences. (One of the more hilarious suggestions: Jay-Z) Don't buy it. This band couldn't be more Wall of Sound if Phil Spector had them at the end of a shotgun. If Cults weren't two white hipsters, you'd call them the Ronettes v2.0. Maybe you will anyway. Thunderous reverbed choruses; chunky snares; helium-drenched lovesick refrains; endless layers of keyboards laying the foundation for hummable guitar licks: this basic configuration describes every song on the album. Only the occasional wrinkles – the snapping fingers of 'You Know What I Mean' or the sampling of 'Oh My God' – lend the listener a hint that the CD isn't stuck on repeat.
The vocal work mostly belongs to Ms. Follin, whose tween-toned hipster mewing is expertly layered until it approximates a real voice. Credit solid engineering work to Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells) who has a gift for lending substance to attractive, if sometimes shallow, pop concepts. The self-titled debut has a warmth of tone that is noticeably absent from the 7-inch. Towards the end of the album Mr. Oblivion makes a more extended vocal cameo on 'Bumper' with some light Sonny and Cher-style back-n-forth. Charming enough; but no more than a change-of-pace between the anthemic Ronettes numbers.
Closer 'Rave On' leaves us with a gorgeous chorus and not much else. There is a hollow quality to the song, and to the album as a whole, which may leave one to wonder what the fuss is about. Are the boo-birds right? Are Cults blogfail or blogfab? They received an imprimatur from a small circle of music industry groupies (read: bloggers) before testing their metal in the usual venues. (Clubs – remember those? Bands played in them before the internet) Did they miss a vital stage in the musical maturation process? The debut album mostly sidesteps the too much, too soon concern by clinging to tried-and-true vintage sounds and pop melodies the way a toddler clings to his blankie. The result is a pleasant, occasionally beautiful, collection of singles that doesn't take itself as seriously as the buzz surrounding it (so you don't have to either). Perhaps that's best – it's just a pop record, not an industry panel.
6Mike Gutierrez's Score