Nirvana, the Pixies, Mudhoney, and buzzy anti-corporate indie-punk.
Did you think those words would be mentioned in a review of Cage the Elephant’s new album Thank You, Happy Birthday?
Yeah, didn't think so.
When Kentucky lads Cage the Elephant lit a fire under the indie rock scene’s ass with 2009’s self-titled debut album, they quickly rose in notoriety. Songs like Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked and Back Against the Wall, hit singles from the disc, are still being played on FM rock radio stations. The band’s alluring blend of soulful bluesy rock and understated punk aggression turned many heads and allowed the band to support that album for the next year, playing tons of festival gigs.
After some downtime, they have returned with their follow-up to their smash debut record, and it sounds like something Kurt Cobain would dig.
The album starts off strongly, Always Something slinking along creepily with an Arctic Monkeys-ish feel to it. The song leads into Aberdeen, presumably named after the tiny rainy town in Washington that spawned the “grunge” movement, Kurt Cobain, Mudhoney, and many other prominent bands and individuals of that movement. Aberdeen is one of the “catchiest” songs on the album, and the most suited for radio play, with lead singer Matthew Schultz alternating between his usual lazy drawl and a bit more energetic vocals for the chorus. The guitars in the bridge are very grungy and dissonant, too.
As Aberdeen closes out, Schultz repeating “way back!” as the music drops out to some eerie backup vocals, the best part of the album starts up. Indy Kidz, a violently spastic song beginning with Schultz sarcastically saying “I wanna be just like you” before erupting into a frenetic, In Utero-esque freakout, is astounding. The song viciously lampoons the “cool kids” of the indie music scene, peppering in some off-key buzzy yelling (again coming off like Kurt Cobain’s ghost). The music is all over the place, riffing and chugging and slowing down and picking the pace back up and stopping and letting Schultz yell and scream some more, with or without a beat behind him. It honestly sounds like Nirvana, in the best possible way for a song released in 2011.
Perhaps ironically, the next track, Shake Me Down, is the album’s first single. Following up the fiercely aggressive punch of Indy Kidz with a more ear-friendly tune like this creates a pretty jarring transition, but it works since Shake Me Down is solid. Crunchy rhythm and drums, melodic vocals, an accessible overall quality, it’s all there.
Cage the Elephant holed up in the backwoods of Kentucky and listened to the Pixies, Mudhoney, and 1950s surf rock for inspiration for this record, and you can hear it in tracks like 2024 and Sabertooth Tiger.
A prevalent theme on this disc is the band’s refusal to adhere to a “catchy” sound. This is one of those instances when a band has a smash debut record, gets a lot of attention and exposure, and then grows bitter with the whole situation. Sell Yourself is an example of that, disjointed, off-kilter riffs churning while Schultz yells “sell yourself, don’t be a fool”, itself a criticism of the band’s rise in success. The song is abrasive, just as the band wants it to be.
Whereas similar tactics have been attempted by other bands like MGMT (whose sophomore album Congratulations seems to have made everybody mad, fans and critics alike), Cage the Elephant instead did it right, creating something very unique and challenging.
Just look at the transition from Sell Yourself to Rubber Ball – the first track a clustercuss of noise and pissed-off energy, leading into a slow interlude that sounds like a lullaby. They’re exploring all types of sounds and energies on this album, and it works.
Right Before My Eyes has more old-school vibes, a straightforward song that boasts one of the album’s best choruses, right before my eyes the whole world lost control. It would also work on the radio, perhaps maybe appealing to fans of the band’s radio songs.
Around My Head sounds like Brit Pop and the Pixies combined, and if it wasn’t for the weird ooh ooh ooh ooh ah ah ah ah monkey chirps before the chorus it’d be one of the album's strongest songs.
Japanese Buffalo is another WTF? moment on the album, starting out like the Beach Boys before going down the “frantic sped-up garage rock” route, which a friend of mine referred to as “Iggy Pop doing Pinkerton”. All Schultz really says in the song is “alright? Okay. Uh huh.” over and over, and then some more yelling, before it slows down for some melody and, of course, more screaming. And buzzy guitars.
Album closer Flow starts out a bit in Kings of Leon territory, with jangly acoustic guitars and some mostly reserved vocals by Schultz. Surprisingly, it doesn’t explode into more screaming and aggression, instead keeping its hushed tone throughout. It’s a nice calm down after all the musical rollercoasting that goes on for the first eleven tracks. After some silence, a slowed-down acoustic reprise of Right Before My Eyes finishes the album off.
With Thank You, Happy Birthday, Cage the Elephant has really done something I hadn’t thought possible. They’ve created music that is both an homage to their heroes and something confrontationally original. They could have gone down the “indie buzz band” route and released crowd-pleasing recreations of their debut, but they didn’t.
Instead, they crafted songs bursting with the same kind of aggression and anti-corporate energy that Nirvana did with In Utero. These guys have made it pretty far, but now that they’re there they aren’t afraid to do what they want, all the time criticizing the scene and themselves.
It’s just a great (and somewhat unexpected) record, and while it may be one of the first releases of 2011, it may find itself on many "Best Of 2011" lists come next December.