It’s a story as old as the Internet: Band releases single on its web site, gets noticed by blogs, gets signed to label, releases debut album. But with Cults, the speed and scale was astonishing: Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion released their debut single, “Go Outside,” in mid-2010, and the notice it got was apparently good enough to get them signed to major label Columbia (under Lily Allen’s In The Name Of imprint) with only two other songs committed to their Bandcamp page. What’s more, they claim to have never considered music as an option: Follin and Oblivion are in film school, and were interested in making films, not girl-group indebted indie-pop.
So now that the story is out of the way, here comes Cults, the band’s self-titled debut, an album that's main selling point is that it proves Cults have more than just one song. They have a total of 11 in fact, and they run the gamut from superficial ‘60s mod pop (“Never Heal Myself”) to slightly superficial ballads (“Never Heal Myself”). It turns out the alleged planned careers in film are an appropriate gateway into Cults: This is like a movie that is all surface. It never gets too deep, and it’ll never hook you beyond its original selling point (“Go Outside”). It might as well be Friends With Benefits.
While “Go Outside” was notable for its chilled-out, good-times ambiance, it’s the tracks where Cults let loose that stand out here. The stomping Ronettes-like jam "You Know What I Mean" finds Follin lamenting “tell me what’s wrong with my brain because I seem to have lost it,” before she wails the titular phrase in the choruses. The “la da da da da” and call and answer portions of “Bumper” are like ’60s pop catnip, while the xylophone bolstered twee of “Oh My God” ends up being the closest Cults get to the muscle of their source material (see: Phil Spector), with a funky, growling bass line interlocking with robust drums.
But from there, Cults is mostly just an album of girl-group signifier piled on top of girl group-signifier. Sly vocals, delicate guitar lines, references to childhood: all of those figure prominently here. For her part, Follin has to do most of the heavy lifting—Oblivion sings on some songs, but mostly he’s her backing dude-- and she can only do that in protracted stretches. Hers is not a varied instrument. She basically has only one setting: coo. And when she’s bad, she’s awful (see the nasally and shouty “Bad Things”).
That said, don’t go about considering this a backlash against an “unworthy” band getting called up to the majors too soon, though. Cults are pretty good at what they do; if there’s a market for songs that sound like milquetoast lost pop songs from 1964, they will almost certainly find it and conquer it. And is it really possible to have a backlash against a band that rose to prominence on the back of three minutes and 24 seconds? “Go Outside” is still far and away the band’s best song, to the point where a full-album is almost unnecessary. The rest—minus a few exceptions—is just padding.