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Live review: Cults at the Echo

July 28, 2011 |  1:17 pm

The New York pop band Cults has a knack for inserting itself into history. They do this most recently (and most literally) in the new video for their Internet hit single “Go Outside,” where their faces are spliced into jubilant footage from the Jonestown religious colony in the time before its infamous implosion. The clip was both galling and maybe the most punk-rock thing to happen in music videos this year.

But the whole idea of Cults is to dip into past eras of pop music and re-appropriate them with a modern production scrim. From their clearly beloved girl groups of the '60s to classic-rock psych-shred moments and hints of the '80s New Romantics that bubble up in their synth lines and skinny ties, Cults may be the apex of our moment in retro. At the Echo on Wednesday, their first L.A. show since their self-titled debut took off after a release on Columbia, they also proved they're not just a time-travel act.

In their early days,  the duo tried to obscure their identities with fake names (though, as these things go, “Brian Oblivion” is pretty ace) and a cryptic Internet presence. The big reveal was something of a letdown -- they turned out to be two nice white kids from NYU film school --  but it let them get on with the business of writing lovestruck and spooky singles that, on Wednesday, went down like pop sugar with a bit of broken glass.  

Cults’ singer Madeline Follin is to today’s crop of neo-soul divas what Rihanna is to Beyonce  in R&B -- a frostier frontwoman whose flattened affect neatly compliments the spacious music. “Oh My God” and “Abducted” have rangy melodies, and her high reach brought some emotional drama to these gauzy, two-minutes-and-out tunes. In fact, some of the melodies seemed almost suspiciously good -- “You Know What I Mean” was a pretty flagrant nick from the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” and moments of others seemed lifted from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” itself a rip from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.”

But the twenty-somethings in Cults have never known a world without sampling (they’re planning a rap mixtape with guest MCs atop their own tracks), and at least they’re making good use of the material. Cults is fleshed out with three auxiliary members live, including Follin’s brother Richie of the O.C. rock dudes the Willowz and his opening act Guards, and they all successfully translated a laptop-y record into a formidable physical presence. Oblivion isn’t a great live singer, but he’s a fine fuzz-pedal wrangler at the big moments of rougher tunes like “The Curse.”

But the real show was the interplay between Follin’s charm and Oblivion’s acerbity, and the band works much better being themselves than some kind of ad hoc Internet mystery.

While they played, they screened long sections from “The Night of the Hunter” behind them, and there was something uncannily appropriate about that film’s wide, gorgeous shots of two children canoeing down a stream while being chased by a deranged Robert Mitchum. The band is all about how sweetness is stalked by evil, and artists in every decade have to tackle that truth.


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Photo: Cults' Nathan Aguilar on bass and Marco Deriso on drums perform at The Echo. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times