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Review: Cage the Elephant’s ‘Thank You, Happy Birthday’

(Courtesy of Jive)

Cage the Elephant are anti-establishment and they want you to know it. A grunge album for angsty teenagers that want to affirm their individuality but are too young to know of “Nevermind,” “Thank You, Happy Birthday” makes a great listen if you’re looking to buy into the fallacy of commercial independence. And if you’re one of those “Indy Kidz,” then stay away – Cage The Elephant are serious artists and want nothing to do with your poser, sheep-herd ways.

Although the album is good enough, with a fair mix of head-bangers and restrained ragers, the band’s vocalist and frontman Matt Schultz spends much too much time protesting the system to be able to deliver a sound record. Nevertheless, with his slurred vocals and unbridled energy, this latest release makes for a fun tribute to the grunge generation of the early 90s.

One such testament to the Seattle scene comes in the second track, wittily titled “Aberdeen” after the childhood home of Nirvana members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. Coincidence or not, the song features the distorted guitars, raging vocals and distant background effects of bands such as Nirvana and The Pixies. Instead of a Wall of Sound, the heavy guitar riffs build up a Wall of Noise so thick that even Schultz’s characteristic husky growl becomes difficult to discern.

Next on the track list, “Indy Kidz” pokes fun at mindless indie music fans, but at times its cynicism proves to be too much, as does its raucous racket of guitars and shameless drumming. “Shake Me Down,” the obvious pick for first single, provides a welcome rest from the dissonant chords, and instead builds a more passive version of grungy rock. One of the most enjoyable songs on the album, its restrained vocals and rhythmic guitar plucking are reminiscent of another Cage the Elephant single with staying power, “Back Against the Wall.”

“2024,” an absurdly catchy, short number that revitalizes the album like a shot of adrenaline, is followed by the heaviest track on the album, “Sell Yourself.” An angry, uninhibited rager, it voices mock lyrics apparently inspired by their label. “You are ready for the masses…Sell yourself, don’t be a fool” a decidedly pissed Schultz screeches into the mike. Coupled with MGMT’s “The Handshake,” these may be the two strongest tracks to antagonize the music industry. To counter the outrage, “Rubber Ball” follows. Gentle strumming on the guitar and breathy vocals make for a beautifully muted acoustic session that lulls and comforts the way “2024” energizes.

The best track on the album is by far “Right Before My Eyes,” an indie pop keeper which refreshingly pays service to no one. Schultz drops his voice to a straightforward drone, while the restrained guitars, drums and cymbals deliver the easiest listen on the album. The lyrics convey the deepest introspection and the muted power chords the best wrap-up on the album.

After a couple of other scruffy punk numbers, “Flow,” the last track on the album, rolls around. A twangy Americana song, it develops slowly, unfolding swirling vocals, hand drums and some shaken percussions to end on a subdued tribal mood. After a good 15 seconds of silence, a stripped down version of “Right Before My Eyes” makes an encore.

As a whole, the album presents a surprisingly wide array of genres, but is still deeply indebted to the rule-bending bands of the early 90s. And while there are subtle gems in the track list, it suffers too much from its uneasy, redundant attacks on the music scene’s hypocritical standards to be taken for a stellar release.

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