Cults is practically set up to produce conflicting emotions. They traffic in shimmering pop songs that, upon repeat listens, go to some pretty dark places. They play music heavily influenced by Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and ’60s girl groups, but manage to sound modern. Their first album extensively samples cult leader/mass murderer Jim Jones in a way that is either edgy, or cynical or a mixture of both.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Brooklyn duo’s performance on Friday at the Wonder Ballroom produced mixed emotions as well.
On the plus side, there’s no denying Cults writes great songs. Singer Madeline Follin and multi-instrumentalist Brian Oblivion have put out two albums since 2011, containing 11 songs each. What they lack in volume they make up for in consistency. The band’s most recent release, “Static,” is the product of the breakdown of Follin and Oblivion’s romantic relationship following the release of their first album. And despite being a document of heartbreak and despair, it’s an utterly enjoyable listen that easily lodges itself into that part of your brain that causes you to sing catchy song lyrics over and over.
At the front of it is Follin, who sings with a crystal clear soprano that is both strong and vulnerable, and is among the most distinctive voices in popular music right now. Oblivion backs it up with layers of guitar, real and sampled drums, and the occasional glockenspiel. While there are still a few more weeks left in 2013, “Static” is certainly among the best albums released this year.
And that’s what makes Friday’s performance a disappointment. When two talented musicians (along with three backing musicians) perform a series of great songs, it’s reasonable to expect the result will be an amazing show. But being a great musician is not the same thing as being a great performer.
Cults live sound was muddy, with Follin’s vocals criminally buried under the band’s signature wall of sound. On a few songs, the band would pause for a few bars and Follin would sing unaccompanied. In those brief moments, you could hear what makes Follin so special, but when the band jumped back in, her voice was lost in the mix once again.
Follin herself practically disappeared on stage during the show. Instead of being the sonic and visual focal point of the show, she hid behind a microphone stand, motionless, rarely even acknowledging the audience just a few feet away from her. Between her voice, her look and the songs she gets to perform, Follin could be a truly dynamic performer. On Friday night, she was not. Oblivion did somewhat better, showing a bit more energy and occasionally talking to the audience. At one point, Oblivion said he felt like he was at the prom he never attended (a comment made all the more curious by the fact he was standing just a few feet from his ex-girlfriend).
The final disappointment of the evening may seem a little curious considering the complaints outlined above, but here it is anyway: the set was too short. Cults took the stage at 11 p.m., and had finished their main set 45 minutes later. Granted, they did come out and play a couple more songs, but even with encores, the show clocked in at less than an hour.
This complaint may seem a little petty when you realize tickets were only $15, which is a steal for an act signed to a major label. But if you’re going to headline a national tour, you really should have a set that lasts longer than an hour.
And so went the frustrations of the evening: it was a poorly mixed, listlessly performed set of great songs that should have lasted longer. There is reason to hope, however. Both Oblivion and Follin are young and still relatively new to live performance. It’s not unreasonable to believe their live shows will improve as they mature. That alone would probably be enough to bring me back to see Cults again in a year or two. There is so much potential there, it just hasn’t been realized yet.