When the singles “Go Outside” and “Abducted” showed up online last spring, both by some band no one had ever heard of called Cults, the first thing everyone did (besides Googling them and finding nothing) was to wonder how the hell anyone had managed to capture the entire musical zeitgeist so easily with two pop songs. Big, sugar-sweet girl-group vocals, scuzzy, drug-addled arrangements, a willfully naïve obsession with love and heartbreak, and a touch of post-riot grrrl sass — it was all there, and man did it sound great.
And when folks finally got a good look at the New York (via San Diego) duo behind all the fuss — singer Madeline Follin in her long, jet-black hair and scorched red lipstick, guitarist Brian Oblivion with the same hair and a cigarette between his lips, both 21, both film students, each in love with the other — it was only a matter of time before Cults jumped far beyond their anonymous Bandcamp beginnings and into the arms of a major label.
The band’s self-titled Columbia Records debut, which finally hit stores earlier this month, mostly makes good on the promise of those standout early tunes, while subtlety highlighting the band’s affection for hip-hop and dark, David Lynchian pathos.
Tuesday night, Cults took time off from a grueling tour to stop by SPIN HQ in New York for another edition of SPINhouse L!VE, presented by Lacoste L!VE. The band — which now includes touring members Gabriel Rodriguez on guitars and keys, Nathan Aguilar on bass, and Marc Deriso on drums — played on top of SPIN’s roof in downtown Manhattan in front of a capacity crowd sipping gratis vodka cocktails from Reyka and manically snapping photos.
“I’m a little bit afraid of heights,” Follin admitted before the first song, the Chinatown skyline sprawling out behind her on the longest day of the year. “So this is a big step for me.” But if she was nervous, she certainly didn’t show it.
Many bands have tried to filter the sound of classic girl groups like the Shrangri-Las through contemporary pop and indie rock, notably the Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls and to a lesser extent, A Place to Bury Strangers. But none of them have had a singer to match their nostalgic ambitions. Follin is that singer, and she ruled the roof last night.
On the sultry “You Know What I Mean,” her voice was at once demure and demanding, swaying easily through the Supremes-esque verse only to rise to a full-throated yelp for the desperate chorus: “Cause I can’t sleep alone at night / Yeah you know what I mean!” On “Oh My God,” Follin was at her most irresistibly petulant, fondling the hem of her retro flower dress as she played with the line, “I can run away and leave you anytime,” as if it were candy in her mouth.
Not surprisingly, Cults can be a little too cute at times — what with all those bubblegum hooks and lines about “crying for all of the people who love me so.” But this wasn’t a problem live, not with such a limber rhythm section and Oblivion’s clanging, reverb-drenched guitar. “Abducted” was all punch and charm, the band swinging through those lines of loss and sexual abandon without a care in the world. And “The Curse,” a tune from last year’s “Go Outside” 7″ that didn’t make it onto the LP, had a lurching beauty built on Oblivion’s sinister, Addams Family guitar riff.
“The whole roof might collapse if we all start dancing, but that might be kinda cool so let’s give it a shot,” Brian suggested toward the end of the set before jumping into “Bumper” — a jaunty little number that had he and Madeline imagining a bitter breakup. The roof, thankfully, did not collapse. Though there was still some raucous to come: Oblivion charged into the audience, guitar in hand, during the end of the final song. But before he could cause too much havoc, his guitar cord popped out of his pedal board, forcing him to run back and plug in just time for the final bars.
It was a perfectly timed moment — just like the arrival of Cults themselves.
Never Heal Myself
You Know What I Mean
Oh My God