Am I just a sucker for this stuff? It seems like an awful lot of awesome/beautiful pop music is being made by women and/or bands fronted by women and, try as I might, I can’t seem to get enough of it. Lazier writers (I’m only lazy on Fridays) will get a lot of mileage out of comparing Cults (fronted by Madeline Follin) to Camera Obscura, Lykke Li, and a billion other seemingly similar artists but I find enough of a difference between them all that I can enjoy them. Sure, all three borrow heavily from that great 60s girl group stuff (I always feel stupid typing the phrase “girl group.” They were women who could sing their asses off and giving that phenomenon the title “girl group” strikes me as pretty fucking condescending) that Phil Spector produced when he wasn’t kidnapping the Ramones and killing people. But from there, Lykke Li tosses in elements of country and blues, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell… well, she kinda stays in that 60s milieu but, being a good Scot, she soaks it in a gallon of whiskey, and Cults propel that bouncy doo-wop stuff straight on into a William Gibson-imagined future where we all have glowing skin for one reason or another. I can easily imagine Captain Malcolm Reynolds walking into a bar on some swanky Alliance planet and getting into an awesome fist fight while Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion try to finish their set without becoming collateral damage. But maybe that’s just me.
I came to Cults in a kind of backward fashion because I first heard Follin on the new Fucked Up record and remembered that I had heard and read good things about her full-time band (and now I find myself wondering what the overlap is between Cults fans and Fucked Up fans). Their debut, aptly titled Cults, is an immediately gratifying listen (you know, like that Foster the People album) that reveals a little more to me every time I listen to it (unlike that Foster the People album, which I like the same way I like Dr. Pepper; I know it’s horrible for me but on occasion, it’s delicious and refreshing, especially when consumed with a giant fucking burrito).
At first, the melding of speeches by various cult leaders into the songs on Cults annoyed me but my inner pretentious child was quite taken with the subtle connection of the desperation of your average love song and the desperation of someone who turns to wackaloons like David Koresh for explanations of the greatest mysteries of life. Love, and sometimes strong, misguided infatuation, can captivate us in much the same way that certain charismatic nutjobs can. The concept makes me very happy indeed that I seem to have matured into an adult who can function in a romantic relationship (I guess you should verify that with my wife) and who has no requirement of a savior (please note: I’m not saying that all people who believe in messiahs are crazy and/or immature, although that fucking nutter in Norway certainly proves that there is some overlap).
But you know what? The more I listen to Cults, the more it almost seems like (oh shit. I hate this phrase) it could be a concept album. Madeline Follin, obviously, plays the main character, a young girl (she sings like one, which makes the “Fuck you” on “Never Heal Myself” all the more sharply pointed), who is wandering the halls of some compound, encountering grown-ups who have signed on with the messiah of the week. Her mom could be the heartbroken narrator of “Abducted,” who joined this cult because she was in love with some dude and maybe now he loves the cult leader more than he ever loved her. So then the girl starts to think that this shit is all pretty whack (singing, “Please don’t tell me you know the plans for my life” on “Oh My God”) and then she sings the warped finale “Rave On” as the tanks breach the compound walls. In that context, the smash lead single, “Go Outside,” takes on a whole new, more perverse layer of meaning; it’s like Follin’s main character is trying to get her despondent, lovelorn mom to stop stirring the Flavor Aid for a minute and just take a long walk in the evening air. What can I say? If there’s one thing I like, it’s adding perverse layers of meaning to things (although I think my concept for Cults comes somewhat close to the plot of Pan’s Labyrinth except with a cult replacing fascist Spain).
Of course, you don’t have to weave together such a story of lost love and found religious mania in order to enjoy Cults. It’s a helluva pop record if nothing else and “Go Outside’ enjoys the company of a few other musical confections, including “Most Wanted,” the old school duet “Bumper,” and a couple of excellent slower numbers, “Oh My God,” and “You Know What I Mean.” As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, a lot of bands are going back to the well of the 1960s right now, but Cults have wisely decided to crank up the juice on that sound, with Brian Oblivion (that’s a stage name. His real name is Brian Voldemort) layering in tasteful guitar lines around the tinkling bells, plinking keyboards, and finger-snapping rhythms. Repeated listens reveal a band that has carefully crafted something that sounds more simple than it is and even if you don’t agree with that, I defy you to argue (you’ll be arguing with Captain Reynolds, however) against these infinitely awesome melodies.