Monday, January 17, 2011
The Elephant comes uncaged - and unhinged - on sophmore effort
Jive - R.E.D.
Running Time: 45:07
No matter where you go, you can always find a band vying for mass stardom. Any dance club, bar or grungy music venue is brimming with them every weekend. But there is key question every one of these bands may have to face.
Once you finally release that breaktrhough album that brings in all the mainstream praise and adoration you're seeking, what do you do for an encore? Do you release a clone, or try something totally different? Cage the Elephant made waves with their 2009 eponymous debut, unleashing a sexy, raucous brand of rock and roll that featured strong melodies and a smidge of punk vitality.
Leading the charge was frontman Matt Schultz, who wowed crowds with his high energy and unique vocal delivery not unlike Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother fame. Their followup, Thank You Happy Birthday, however, veers down a markedly different road as the band attempts to diversify its sonic palette.
The good news is that there's definitely more diversity here than there was on the debut. The stable of songs on Thank You Happy Birthday range from steady rockers to softer, mellower pieces, to outright screeching rockers. But it's not evident the quintet from Bowling Green, Ky. have fully mastered all the styles they try to pull off.
One of the highlights from the self titled album was the frenetic guitar playing. Personally, I'm the kind of guy who loves loves great guitar playing, with loud, rip-roaring riffs, which is something I really liked about the first album. But the guitar presence is noticeably much more subdued this time around; it sounds muddled and buried in the mix. I would even go so far as to say the guitar presence on this album is very weak, which is a major turn off for me.
The opening track, "Always Something" makes this as evident as anything - the guitar doesn't even come in until halfway through the song, leaving the drums and bass to carry the song along with Schultz's vocals. The low and rumbling guitar sound found in many of the album's tracks is new territory for Cage the Elephant, and it's a convention I'm not sure I like.
But despite this, the band tries to craft several radio singles to remind fans of the old stuff. "Shake Me Down," "2024," and "Aberdeen" sound like they could fit in on the previous album. Aberdeen, with its catchy and soaring chorus, is an album highlight.
The band also takes a stab at over the top screaming rockers - much to their peril. The guitar sound is muddled, the instrumental compsiton sounds disjointed, and Schultz's screams and shrieks begin to drive tracks like "Sell Yourself" and "Sabertooth Tiger" into histronics. Cage the Elephant masterfully demonstrates that screaming is an art best left to the metal bands.
But there are also some real gems to be found. The acoustic "Rubber Ball" is a delight, and "Right Before My Eyes" is a catchy rock nugget sporting tight drumming and brimming with a sense of energy. The closer, "Flow" also demonstrates the band's newfound gentler side. There's an unplugged version of "Right Before My Eyes" hidden at the end which may be the best thing on the album.
And the band continues to impress lyrically, as many songs are chock full of clever wordplay. "Indy Kidz" is a rant aimed at the proliferation of mass media, while "Sell Yourself" takes aim at greed and corruption. On "Indy Kidz," Schultz snarls:
"I don't watch TV cause it's just a box of lies/
It makes me want to stick a toothpick in my mind"
In all, Thank You Happy Birthday is an album about experimentation for Cage the Elephant. Some of it works out well, most of it not so much. The neutered guitar sound is a disappointment; for an alleged kickass rock and roll band that's a pretty important element to overlook. If there's a sliver lining to that, though, it's that bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion get a chance to show off their chops. And they don't disappoint.
And the lack of a standout track like "In One Ear" or "No Rest for the Wicked" is also glaring. However, it's encouraging that the guys are willing to try to break new ground. I'd like to see them try to develop some of the motifs they introduced here and see where they can go with it. But I don't think they're quite there just yet.