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The Cults new album has great ideas under its dull, derivative dream-pop

(Greedmont Park/StockPhotos.com)

Despite the ominous, dark name, Cults are actually a bright dream-pop group, known for the big indie single “Go Outside.” Another hit, “Bad Things,” was sampled in the lead single from J. Cole’s first album “Born Sinner.” Their first album was beloved for the duo’s unique approach to dream-pop: the bright, cloudy aesthetics with candy-sweet synths mixed with darker, sharp undertones. Madeline Follin’s voice was made for this genre, perfectly accompanying the bright landscape of Brian Oblivion’s production, able to capture a variety of emotions. Both Follin and Oblivion came from punk roots, whose influence made their eponymous debut special. But the band has slowly stepped away and moved towards the uninspired.

The problem with the sub-genre of dream-pop is that it’s difficult to stand out when most bands use the same instrumentation, tone and mixing. Bands like M83 manage to sound unique among many indistinguishable dream-pop bands; Beach House pioneered the modern sound that’s so often copied. The Cults’ new album, “Offering,” meanders through the motions of the genre, lulling and sleepily, yet sometimes striking gold.

The synth in the self-titled “Offering” drudges on sluggishly and monotonously. Yet, Follin’s vocals pick up the slack, cherry-sweet and innocent in its unrelenting hopeful message. She sings from the heart, offering hope in troubled times. The lyrics “Hanging at the end of a rope/ But I can make you an offering/Such a telephoning joke/But I can make you an offering” sound both sincere and well-versed. “I Took Your Picture” finds foothold in a bassline with a chord progression, tying the synth-pop drone with Follin’s echoing vocals together.

The cloudy drone of dream-pop is something that’s hard to catch. If it’s not done right, the songs end up bland, their sound too uniform, lulling you to sleep. The first four tracks play in the same wheelhouse; the steam runs out far too soon. It isn’t until the fifth track “Right Words” that the album gets a much needed jolt from the duo exposing the drums that were muted up until now. Follin’s prosody fits snugly, but the lyrics remain dull, the charm of their innocence worn off.

Old fans can rejoice with “Talk in Circles,” as it is as close to their original formula as one gets. A sketchy blur of pop and indie rock, every hook delivers satisfying drums. The pacing is excellently methodical; it drives to a well-placed refrain-hook-outro, the production soaring, dipping with Follin’s voice. The chorus has a sense of immediacy in its delivery that keeps the track tightly wound. And it’s in these escapades into a more rock-dominant soundscape that “Offering” finds its stride. The first half’s dream-pop is far too derivative and bland, but it is sufficient.

The album ends with “Gilded Lily.” The first half plays as mostly acapella. Once more, the outro hits that perfect sweet spot that should have spanned the whole album. A softly mixed, but still excited, guitar riff leads to the bold, almost too crowded finale. Every harmony aligns perfectly, yet it ends far too soon.

Offering has a good concept, or at least a good concept of its progression. It’s easy to see that the band wanted to slowly incorporate a rougher sound as the album reaches its final peak. But the dream-pop is too dull. While the rock is a breath of fresh air, instead of properly iterating them, Cults clutched improperly fleshed-out pop aesthetics too tightly. Only selectively does the album hit its own stride, finds its own edge. The repetitive sound asks the question of whether there were enough ideas between the duo to even warrant an album. It captures some of the Cults’ originality, but unless you’re a die-hard fan of dream-pop, the album is barely worth a listen.

Matthew Joseph can be reached at mejoseph@umass.edu. 

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