Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cage the Elephant: Thank You Happy Birthday

During my initial listens to Thank You Happy Birthday, I couldn't help but think of Beavis & Butt-head. Back around the peak of that show's popularity, they released The Beavis and Butt-head Experience, a collection of random songs from early-90's hard rock bands as diverse as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, Megadeth, Nirvana and Aerosmith, as well as Sir Mix-a-Lot and, bafflingly, a cooler-than-it-ought-to-be duet with Cher. (In fact, it was this connection that led me to post the cover found below.) I listened to that tape pretty endlessly as a kid and pretty well encapsulated the early 90's for me: a lot of self-destructively raucous, pissed-off music that went out of its way to be abrasive in new ways (the Nirvana song was, after all, "I Hate Myself and Want To Die.") Importantly, it maintained B&B-h's humour with skits wedged between the often-inexplicable tracks (Aerosmith's contribution: their third-sappiest power ballad of the day.) Its quirky edginess, if crude, was totally emblematic of the time, and connected to my little 7-year-old self in a way most child psychologists would probably characterize as "damaging."

Without meaning to fling around the argument of homage-ripoff-influence, Cage the Elephant capture the spirit of that moment pretty well for a 2000's band, with a wry, detached, 21st century angle. They know how to work a hook, but aren't consumed by the desire to be radio-friendly. That leads them to take a lot of risks with their music, some of which succeed in giving the album broad appeal, some of which succeed in alienating the listener, and pretty much all of which make this a damn good listen.

To begin with, we have "Shake Me Down," probably the most accessible thing on here, manages to balance correctly between a most shimmering guitar intro and a riffy chorus. On first listen there doesn't seem to be a ton to it, and that it's an easy write-off, but vocalist Matthew Shultz does the heavy lifting with his voice. It's a distinctive voice that sounds like a pop-punk Black Francis, a comparison that does the band well in some of the best tracks on the album. "Aberdeen" as he busts a flow on the refrain, then wails the title phrase like Francis wailing "Gouge Away." That song, like much of the album, features a chorus that would be very singable if it weren't so vocally intensive, and if the guitars didn't strive to kill your ears. This is pretty much a good thing, in context. The bass thumps along dutifully while the six strings seem to drown. They revel in their meltdown-pop on "2024" and "Around My Head" (refrain: "Ooh ooh ooh ooh aah aah aah aah ooh ooh ooh ooh aah aah aah aah!")

They do frustration, commentary, observation and criticism well, or at least enthusiastically. They may not be the Clash (nobody is) but there's value in the parodic crash-bang of "Indy Kidz" and "Sell Yourself," which sounds like an artist caught in a beartrap without any other options left. I can't tell sarcasm from sincerity on that one, but I sense the urgency in the dilemma. A couple of back-end numbers, "Sabertooth Tiger" and "Japanese Buffalo" reassure us that it's very loud and violent inside the heads of the heads of Cage the Elephant's members. They're noisy and joyfully pissed off and cinematic (in a chase scene kind of way.)

They're not dumb brutalists, though. "Shake Me Down" is a slice of observational cleverness that was already revealed in the opening track. "It's Always Something" winds an ominous, Tales-From-The-Crypt-like melody around wry, ironic vignettes about cheating spouses and murderous hobos. It's sort of a descendant of their earlier hit, "Ain't No Rest For The Wicked," which did the same, but with a more conventional (perhaps overly-so) R&B rhythm that for whatever reason didn't make me as interested as it should have. Sure, oftentimes on the record they just let the shit fly, record the results, and get by on ferocity, but when they set to it, they write some damn good songs.

One segment of pop aspiration comes through in the middle of the album, with the gentle, singer-songwritery "Rubber Ball," and the pop-punk anthem "Right Before My Eyes," which is, if a tad on the corny side, still way better with its honesty than anything of its kind on the radio in my teen years. In fact, there are so many great bands in their 20's right now, I might conclude they learned what not to do with music from the stuff that was popular from 1998-2004. (Oooh, unnecessary cheapshot, but you had it coming, blink.) "Right Before My Eyes" is reprised at the end of the closing track "Flow," itself very 90's radio-safe. Think Filter's "Take a Picture," if you're desperate for comparisons. So the band has a gentle side, indicating a level of thought being put into production you may not necessarily suspect on the first go. I like the subtly awkward title of the album, as if blurted out: "Thank You Happy Birthday" the band may seek to please and provide pleasantries, but does so in a distinct, roundabout way. The band's name, even, signifies this: attempts to compress something far too big into something manageable.

All this adds up to a record I really dig. If the songs aren't always terrific, the performance and overall atmosphere definitely is. It captures that sarcastic, outwardly-concerned eagerness to be utterly irritated to the point of explosion I remember from the early 90's. I don't think it would be fair, however, to say the band is hamstrung by its debt to those bands, because as I say (maybe I haven't before bu I do now,) all music is influenced by something, obvious or not. What time-comparisons give us is the benefit of hindsight and a new generation of frustrations to express. It all comes out in music that is loud and angry, but smart about its anger, and melodic about its intelligence. I like the way Cage the Elephant is navigating the rock and roll game: they know the rules but they still play their way.

Buy this album from iTunes now!

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