Concert Review: CULTS—Do We Want to Join?

If you are going to name your band “Cults”, you have a lot to live up to. Billed as a duo, the group are from New York City and are comprised of guitarist, Nord synthesizer player, machine manipulator with a very cult leader name—and a very “Big Brother and the Holding Company” hairstyle—Brian Oblivion, who and sings very rarely (definitely for the better.) The other half, and focal point of the group, is Madeline Follin, who sings most every song and is beautiful in an otherworldly way. Countering her soft and lovely good looks, her singing is at times is so startlingly apart from this world, that she could be standing at a mic on Titan, the giant moon of Saturn.

On their new album, Static—which sounds like a weird combination of 1960s girl group, psychedelic effects, Cocteau Twins-style ethereal melodies, and pure pop tunes—you can hear an example of Follin’s unique vocals on the song “I Can Hardly Make You Mine.” However, at their show this past week at Webster Hall, the galactic force was definitely with us, and those other elements from the album were buried in a muddy sea of psychedelic mush and mud. I really wish they had a better sound man, because what they were playing was both exciting and vital.

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Speaking of Big Brother and the Holding Co.—the seminal ’60’s group that spawned Janis Joplin—I see similarities here with Cults, aside from the hippie look. Not so much in the music, but in its execution. Mr. Oblivion (isn’t it great to say Mr. Oblivion?) may be half the group, but if they start to make it, there will pressure on Ms. Follin to take her unique vocal chords and go solo—that would be a mistake, and not only for the fact that he has the long and side-parted hair of Sam Andrew (and Peter Albin), but he also sings like Andrew. That’s where the similarity to Big Brother lies; the effect of his indistinctive drone giving way to her interplanetary blast is astonishing. It made Big Brother unique when Andrew gave way to Joplin, and it does that for Cults as well.

However, this really does not come through on the album. They are a much different as a live act than a recording act—as was Big Brother. The interplay of Follin and Oblivion, plus the ultra cool light show on hanging multi-sized TVs, drove the sold out hometown crowd nuts. In concert, Cults is five piece psychedelic 60’s rock band. The lead guitar player also plays a synthesizer and a glockenspiel—which looks like a small xylophone. The drummer was great, spot on, and solid in every song. Most unique was the bass player, who was playing what looked to me like a Gibson Grabber bass, which, unlike the deep, low sounding Fenders that most bass players use, produces a very trebly sound. Think Jack Bruce in the Cream.

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I bring this up because it really gave Cults a distinctive sound at the show, really cutting through the hazy mud. The bass was great. I wish more groups would use that—at least on some songs to mix it up. And to complete the 60’s feel, one of the songs they did had a riff that reminded me of the song by Scott McKenzie, “If you’re going to San Francisco [be sure to wear some flowers in your hair].” Maybe that’s where the idea for Cults name came from. The ‘60’s were a time of cults. In fact, one of their videos has a clip of Jim Jones, the cult leader who killed almost his entire flock with poison Kool-aid in Guyana.

I don’t think this Cults wants to kill us with anything but lovely pop infused outer space music—so, are Cults a cult?  Do they want to be a cult? Only until they wake up, like all of us dreamers. In the meantime, just the music will be worth following.

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BlackBook Tracks #40: In Real Time

Now that it’s October, you can finally make everything pumpkin spice and the Halloween candy displays finally make sense. Things are also ramping up in the entertainment world, with some of the year’s most anticipated releases still yet to come. Here are some of the best things to happen in music this week, besides Lil Bub meeting Steve Albini.

Chad Valley – “Real Time”
Sebastien Grainger is another multitasker. This year, he’s been working on the long awaited follow-up to Death From Above 1979’s 2004 debut You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine alongside prepping a solo album, Yours To Discover. First single “Going With You” shows a surprising fondness for sun-kissed synth-pop, miles away from DFA1979’s relentless dance punk and a departure from his more rock-oriented project Sebastien Grainger and the Mountains. Yours To Discover is out next month.

Cults – “High Road”
Cults’ Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin may broken up as a couple, but they’ve stayed together to make wistful pop songs. The New York duo is gearing up to release its second album Static on October 15, and the anticipation builds with this new video for “High Road.” Directed by Hiro Murai, the clip is a minimalist monochrome journey that embraces the hypnotic effects of looking into fire.

Lea Lea – “The Wonderer”
Lea Lea comes from the same school of diva-dom as M.I.A. and is well on her way to becoming London’s next leading lady. “The Wonderer” is a mission statement for her upcoming self-titled debut album. Over a punchy beat that’s somehow both minimal and maximal, she paints herself as smart and savvy but never cynical.

Goldn Retriever – “I Feel Great Now”
Chillwave isn’t the buzzword it once was, but the laid-back subgenre has left its mark on indie music. Frenchman-in-London Goldn Retriever takes Washed Out’s dream world and adds a more assertive rhythm section. “I Feel Great Now” will instantly sink into your brain with its warm bass, and it’ll appear alongside other late night tales on the singer/producer’s upcoming The Dawn Within EP.

Pitchfork Music Festival Finalizes Lineup: Beach House, Wild Flag & More Join the Fun

Today, Pitchfork added the final batch of bands to its 2012 music festival lineup, well ahead of the July 13-15 weekend where the excitement will go down in Chicago’s Union Park: Beach House, Wild Flag, Real Estate, Atlas Sound, Big K.R.I.T., Nicolas Jaar, Cults, Chavez, Ty Segall, Oneohtrix Point Never, Youth Lagoon, Thee Oh Sees, King Krule, Lotus Plaza, Dirty Beaches, Lower Dens, Milk Music, the Psychic Paramount, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Outer Minds, and A Lull. The festival might not ever be as fun as the year when they sold Sparks at the beer tents, but sometimes life forces you to make sacrifices for sanity’s sake. You can look at the final lineup, which is looking pretty healthy, after the click.

Pitchfork, in my opinion, is the best deal in national music festivals. For the cost of a one-way plane ticket, you get to see dozens of relevant, high quality bands at varying points in their life cycle: buzz acts finding their live presence, indie veterans who’ve settled into a comfortable set list, and the random top-shelf name brand gifted with a headlining set for a crowd that’s absolutely reveretial of their presence. And the people watching! The people watching is absolutely superb. Three-day passes are sold out, though you can still purchase individual one-day tickets if that weekend is still looking free on your schedule.  

Friday, July 13:

A$AP Rocky
Willis Earl Beal
Big K.R.I.T.
Clams Casino
Dirty Projectors
Tim Hecker
Lower Dens 
The Olivia Tremor Control
Outer Minds 
Purity Ring

Saturday, July 14:

The Atlas Moth
Atlas Sound 
Danny Brown
Cloud Nothings
Flying Lotus
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Hot Chip
Nicolas Jaar 
Lotus Plaza 
The Psychic Paramount 
Schoolboy Q
Sleigh Bells
Wild Flag 
Youth Lagoon 

Sunday, July 15:

A Lull 
Beach House 
Dirty Beaches 
The Field
King Krule 
Kendrick Lamar
The Men
Milk Music 
Thee Oh Sees 
Oneohtrix Point Never 
Real Estate 
Ty Segall 
Unknown Mortal Orchestra 
Vampire Weekend

May Music Reviews: Okkervil River, Fleet Foxes, Cults

Austra, Feel It Break (Domino) The debut album from this versatile Canadian three-piece has a singular sound, at once electronic and danceable, but with minor keys, austere chord progressions, and rainy-day vocals that sound goth at first, but are actually operatic—lead singer Katie Stelmanis (center) is classically trained.

It’s almost as if the band—named after the Latvian goddess of light—takes it as a personal challenge to imbue electronica with gravitas, a weight that can be heard on tracks like “Beat and the Pulse,” a sinister yet poppy song reminiscent of New Order at its best, and lead single “Lose It,” which showcases Stelmanis’ plaintive voice. The final track, “The Beast,” begins with an artful piano riff and builds to full classical orchestration. Feel It Break is a delicate balance of power and restraint. —Victor Ozols

Okkervil River, I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar) On I Am Very Far, lead singer Will Sheff shepherds his Okkervil River brigade into new terrain. Influenced by contemporaries like the National and the Decemberists, this Austin-based indie outfit has revamped their usual parabolic folk rock, delivering a surprising amalgamation of paradoxical forces—joy and sorrow, order and chaos. “Rider” is a rock anthem that zips along tight guitar lines and snapping snare, while “White Shadow Waltz” is a chamber pop explosion big on keys, horns, strings, and choral arrangements that never seem to unfold the same way twice. —William Kangas

Jessica 6, See the Light (Peacefrog) The outstanding debut album from this Brooklyn throwback act recalls a time when the city shone with glitter and cocaine. And it’s no wonder: Bassist Andrew Raposo, keyboardist Morgan Wiley, and singer Nomi Ruiz all met while touring in nu-disco figureheads Hercules and Love Affair’s live show. But Jessica 6 is first and foremost a house act, with Ruiz’s lush, androgynous vocals soaking up the beat on standouts “Fun Girl” and “White Horse,” in which Ruiz beckons, “Let me see you dance.” Not a problem. “Good To Go” slams on the brakes, a slow, candlelit jam that that would make Sade blush. —Caroline Seghers

Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts (Matador) Thirty seconds into Thurston Moore’s new album, you’re transported to the outskirts of Los Angeles back in the fall of ’94. With Beck as the record’s producer, this latest solo effort from the Sonic Youth iconoclast toggles between grace and weighty emotion. Experimental violinist Samara Lubelski elevates each track to soulful new heights. On “Benediction,” for example, Moore ponders the torments of human connection, while “Circulation” invokes in its listeners a blustery instrumental trance. With Demolished Thoughts, Moore proves just how fun wreckage can be. —Hillary Weston

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop) The second album from this Pitchfork-approved band of brothers proves their success will be anything but fleeting. Gentle, tickling guitars and baroque chimes are portals into a sun-drenched daydream. The title track emphasizes the band’s refusal to play by any set of rules, as lead singer Robin Pecknold cheekily croons, “Bow down and be grateful, and say, ‘Sure, take all that you see’/ To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls, and determine my future for me.” The Foxes don’t exactly break new sonic ground here, but fixing things that ain’t broke is a fool’s errand. —CS

Cults, Cults (In The Name Of/Columbia) Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion have established a cult-like following in mere months. Their full-length debut includes “Go Outside,” the hooky, insouciant lo-fi tune that focused the internet’s ever-roaming gaze on the Brooklyn duo. The NYU film students—Follin sings, Oblivion slings the guitar—are purveyors of that brand of mysterious, old school rock ’n’ roll swagger. On songs like “Abducted,” their swooning, ’60s-era girl group melodies are undercut by heartbreak. Others, like “Bad Things,” are interspersed with speeches from notorious cult leaders, adding a sinister undercurrent that teeters on the edge of depressing. —Nadeska Alexis

Cat’s Eyes, Cat’s Eyes (Cooperative Music USA/Downtown) The Horrors’ frontman Faris Badwan and instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira’s mutual passion for iconic ’60s girl groups like the Shangri- Las is easily reflected in their debut effort, Cat’s Eyes. With the aid of Zeffira’s classically trained soprano voice, the twosome chart a torrid love affair, beginning with the wide-eyed ode “Best Person I’ve Ever Met,” to the pre-marital sex woes expressed on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” An abundance of dreamy vocals, a hearty helping of strings, and twinkling piano keys contrast sharply with Badwan’s down-low baritone and menacing horns on “Sooner Or Later,” the album’s darkest moment. By the time the closing track, “I Knew It Was Over,” rolls around, the album has already transitioned back into mistyeyed nostalgia. Serenity now. —NA