Review: Cults at the Black Cat

New York indie pop group Cults bring their '60s-influenced style to DC. Photo: Cults

WASHINGTON, November 26, 2013 — If someone listens to a band enough, it’s hard for them not to fall down the rabbit hole of the band’s history—even a band with a relatively short history like Cults.

Accumulating information begins to color one’s opinion of the band’s music and their live show, causing both fans and the merely curious to start looking for hidden meanings behind everything the band sings or, visually, by even their slightest interactions on stage. And, save for the most minimally informed, it was hard to avoid this game during Cults’ recent show at the Black Cat.

Before the release of their second full-length album, 2013’s “Static,” it was announced that the two primary members of Cults—Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion—had ended their personal relationship. Although this clearly didn’t end their musical partnership, it was still on the minds of everyone who followed the band because often, such a deeply personal breakup is not something bands long survive. 

Making things even more complicated, Cults has had to adapt more than most. That’s because this ensemble, in actuality, has been and still is a dual arrangement between just Follin and Oblivion. All other band members are strictly used for touring. For that reason, there is some cause for optimism, since in the end, the ultimate outcome of this arrangement is simply between two people, Follin and Oblivion, and not an entire complement of band members.

Maybe not so shockingly, the Follin’s and Oblivion’s evolving relationship Cults ties in almost perfectly with Cults’ musical product. After all, pop music has always mined the depths of heartbreak for its material and it’s been like that even be fore pop began to take its more or less current shape in the ‘60s. Since Cults has evolved from this milieu, why would their break-up have any real impact on their music or even how they perform?

The songs they performed from their current album certainly possess the strong vibes of a newly minted break-up. Their focus is clearly on Madeline Follin and her sugary, hypnotic vocals. Brian Oblivion didn’t stand out nearly as much, despite sharing vocal duties on a few songs, which, in an odd way, seemed to drive the songs to a deeper level of meaning while providing an extra, if subtle punch.

Cults’ emotional content is enhanced by their sound. Appropriating a ‘60s pop sound feel is becoming increasingly popular today. But the bands that tilt in this direction usually try to deflect most attention from their approach. But the need for evasiveness is not a problem for Cults. They unapologetically embrace that ‘60s sound.

On the other hand, Cults’ approach is not a nostalgia trip. The atmospherics of the synthesizers play a huge part in their overall sound, adding a different element to various pop sounds Cults employs.

The ensemble blends this retro sound with a bit of chamber pop, where everything feels like it’s trapped in a room with a constant echo. It’s an interesting approach, but doesn’t always work in a live setting. Such a sound doesn’t necessarily trap all that well, and in Cults’ performance here there were times when the sound didn’t quite bounce back right, instead overwhelming Follin’s vocals.

The strength of the band becomes more clearly evident when they fully embrace that ‘60s pop sound with looping bass and a mid-tempo drum beat. That brings out what’s most appealing about Follin’s voice and gave added power to the underlying presence of the songs Cults performed here.

SEE RELATED: Review: PAPA at the 9:30 Club

Whatever the effect of Follin’s and Oblivion’s breakup ultimately might prove to be, given their current appearance on stage, it is, at least right now, responsible for giving an added emotional edge to their already unique, energetic, retro-punctuated sound.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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