Talking about how Cults went from being New York University students a little over a year ago to headlining an Iron Horse show this past Monday feels obligatory: An anonymous three-track 7-inch posted to their Bandcamp in early 2010, the critical acclaim that followed, and intrigue brought on by the lack of any real biography or geography were enough to bring them here. All we had were three tracks of pop that meshed the girl-group sound with Motown leanings and Indie’s most current, fashionable trappings: sunny, bittersweet songs that bordered on lo-fi, crafted by a girl-and-guy duo.
The duo of vocalist Madeline Follin and guitarist Brian Oblivion—with a live three-piece backing band of bass, guitar, drums, drum machine and xylophone (some members clearly pull double duty)—started as two friends making music and is currently blossoming into one of the more promising bands of this young decade. Their debut album, Cults, released June 7 on Columbia and the Lily Allen-helmed imprint In the Name Of, does what a full-length debut is supposed to do. The “sameness” that pervades the album’s tracks and short runtime isn’t a negative thing; it’s a young band building a strong, coherent sound while wearing their influences (the Shangri-Las, Lesley Gore) on their sleeves, and it’s one of the year’s best releases.
If this reads like a record review, it’s because it nearly is. Cults is an 11-track long player that clocks in at barely 30 minutes; Cults live was a 10-song set that worked each cut off that album—sans “Walk at Night”—in barely 45 minutes. Changing the tracklisting and efficiently tackling 10 of Cults’ 11 tracks, Follin and Oblivion fronted a set of gorgeous indie pop that showed what made both their 7-inch and full-length debut instant hits.
After openers Writer and Guards finished their quick, impressive sets, Cults took the Iron Horse’s small stage, packing their five-piece onto a platform that could comfortably hold only one or two more. Follin, in her squeaky speaking voice, introduced the band as Cults and broke into “Abducted,” their self-titled album’s opener. I draw a distinction between Follin’s speaking and singing voices here because the youthful squeals of “thank you” that continually followed the conclusion of songs seemed to belong to a different owner, as Follin filled those songs with a controlled, powerful alto that could switch between the bellowing chorus of album-highlight “You Know What I Mean” and the cheeky, frustrated tone of “Never Heal Myself” with ease.
“Go Outside,” the track that started it all, took well to the live setting. Backed by twinkling xylophone, Follin sauntered through the song’s youthful exuberance, while the album track’s musical breakdown morphed into an intense fleshed-out coda of sound and guitar for its live showing. “Oh My God” and its bold, driving bassline closed the show, with Follin fittingly belting out the song’s refrain, “I can run away and leave you here to stay inside dreaming.”
The mystery surrounding their original 7-inch is gone, and while “removing the mask” can threaten to kill projects like this, Follin and Oblivion have gotten all the mileage they could out of being masked. “As cheesy and cornball as it sounds,” Follin told Pitchfork last year, “at the end of the day, it’s all about the songs. We want to make classic music, and where we live or how old we are and what records we’ve played on before is all interesting, but that doesn’t really matter.” Except, now we know: Cults are a young duo making gorgeous pop music—both live and in studio—influenced by some of music’s most classic acts.