Evolving musically, placating existing fans, scooping up new ones all while avoiding the sophomore slump is really too much to ask of one band and one album. However, it’s exactly what Cage The Elephant is doing with their 2nd release, Thank You Happy Birthday. Not that suggesting what’s going on in the minds of the five-piece is wise; the crew defies almost all industry suggestion tossed in their direction and the band’s refusal to accept labeling is what fuels their inimitability. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, the hard rocking album is a collection of songs that do pay some homage to a few bands, but bend that reverence over some great, albeit at times odd, construction.
The themes are dark and cynical, possibly born of young minds burned by too much negative life experience. You don’t need trauma to kick out thoughtful art, but for some folks it helps. “There’s Always Something” spins an anti-morality tale, in which no good deed goes unpunished over a slithering bassline and some spy movie atmospherics. The Dear John letter feel of “Aberdeen” addresses a shifty lover and the painful realization it’s time to send the bish packing. Anxiety abounds on “Indy Kidz” as band drones, who scream individuality, try their best to be “just like you” and “get the right haircut” while professing how incredibly cool their idols are. The song ends with a spacey instrumental section that would make Timothy Leary proud.
“Shake Me Down” builds suspense with snatches of noise dropped in sections of a calm sonic canvas. The crew assembles several dissimilar sections with little transition so don’t get used to anything; it’s going to change. The quiet doesn’t last long, as “Sell Yourself” not only amps up the noise but the aggression. The guitar skitters. Matthew’s delivery scurries to keep up as the band tears down both the song and the idea that everyone has a price. It’s a head banger, so make sure there aren’t any sharp objects in neck’s length.
It’s not all loud and lovely though. “Rubber Ball” is a bland, sad song about disaffection and “Right Before Your Eyes” is another attempt at stepping back from the belligerence, but the band’s delivery of the pop confection is dull. They quickly redeem themselves with “Around My Head” on which they manage to combine their strident spirit with some standard pop construction while Shultz chastises some girl for being hot enough to occupy his thoughts all night. Shame on her.
The close of the album expands the feel and collected palette of sound. “Saber Tooth Tiger,” a punky song Cage has been performing live for some time, is loud and abrasive with a simple hook that anyone can scream to the rafters. “Japanese Buffalo” has a 50’s inspired foundation upon which the punk tap dances; wildly at times and it’s.. well… strange. The close, “Flow” has a calm fluidity broken by the simmering roll of military drums and indecipherable shouting under the surface. This isn’t one of Cage’s best songs, but it is an unexpectedly smooth, pensive end to this album.
Did Cage the Elephant evade the sophomore slump? Yes. Their existing fans should appreciate the evolution and new folks will undoubtedly jump on the bandwagon. Happy Birthday Thank You is a good effort with missteps but as a whole, an interesting, vivid listen from the minds of babes not ready to shed their angst.
3.75 out of 5
Cage The Elephant – “Around My Head”
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