all words: William Alberque
all photos: Jeff Martin
Cults are quite a good band, and there’s a fair amount of buzz about them at the moment, but I wonder whether they’re quite ready to headline a sold-out show. Quick answer: not really, though you wouldn’t know it from a happy, if distracted, crowd on a Friday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel.
I really can’t figure out why shows sell out and why they don’t. So many shows that should sell out end up with tumbleweeds rolling through. Others that seem completely unworthy are packed to the rafters. Don’t get me wrong – Cults are a worthy band, and opener Guards are quite intriguing – but even as a double-act, they simply don’t have the songs. And, I don’t mean they don’t have some a-list, unforgettable, lovely songs – both are on their way – but between the two bands, they only actually have about sixteen songs total.
I missed the first of three bands on the evening – Writer – arriving just in time for Guards. The crowd was doing a lot of milling and talking – and didn’t seem the usual indie show crowd. Something about them made me feel like a tourist bus had let off, but hey, at least they’re supporting new music. Lots of flip flops, baseball caps, talk of H Street Country Club – a very LNS group.
Guards and Cults share personnel this evening, which isn’t surprising since Richie and Madeline Follin are brother and sister – the former is the founder of Guards, the other is one half of Cults. Aside from that, they don’t share much in common. Guards is (mostly) dark, driving indie, with male vocals and occasional female backup, drowned in reverb. Cults is light, floating indie, with female vocals and occasional male backup, drowned in reverb. Both bands give out as little information about themselves as possible, leading to all sorts of contradictions, but hey – it’s nice to have a band that forces you to focus on the music rather than the backstory, right?
As Guards take the stage (all four of them? Five?), I’m struck that the Follinses have a LOT of hair, giving them a slightly hippy, California look. Behind them is a giant photograph of a group of young people in bathing suits, at a distance standing in a body of water, like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad that didn’t work out. There were crows – metal? Stuffed? – on the equipment, adding a British Sea Power vibe to the proceedings.
Guards are excellent live, with their songs shot through with energy. Unfortunately, it is fair to say that no one in the crowd knew the songs. Fortunately, Guards’ volume drowned out the (constant, annoying) buzz of conversation that ran through the entire set. I’m pretty sure “I See It Coming” was in the set – I wrote “very Arcade Fire-ish, with Wake Up chorus” – as was “Resolution of One,” and I think “Sail It Slow.” I think Madeline was playing a cello, and I kept looking for a drummer – either he was side stage, and I couldn’t see him, or they had an incredibly realistic drum machine – I’ll have to check the photos myself to be sure. I was stuck far in the back through their whole set.
As soon as Guards finished, I bee-lined for the merch table to buy their offerings – the Guards EP and Resolution of One 7” – and I’m glad I did (the 12” is 500 copies only!). Their website has a number of covers to sample for free, as well as the copies of the singles to order.
Guards and Cults swapped out the instruments and came out in short order (the crowd talking didn’t even let up for a second), with a blast of 4ad-ish noise (think “Thais II” from TMC) introducing them. The change in sound is remarkable – Cults effortlessly reel off a feeling of airiness and light that permeates the otherwise too-hot and too-crowded room. The crowd – or, I should say, those in the crowd who are paying attention, which is a minority – seems to know most of the words to the songs, and even recognize the introductions to a few.
Cults try some crowd banter, saying they’re from NYC (I thought they were from San Diego?), but love DC (clearly a lie, as guitarist Brian notes that he has been mugged here, but not home) among some other desultory conversation, but it doesn’t snap the crowd out of their conversations. The band seems a bit downcast by this, and disappears more and more into their dreamy sound.
“Abducted” is an enormous highlight of the set – and unlike anything else I’ve heard by them. It’s more akin to Guards attack, and Madeline’s voice climbs to achingly beautiful heights. “You Know What I Mean” calls to mind Tennis at their best, and “Go Outside” prompts the crowd to stop talking and embark on an unlikely but welcome sing-along. The night ends too soon, with the single they produced for Adult Swim, “Oh My God,” ending as they began, winsome, lovely, summer-hearted, and fleeting.
There just isn’t much more to say. I have down that Cults played a total of ten songs, and there wasn’t one that I didn’t recognize. I would recommend they pad things out with a cover or two, or stick to smaller venues/opening for kindred acts. Still the temptation to play for the bigger payday must be huge, and no one booed – the crowd seemed happy. I walked away thinking 40 or so minutes was far too short for a headline set. Ah well. I hope Guards and Cults play town again, soon, separately, opening for other acts. I will definitely be there. In the meantime, WRITE MORE, GUYS/GALS! You’re REALLY good at it!