Release Date: Dec 18, 2015
Record label: RCA
When Cage the Elephant blazed from Kentucky in 2008, a trail of broken noses and busted amplifiers in their wake, the Schulz brothers’ live-wire quartet seemed likely to burn brightly but briefly. However, eight years, a US No 2 album (2011’s Thank You, Happy Birthday) and a Grammy nomination (for 2013’s Melophobia) later, their fourth album finds the Black Keys man Dan Auerbach taming them into a hard-punching, well-oiled rocking machine. The producer’s trademarks – slightly psychedelic 60s garage rock given a postmodern sound – are all over Tell Me I’m Pretty, but the band never abandon their own singular, brattish energy.
If your sister were Anita Miller from Almost Famous, she might tell you to listen to Tell Me I'm Pretty with a candle burning. Matthew Shultz has hit the mark lyrically and vocally here, inviting listeners into the emotionally charged and honest world that Cage the Elephant inhabit. Although we still hear his lo-fi, distorted vocals throughout the record, many moments are left confidently unadorned and clear.On songs like "Mess Around" and "Punchin' Bag," the record reflects the influence of its producer, Dan Auerbach, with smooth, hypnotic rhythms and bluesy guitar hooks.
When a blonde haired, sunglasses-wearing Matt Shultz shambled onto Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 2008, he was clearly the show’s 'wildcard' guest – it took him five minutes to renounce his Christian upbringing, and by the end he was standing on the desk performing an a cappella version of “Shiny Happy People” with teammate Stephen Fry. At the time, Shultz’s band Cage the Elephant were developing a reputation for their lawless antics, bursting onto the scene with premium advert fodder ‘Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked’ and a rebellious debut album opening with the refrain “people talkin’ shit, they can kiss the back of my hand”. Although this hostility and destructive energy wasn’t just an image, it cast Cage the Elephant off into something of a critical no-mans land – talk of their admirable confidence and skill was always swamped by accusations of imitation, their idolatry of the likes of Nirvana and Pixies so clear that many critics just couldn’t get on board.
On their fourth album, Tell Me I'm Pretty, Kentucky rock band Cage the Elephant still can't shake their influences. Over the course of Cage the Elephant's career, each step along the way has attracted attention for the sounds they incorporated: Nirvana, Beck, the Strokes, Arctic Monkeys, the White Stripes, Pixies. Now, enter the Black Keys. It's no surprise, given that the head Key, Dan Auerbach, produced the album at his Easy Eye Studio in Nashville.
There was a peaceful time in which mere mention of Cage the Elephant — an alternative act from Kentucky that sounds less like Kentucky than today’s run of KFC commercials — would send terrifying alarms of crackling vocal pubescence rippling through mainstream America. Vocalist Matt Shultz used to resemble a panicked hyena at the microphone. First-person shooter video game Borderlands practically (and painfully) burned their first big single into brains en masse.
On their fourth album, Kentucky band Cage the Elephant refurbish mid-Sixties retro-rock with a 21st-century studio vividness – creating something akin to watching old footage of Sandy Koufax or Bill Russell in crisp hi-def with modern camera angles. Produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach,Tell Me I'm Pretty evokes the Yardbirds, the Easybeats, the Hollies and the acne-scarred Nuggets bands that had one-hit fun ripping off those British Invasion bands, along with a dollop of "Crimson and Clover"-style avant-bubblegum wooziness. On the album-opening "Cry Baby," psychedelic fuzztones swirl and rush up like fresh lava, while songs like "Cold Cold Cold" and "Mess Around" scream with garage-soul heat and dirty crunch.
Morricone for gutter snakes. Tell them they’re pretty? Needy, much? But then Kentucky’s Cage The Elephant could use some love. Despite bagging a No.2 US album with their engrossing 2011 second record Thank You, Happy Birthday and two Alternative Chart No.1 hits from 2013’s Melophobia, they remain so far under the radar in the UK that they may well be an undisclosed element of the Trident renewal project.
On their fourth album, Kentucky’s oft-critically scorned Cage the Elephant try to push beyond the gains of 2013’s Melophobia – which attempted to shed obvious influences such as Pixies – with mixed results. Tell Me I’m Pretty is produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, and you can tell by the vanilla-psych filter that dissipates some of Cage’s usual puppyish energy. And there are still a few too many touchstones: opener Cry Baby tries to out-pronk Tame Impala, Trouble is a dead ringer for 1990s Frank Black, and closer Portuguese Knife Fight rearranges the building blocks of the Stooges.
Cage the Elephant have always found a way to blend a lot of influences together. From soul to funk to country to jangly folk, there's a lot in their music. That said, hate them or not, you can't deny how melodious and catchy they are which makes sense as to why they're so commercial. Their older stuff's always been a guilty pleasure of mine, which I blame "Shake Me Down" for.
In the press release for his band's latest offering, Tell Me I'm Pretty, Matt Shultz of Cage the Elephant declares "We wanted to capture the sentiment of each song, and whatever emotional response it provoked, to be really honest to that." At first, it's tempting to investigate whether that's an old quote regarding their last record, Melophobia. From the unapologetic dry balladry of "Cigarette Daydreams" to "Spiderhead"'s frantic claustrophobia, it was a record that felt studious and observant; a raw and poetic, desperately youthful indie rock record. On Tell Me I'm Pretty, however, it would seem that Schultz and his band's vision completely fell through.
Chances are, you met Cage The Elephant on the radio. It’s where the Kentucky-based five-piece first emerged in 2008, sounding conspicuously similar to the White Stripes, with “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” finding success not just on the alternative formats, but placing on pop charts as well. Over the course of the group’s three previous LPs, it’s where the members of Cage have found a reliable residence, accepted amongst rock-faithful for their muscular guitar riffs, melodic hooks, and an easily digestible delivery that’s blanketed in familiarity.
“Hold on with all your might/You’re gonna die, die,” Matt Shultz sings on Cage the Elephant’s fourth album, “Tell Me I’m Pretty.” The song, “Cry Baby,” goes bounding along on a triplet beat and a hopping bass line, but there’s no hiding its morbid streak, which resurfaces throughout the album. Cage the Elephant, a band from Kentucky, has always been conscious of death; its best-selling song, the 2008 hit “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” continues that thought with “until we close our eyes for good.” But until now, the band’s boisterous momentum always held grim thoughts at bay. Now they’re in the foreground.