Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The flood of girl group-infected pop music in the indie marketplace right now is unstoppable; such bands are a nickel a dozen, from She & Him to the Pipettes to Best Coast to Camera Obscura to Tennis, and those are just a few of the ones that have managed relatively mainline success. But when a smart pop musician like Lily Allen signs one such band to her new Sony imprint, I don't know about you, but I take notice. Except in certain outlets, Cults have thus far been met with a lot of the usual complaints about derivative songs and lackluster performances, infected with the charge of too-cool-for-school hipster music. Just look at the cover. Look at how smug they look with their perpetual movement and Columbia contract. Damn them. The record even begins lo-fi in the first seconds of "Abducted" before exploding, and then along come those deadpan harmonies by the guitarist. What is this, Pavement recast as a souffle?
Of course, the complaints about Cults don't hold water, and not just because the deadpan is delightful, the explosion is a monster, that cover is gloriously stylish, and what's so wrong with stylish? The music is more rough-hewn than the artwork suggests, for what it's worth. When compared to any of the Shirelles-derived revivalists named above, Cults are by far the most abrasive -- not only is Brian Oblivion's guitar louder, muddier, more aggressive than those peers would ever allow, the songs are slightly unsettling and off-center in the most ingratiating manner. Any twee sensibilities Cults' genre suggests are overcome by the assurance of their equally pronounced noise pop, and moreover by their dance music persuasions that spin all this around into the sort of body music She & Him will, I promise, never provide us with. And yeah, buddy, "Bumper" is insanely derivative (of "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," one of my all-time favorite 45s) but it's a delightfully warm, charming duet I dare you not to enjoy.
But style is nothing without some level of emotional honesty. Fortunately, singer Madeline Follin is unashamed of both her vulnerability and her toughness; by drawing lyrical inspiration from Jim Jones, taking the traditional submission of Brill Building female pop (and Best Coast) to its obvious and disturbing conclusion, Cults provide an implicit feminist critique of pop's celebration of the wide-eyed boy-crazy lover. This is especially apparent on the freakishly submissive "Never Heal Myself," its delightfully long and complicated lines dripping with sarcasm behind its wall of sound. Only the Cardigans have so successfully fused discomfort with bliss. The Jones connection is in the band's awareness of the power of a phrase (appropriately belted) like "You Know What I Mean," how they can match that with the ambiguous demand "Please come and save me" that attains new meaning when its doo wop texture slips into the gospel that gave rise to this music in the beginning. The melody is tricky and modern even as the sound seems to rise from another universe and time. The duo seems to be in a sort of groove of higher-up musical history than their brethren; if their supposed hip hop influence were more pronounced, I'd go even farther than that.
Of course, we had Blondie, who laid NYC guitar sludge over '60s pop decades ago. Cults will undoubtedly never be in a class with Blondie, but their guitars are more vicious and their pop more outlandish, right now. They're still young. They still come up with lines like "He took my heart away and left me to bleed out" rife with "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" allusions like they're the first to do it. That very naivete, so threatened in the age of constant access to music, is what's needed to keep the r&r train going. I don't recall Blondie ever casting a somber pall over their pop with samples of sinister Jonestown-ish revivals. The chunky Motown texture on "Most Wanted" climaxes with "What we most want is bad for us, we know" followed by a zombielike woman reciting the words "flirtation, drug use, and adultery." And the lilting Marvelettes melody on "Walk at Night" directly afterward jinxes itself without such help, perfectly expressing all the fear and paranoia of youth. Maybe the cult theme is just shorthand for the emotional violence captured by "Never Saw the Point," hurt all over the melody, but the compassion, swagger and assurance raise a middle finger, even as the guitar in the midsection grows ever more bruising, finally drowning out the voice.
They're no Robyn, but the vague dancehall of "Go Outside" is hard-hitting, and the song has its heart in the right place too, one of the rare sincere moments here. "I really want to go outside and make it light all day / You really want to hole up / Stay inside and not care where you lay," Follin complains, and the difficulty and crunch of the noise on the bridge express the frustration equally well, while her closing wordless coos don't hurt even if they make the song more conventional than it possibly needs. At only one other point, on the overbaked closer "Rave On," do they give in to a slightly annoying Tennis-style blandness, despite the great guitar and organ. In 34 minutes, these are the only stops in the momentum.
At one point in that half-hour, Cults come out completely from behind the veil of irony for the stunning "Oh My God," a deliberate lyrical recasting of the Supremes' "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" and a passionately expressed paean to the fear of wasting one's life and youth, stuck in "the same ancient tradition": "I'm so tired of all these adult decisions / Oh my god, I'm ready to walk right out that door." Plenty of men have permitted themselves to express this claustrophobia; see The Graduate. But the way the vocal is complemented by the vibraphone, countered by the sludgy bed of guitars and bass, give us something resembling an anthem, not just about feminism but about breaking away, joyfully so, descending even into schoolyard chant at the "I can run away" mark. Fuck every self-regarding dismissal of this record -- the mastery of this track speaks for itself.
I wouldn't blame someone who couldn't see the same intelligence and wisdom in "Bad Things," which I nevertheless think is the finest song here, certainly the one that leaves my head spun the most. The startling intro, all gritty piano and handclaps, is straight out of the Shangri-Las again ("Walking in the Sand"), and the swooning and shapeless piece to follow reminds us how really appallingly oddball commercial pop music was allowed to be in the early '60s. Plenty of people have reformed Phil Spector and Shadow Morton's ideas in a shoegaze context, but it's still revelatory to hear a modern pop song given this level of enveloping, moody drone and strangeness. Makes me feel like I'm listening to Mickey & Sylvia. Ah, there it is again -- the sweep of history happening, and it's only history because these adolescent concerns are so ageless and perpetual. Deliver me from the days of old, indeed.