Album Review: Cults – Oldies Can Still Sound Fresh

By Matthew Yau

When you’re being smothered by the inadequacies of chart hits, pumping your ears with the sound of indie would be the obvious alternative.

Even then, difficult listeners can still be left wondering where truly new music can be found. So when Cults broke onto the indie scene in 2010, it was refreshing to hear a sound that explicitly took its influences from oldies pop while giving it a well-executed modern twist.


The group was started by Brian Oblivion and hottie Madeline Follin with her even hotter vocals where they were students at New York University.They came to prominence after Go Outside got everybody off Facebook – or any other dark corner of life – and into the light. It’s a beautifully ambient example of what can be achieved with a little adventure as the track comes off their self-released EP Cults 7, which is now best known as the tune from the Brothers cider advert.

After the rapid rise of their successful EP, Lily Allen signed the group onto her record label In The Name Of, a division of Columbia Records. Along with their new label, they now have a memorable self-titled debut album to offer too where Madeline delivers themes of isolation and unrequited love with such vigour that you’re left to wonder if some of the songs are about her. You Know What I Mean begins with smooth tranquillity as the verses are caressed with a poignant voice before drums and Follin crash together into a zealous chorus.

The ordering of tracks on an album is often overlooked by artists and producers but there is no such worry here. After the energetic, moody refrains of You Know What I Mean, Cults decided to restore spirits with an oldies-influenced tune that highlights the blithe side of Madeline’s vocals. Coupled with a piano riff reminiscent of early 60s pop, listeners can be forgiven if they miss the 21st century themes about “flirtation, drug use and adultery” amongst the swagger of Most Wanted. This is motif that runs throughout the album; dark, sinister vocals are often clouded by melodies from an era of music that bounced and bopped its way through life.

However, the notion of antithesis doesn’t just occur in single tracks. Science always told us that opposites attract and Cults is testament to that theory. The opening anthem, Abducted, for example, compares falling in love with being kidnapped. Never Heal Myself pushes the problems of unrequited love aside as it opens with the jovial melody of a xylophone before Madeline delivers the callous line, “I can never really heal myself, so fuck you”.

Similar themes continue as the album progresses and Cults could not be more pitiless with Oh My God. It is song that best highlights the beauty of Follin’s voice enhanced with a hint of reverb, and it could not match this uplifting mantra better. Listeners won’t feel that she is cold-hearted, her entrancing tone of voice just suits a track that says, ‘I’ve had enough of your shit’ and “I can run away and leave you anytime”. Although the lyrics appear to originate from a pubescent adolescent, when Madeline hoists them above the intricate layers of instrumental, you can only empathise and remember times of self-discovery.

Bumper is probably the tune that stands out most for many because of its tone and sound compared to the rest of the album. It resembles the sound of oldies-pop but many would consider its similarities to Richard Swift’s Bully and Shangri-Las’ Give Him a Big Kiss dangerously close. Others will recognise it as evidence that 60s and 70s music heavily influenced the sound of Cults. The call and response vocals work well as Madeline and Brian trade punches before it hits a twist.

The one criticism you may have is that many of the tunes sound quite similar although this might be inevitable with a distinctive voice such as Madeline’s. Cults need to be aware of this and keep their material fresh. After all, that’s what got them noticed in the first place. However, with barely enough material to last an hour-long set – with plenty of banter and delaying in between songs – it would harsh to make a complete judgement now. Besides, their creatively constructed antitheses are sure to develop further, as are Brian and Madeline.

For now, you will struggle to find a sound like as refreshing as Cults anywhere amongst the typical drivel you get from big label artists and Lily Allen recognised this too.

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