Sophomore Slump or Underrated Gems? Yuck and Cults

In recent years I developed a scientific but informal method to determining the best albums of the year.  It’s scientific in its attempt at objectivity (number of plays over the year), but informal in that the order was only for the purpose of guiding friends as to which albums they would get the most bang for their back.  For the year of 2011, this process determined that the self-titled debut of Cults was the fourth-best album of the year, while Yuck’s album (coincidentally enough, also a self-titled debut) took the crown at number one.  Since then, I can honestly say those assessments hold up, since I continue to listen to those albums on a regular basis (in fact, if I re-ranked the list, I’d bump Cults up into the number two slot, close behind Yuck (sorry Girls and The Antlers)).

Is there a reason to pair these bands together, besides future narrative convenience?  In a way, probably.  As has been the case for most rock bands for over a decade now, both of these bands took their major inspirations from the past and offered their own reinterpretations of their favorite old bands.  If you want to be mean, you could say the urge was not to push boundaries and create new genres, but to affirm a love of the old sounds that they had heard before, and hey what do you know, let’s try to do the same things ourselves.  I myself don’t want to be mean, so don’t pin that accusation on me (others, however, have no problem whatsoever with this approach and react in a way that makes you want to ask if there’s anything you can do to console them, because it seems as if somebody in the band ran over their dog (possibly on multiple occasions)).

What distinguished Yuck and Cults from their colleagues was the era of their particular nostalgia.  While several bands trafficked in 80’s revivalism (from post-punk to top-40 sounds) or hearkened back to 70’s arena rock, Yuck and Cults chose different routes: early-90s guitar-rock for Yuck and 60’s-era pop for Cults.  After years of call-backs to Joy Division, Gang of Four, or God forbid, Led Zeppelin, critics at least would have a different set of bands to name-drop in describing each group’s sound (well, Dinosaur Jr. at the very least–that was the one that got the most references from what I’ve read for Yuck; I never saw too many specifics for Cults).  But reminding me of some of my favorite bands only gets you so far; I was more than anything impressed with the execution of each band.

Take “Get Away”, the track that kicks off the Yuck album: the super-fuzzed-out rhythm guitar instantly catches your attention, and then the delicious lead guitar line, both in terms of melody and tone, kicks in through the mix with a circular riff that matches the song’s theme.  But it’s the little moments that add up that make me truly appreciate the song:  the excellent use of feedback as lead parts in the second verse, a post-chorus that truly builds on the chorus and leads perfectly back to the verse, and a bridge where everything drops out but a bassline reminiscent of the Pixies before everyone jumps back in for one last go-around.  It’s early 90’s alternative done with an ear for perfect songcraft, and the only thing that’s infuriating is that the band members are even younger than I am.

For Cults, the comparisons are more general: the sunny nature of Madeline Follin’s vocals and the bright happy melodies do a lot to evoke an air of nostalgia, and bring to mind memories of Phil Spector and old-time girl groups like The Ronettes.  It takes a lot to make this style seem like more than a gimmick, and over the course of an album Cults managed to do this successfully.  There are subtle modern touches that provide enough of a twist to capture your attention, especially with the drum programming, and the seemingly carefree vocals mask lyrics that are more melancholic than expected.  And I have to love a band that’s willing to do not only music videos, but videos that can be best described as “the director decided to get stoned and watch Lost Highway, and oh yeah, let’s make it a bizarre love story too”.

It’s easy then to imagine the excitement I felt when I learned that these two bands would be releasing new albums in 2013.  I was excited to see what new influences the bands were willing to explore, or if they decided to stick with their old formula, that frankly sounded fine as well–it was a win-win as far as I was concerned.  But soon after the announcements of the new albums, bad news followed: Yuck announced that lead singer Daniel Blumberg had left the band (and would record an album as Hebronix), and Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin had broken up as a couple, but in both cases, new albums were going to be released anyway.  This was just the kind of news that makes a fan more than a bit wary of what could possibly be released, or worry that there would even be a release at all.

Each banded handled the turmoil in different ways: Cults agreed to several interviews detailing the process of making their new album and providing further background of the romantic-but-not-band breakup, and Yuck just started releasing music.  The first single after Blumberg’s departure that Yuck released was “Rebirth”, which is just too on-the-nose to not be something that was planned.  It did signal a new influence for the band, as they seemingly had decided to switch their focus from American alternative-rock to British shoegaze, and it seemed that the band had internalized the latter style as well as they had the former on their debut.  In a normal year, I would have said that “Rebirth” was the best My Bloody Valentine song released that year; since hell froze over and My Bloody Valentine actually released a new album last year, I would revise my statement and say it was the third or fourth-best MBV song of the year.

The Cults approach worked too, because at least with continued engagement with the press indicated that a follow-up was not a tossed-off effort, and that they were committed to continuing the band.  And their choice of a teaser single took the opposite approach of Yuck: from a stylistic perspective, “I Can Hardly Make You Mine” would fit right in at just about any point in the track-listing of Cults, though there were some subtle differences in the instrumentation that pointed to some growth (synths that were higher up in the mix, a more dominant guitar part, and livelier drumming all pointed to exciting possible new directions for the album).

With these songs, optimism began to build up once again, and I gladly purchased Glow and Behold and Static as soon as they were released.  I then went through my usual ritual, ripping the CD and importing the tracks onto my iPod (to be played during the next workout), and then putting the physical discs in my car (to be played on my next drive).  And just as was the case with their debuts, my reaction to each album was that of near-instant love.   Now here we are a few months later and both albums remain in my car as part of the regular rotation, and when I write up my review of the best albums of 2013, both albums should have a place on the list.

But apparently I’m in the minority with this opinion (well, a minority of a minority–we’re talking about indie bands that are somewhat obscure even by indie rock standards).  While Static actually has a similar Metacritic score to Cults, it failed to generate as much press or buzz, and failed to appear on year-end lists at the same rate that I remembered that their debut did.  And there was a huge nosedive in critical appreciation of Glow and Behold as opposed to Yuck.  Another bad sign was the lack of local promotion for either of their shows in Portland, which is pretty amazing considering that the backstories for each album should be a hook for both critics and their subsequent audience.  The articles practically wrote themselves.

At least with some critics, it appeared that some were unwilling to let go of the past.  This is especially evident in AllMusic’s review of Glow and Behold, which can’t seem to accept the fact that the band decided to continue without Blumberg, and subsequently would not sound the exact same.  It may be just that I personally found the increased emphasis on shoegaze to be a more interesting route to take than an attempt to ape Blumberg’s whine, or that I had fonder memories of Teenage Fanclub than others (when Yuck first came out, I remarked that it seemed like they were the one band that learned that Bandwagonesque was SPIN’s album of the year over Nevermind and seemed to agree with the result; the Teenage Fanclub influence was even more pronounced on Glow and Behold, with the album’s more focus on brighter melodies and cleaner guitars).  It was the same case with the more negative reviews of Static, though in a way in reverse: reviews would say how there was little deviation from the first album, when there was an entire two-thirds of the album that had a darker mood and more challenging instrumentation than anything on the debut.

So it’s clear what my answer to the title question is, and for what it’s worth, the few of my friends that care about this sort of thing tend to agree.  I’m fine with enjoying great songs like “We’ve Got It” and “Middle Sea” (a song that would be near the top of my list of best singles of the year) on my own, but I just hope that we won’t end up seeing more great bands like these two get caught up in the downswing of the hype-cycle, despite continuing to produce great music, as we’ve seen plenty of times before.  In other words, when album number three comes out, I’ll be there.

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