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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