Perhaps the defining trait of the last decade of indie music has been the brazen fusion of genres that should be completely incompatible. On Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West and his back-up crew transformed Autotune and the Vocoder from a tool to make sub-par singers sound better to a musical instrument in its own right and West’s vocoder solo at the end of “Runaway” has become hip-hop’s equivalent of the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solo. Animal Collective has made a career off of melding the soaring harmonies and cheerful melodies of the Beach Boys with psychedelic influences, and Noah Lennox’s (aka Panda Bear) solo album Person Pitch was an unforeseen amalgamation of surfer pop, freak folk, and hypnotic ambience. A quick listen to Kid A may show an album that defies all genre definition, and while it certainly doesn’t fit into any easy categories, listeners with an ear for every sonic detail of that album can see how masterfully Thom York mixes the guitar driven rock and sound effects of “The National Anthem” on the same album as the thumping electronica of “Idioteque” or the haunting and ethereal “Treefingers.” I would never in a million years have believed that a band which combined the soulful pop grandeur of 1960’s Motown girl groups with the guitar and synth driven pop of post-punk outfits like Joy Division or The Smiths and then threw in Vampire Weekend world-beat elements for good measure had any chance of success. I’m glad I wasn’t around to tell Cults, a New York based pop duo, that their crazy musical blend wouldn’t work because I wouldn’t have been more wrong. With one of the most outstanding debut albums of the last couple years, Cults is an incredibly promising first look at a group that is sure to be a big force in the indie scene by the time this album begins to get the exposure it deserves.
If the Shins are the heir apparents to the chamber pop of the Beach Boys, Cults is more interested in channeling the soulful pop bliss of the Ronettes or the Crystals. With a surprisingly simple three-chord guitar structure more akin to early punk bands than modern indie rockers, Cults manage to transport pop music forty years into its past while charting what could be one of the most fresh and unexpected indie sounds since Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver brought classic folk back to the mainstream by updating it for today’s world. Lead singer Madeline Follin’s breathy and ethereal voice should instantly remind listeners of Freda Payne belting out “Band of Gold” or Dusty Springfield singing a standard like “Son of a Preacher Man.” Lead guitarist and percussionist (these two have the potential to position themselves as the next White Stripes if their next release lives up to Cults standards) layers a twinkling space-rock element over his ska/proto-punk guitar work with some elements of surfer rock and on nearly every single song, you hear a xylophone which (in this band’s already unique textural forays) becomes their unique calling card. At the same time, there are enough vocal samples and crazy sound effects to momentarily make you question if you put on an Avalanches album. Every gut instinct you have says this should turn into an incomprehensible mess, but it simply shows that you don’t have to make pre-processed, focus-tested music to make an undeniably catchy and accessible pop album that manages to be quite unlike anything else out there.
When the album begins, all of the sound effects and random vocal samples that lead into “Abducted” make you think you’re in for a much stranger and outre album than you’ll actually be listening to. The song then throws you off balance (in that great way) again by suddenly segueing into an upbeat proto-punk guitar heavy number that makes you feel you’ve found a “riot grrrl” group that was making pop music as a lark. The album’s star single “Go Outside,” immediately follows and from that point forward, you won’t be able to erase the image of the Supremes sharing the stage with the Smiths. “Go Outside”‘s main xylophone line will lodge itself in your brain even more than its tremendously catchy and simple verse structure. Pair this with the brilliant music video using footage of the Jonestown compound, and “Go Outside” is poised to be one of the best indie singles of 2011. On “Bumper”, Cults manages to combine Motown and psychedelia with a hook driven chorus structure and main verses that seem to melt into thin air like the strings on Aegaetis Byrjun. “Never Heal Myself” is an engaging and poignant song lyrically that has the potential to be this album’s “Horchata,” the under-appreciated gem off Vampire Weekend’s Contra.
There aren’t many albums that I consider must listen for all music fans. The music community has become so splintered and polarized over the last ten years that one man’s Kid A (my favorite album of all time) could be another man’s garbage (though if you find nothing of value in Kid A, you really need to have your ears checked). Indie music is especially notorious for appealing to one niche group above all others, and unless your tastes are as bizarrely eclectic as mine (I know one other person who listens to Amadou & Mariam), you may find your particular niche of music and avoid everything else at all costs. Cults is so deliciously accessible and fun that anyone with an open-mind to modern indie pop has to give it a try. You may not fall in love with it the way I did, but even the most musically withdrawn will have to respect the songcraft and pop sensibilities on display here. With surprising lyrical depth that goes toe for toe with The Shins in how to write upbeat and catchy pop songs with brooding and introspective lyrics, Cults still manages to be one of the most fun albums since the early January release of The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (how can you not love a band who makes references to David Foster Wallace in their music videos). Mark my words, barring a complete implosion of the band or a particular spectacular case of the sophomore slum, Cults are going to be one of the hottest commodities in the indie world.
Final Score: A-