Imagine the mind of a cult member deprogrammed to fit right back into the apple-pie culture from which s/he was removed: on the surface things are fairly familiar, even saccharine, a reflection of current mores, but at the same time there are odd fragments of the sinister and various shards of the past that coexist in a not-entirely-enjoyable tension with the aforementioned façade. Such a topography presents itself on Cults’ self-titled debut LP.
There are many directions from which the girl group influences of the 1960s can be taken — into garage lo-fi (Vivian Girls) or sweet catchy indie pop (The School), even toward the realm of chamber pop (The Magic Theatre, God Help The Girl). Or, pursuing the shadow side, Anika Invada took the waves of desperate 60s fangirls and prefaced them with a ‘no,’ while Idiot Glee have perhaps done the most to explore a landscape that adds the smoky lenses of alienation to the sunniness of The Beach Boys and doo wop melodies, an existentialist angst verging on but never quite tipping over into violence reminiscent of Charles Manson, Jim Jones, or Altamont. But Cults seem both too freaked out and confined to know quite what they want to do here. Where the best work of the original girl groups made you want to dance (to the quasi-industrial rhythms of Chicago’s factories) with melodies stuck in your head like a stamp to a letter, the more serious moments — most notably, the notorious Crystals number “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” but we might also think of then-scandalous ‘death discs’ like “Leader of the Pack” or Twinkle’s “Terry” — gave a deep, lived sense of the trauma and despair that can dog the realm of intimate relationships. Cults fail to achieve either the joie de vivre of the former or the viscerality of the latter.
The strongest tracks here remain those from the inaugural 7-inch, which followed the winning combination of eerie lyrics and samples with catchy but sedate, 60s-esque little-girl pop. The only really impressive moment beyond that is the charming, watery-grave-bound “Never Saw The Point,” which again combines these elements. One of Cults’ mistakes has been to extend this core sound into a sub-Merriweather Post Pavilion realm of low-key, t(w)inkling electronica, where it loses the distinctive quality that characterized their initial offering. While the heart leaps at the start of many tracks (Cults know a thing or two about introductions — or should that be ‘flirty fishing’?), these moments for the most part don’t live up to the expectations they’ve aroused. And the boy-girl duets, a form that holds out some promise (particularly in dealing with the dark side of the love/lust thing), fail to intrigue. Although I’m usually a fan of the short and (hopefully) sharp delivery, at 34 minutes the album feels insubstantial in terms of length as well as material.
Nonetheless, there’s enough here for one to hold out hope for a better future, thus enacting a fundamental characteristic of the occulted believer. Where cult leaders may succeed by being all things to all people, however, these Cults are failing to make manifest such pansectual success. But before casting the first stone, perhaps we should wait ‘til October…