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Cage the Elephant’s new album is a breath of fresh air

By Adam Lamper

Section: Arts

January 15, 2016

The post-punk revival movement of the early 2000s brought into the mainstream a slew of artists such as New York’s The Strokes and Detroit’s The White Stripes, whose widespread success would later pave the way for subsequent musicians, as well as the reintroduction of alternative rock and its countless sub-genres into pop culture. Amongst a so-called “second wave” of alternative rock in the latter half of the decade came Kentucky’s Cage the Elephant, whose hits like “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “Shake Me Down” secured their place in the ever-increasing world of alternative music and even earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album for their 2015 album, “Melophobia.” The band’s latest album, titled “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” has accumulated a Metacritic score of 73 and tastefully integrates the excitement and raw sound of the initial post-punk revival with more modern trends that have emerged at the turn of the decade.

Cage the Elephant’s first single, “Mess Around,” was released at the end of last October. What it lacked in lyrical diversity, it made up for in upbeat riffs and rhythms, a typical and often effective tactic for drawing in new listeners to the truly substantial tracks of the album. It draws on contemporary influences in the refashioning of beach rock, and more heavily on the more widely spread blues rock genre, though there is a noticeable shift in the musical styling of this premier track that is more reflective of midwestern-born The Black Keys, another musical group who rose to prominence in the wake of the first post-punk revival. This comes as no surprise given that The Black Keys’ lead singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach served as the band’s producer, somewhat curbing the group’s traditionally harsher garage vibe and opting instead for the trendy “indie” sound that more easily finds its way into the ears of today’s mainstream audience. Though this shift in style has undoubtedly given Cage the Elephant a commercial edge and better demonstrates the group’s range in dynamics and genre, many longtime listeners castigate their having “sold out,” or simply trying too hard to sound like their more successful counterparts.

Despite the initially-released single, the album’s first track, “Cry Baby,” greets fans with the band’s acclaimed, eclectic sound. Unlike “Mess Around,” this track features a modern take on what is undeniably a classic rock and proto-punk-inspired melody, combining elements of the music of the British Invasion with the band’s signature garage-style. Given the band’s affinity for the punk genre, it comes as no surprise to hear the equally poetic and angst-filled lyrics that teenagers and young adults find so appealing. In addition to the already genre-laden piece, an interrupting bass groove brings listeners from the upbeat chorus and verses to an outro that begins in a manner more reminiscent of 70s pop rock, which gradually incorporates the melody of the song’s body before ending with vocals that reflect the neo-psychedelia movement of the 90s. One of the more interesting songs of the track, “Cry Baby” allows listeners to not only experience a wide range of stylistic influences in under five minutes, but is also lyrically duplicitous, with comparatively condensed verses that can display both a negative and positive outlook on life depending on the listener’s individual interpretation.

Two of the song’s tracks, “Trouble” and “How Are You True,” feature characteristics that are remarkably contemporary. Most notably is the use of a more electronic sound as well as the increasingly popular male falsetto, interspersed within the gruff vocals of the verses, characteristically found in the music of the alternative rock band Arctic Monkeys and, more recently, Foster the People. However, lead vocalist Matt Schultz maintains the band’s individuality with his uniquely raw and expressive voice, which seems to add just as much to the song’s underlying story as the lyrics themselves do.

Many of the album’s songs deal with personal relationships, exploring themes of domestic abuse and self-advocacy in “Punchin’ Bag,” insecurity of mutual feelings in “Portuguese Knife Fight” and unrequited love and the inability to end a relationship in “Too Late to Say Goodbye.” However, there are many other themes that have a significant impression on the album and on post-punk revival music in a broader sense, including feelings of depression, rage and the simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic outlooks on life. Due to its recent release and intriguingly eclectic sound, Cage the Elephant’s “Tell Me I’m Pretty” is sure to produce more hits within the world of contemporary alternative rock, and perhaps even produce a crossover hit into the realm of pop success. With its straightforward rhythms, driving beats and myriad stylistic influences, this album is definitely a must-listen for any fan of rock music.

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