Cults’ AM Pop Always Fun, Never Transcendent


Cults’ eponymous debut is tidy and enjoyable, a summer release that is satisfyingly in touch with its season, an extremely listenable slice of pop music. And even if all you take away from it is the standout “Go Outside,” well, at least you won’t have trouble getting out of bed for the next few months.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing on first listen is that Cults bears more than a passing resemblance, consciously or not, to a handful of recent summer favorites, the Morning Benders’ Big Echo, the Dum Dum Girls’ I Will Be, and the Drums’ self-titled LP foremost among them.

What’s interesting is that, aside from a shared fascination with late ‘50s- and early ‘60s-era pop music, none of those three sound particularly alike. Big Echo gets closest to that influence with its production, especially in its propensity to sound far-off, as though each track were recorded 50 feet away from the mic.

The Drums probably best recreated the instrumentation, particularly through their vocal harmonies and Myles Matheny’s warm, dry staccato guitar tone. The Dum Dum Girls probably had the best approximation of that era’s structure and melody — witness “Jail La La,” which aside from its narrative could easily have been a Shangri-Las hit. Cults, at various points, incorporates all three of these components.

That’s not to say Cults —  the project of New York film students Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivio — are necessarily derivative. It’s more to illustrate the limitations inherent in the sort of breezy, retro-leaning guitar pop that’s become surprisingly popular of late.

One strand common to most of the groups making it: they all sound good in a very forgettable way, a kind of atmospheric pleasure that doesn’t require a whole lot of attention. It’s the kind of music that’s hard to criticize, because good pop music is good pop music, no point in overthinking it. But it’s also hard to truly love, barring some strong associational appeal.

Cults, for their part, do their best to break from this sense of superficial enjoyment through Follin’s on-record persona, an extremely relatable if not always vivid manifestation of teenage angst.

Sometimes, she gets these pathologies just right: the fleeting but ferocious guilt of youth learning to indulge basic instincts on “Most Wanted,” the ambivalence that comes with feeling simultaneously attached to someone (“Abducted”) and  desperate to get away from that person (“Oh My God”).

Follin often alludes to these directly, telling instead of showing, but this is a minor complaint that applies similarly to most of her peers. Cults also experiment with the kind of lyrical dialogue that worked so well for the xx — Oblivion’s affectless voice closely recalls xx bassist Oliver Sims — but with a slight twist: rather than developing the narrative by talking at each other, they’re each giving the listener their own rendition.

So are the generic repetitiveness and lack of dynamism crippling? Hardly. It’s a well-produced and occasionally engaging album with only a couple clear missteps in out-of-place close “Rave On” and the static “Bad Things.” It’s also about as good as it can be, which is to say: enjoyable without really resonating.

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