It’s hard to believe that it has been six years since “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”; the breakthrough single for Kentucky’s Cage The Elephant. That song should have been the beginning and end of their story, but through their willingness to expand their sound, they’ve managed to persevere.
Their latest album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, is something of a watershed moment for them, with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach at the production helm, helping them find a new happy place. The band’s instrumental sound – rooted somewhere between Yo La Tengo’s dream pop and MC5’s hard-nosed punk – takes a bold leap forward, adding heavy doses of vintage reverb, jangly guitars and rockabilly. The drums are harder and the tempos faster. Auerbach’s influence is easy to pinpoint from the first measure of lead-in track “Cry Baby”. It’s even more evident on the album’s second track, “Mess Around”, a song that turns a vocal chant into the song’s hallmark. It’s a sound The Black Keys have mastered, and proves a fairly natural fit for Cage The Elephant.
Meanwhile, singer Matt Shultz’ vocals continue to glide between a Kinks’/Kingsmen by-way-of Johnny Rotten tone. Songwriting on Tell Me I’m Pretty is still as angsty as ever, but does return to the band’s initial, more playful style, thankfully. Like so many before them, Cage The Elephant made the clutch decision to immediately ditch the fun, novel sound of their first single, perhaps to prove that they do serious stuff too. With so many of their peers, it’s a move that solidifies one hit wonder status, but Cage The Elephant are familiar enough with their strengths and weaknesses to know which line to walk.
That lingering weakness is, of course, Cage The Elephant’s lyrics. For example, “Cold Cold Cold” – a ’50s style heartbreak song worked into a Zombies framework – the vocals and instrumentation are on point, but lyrics like “Sweet nurse don’t look at me that way/I’ve seen those eyes before I can tell you want to play” are pretty sophomoric. Cage The Elephant’s older days of horny, barroom anthems aren’t behind them, but to their credit, the band knows how to package well.
The album’s last two tracks, “Punchin’ Bag” and “Portuguese Knife Fight” are where the band’s sound melds most convincingly with Auerbach’s production guidance. “Punching Bag” is a lyrical assault on an abusive ex beau that sees no need for the nuance and delicacy the topic is usually approached with “What kind of man are you? / Instead of kisses you gave bruises / No more time for cheap excuses”. “Portuguese Knife Fight” plays like intro music for a cowboy in a designer jeans commercial. That is to say, it puts some nice polish on purposely antiquated-sounding instrumentation, and the result is practically infectious.
Tell Me I’m Pretty proves Cage The Elephant knows exactly how to exploit its many strengths, and manage its weaknesses. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s a good step forward all the same.
Essential Tracks: “Mess Around”, “Cold Cold Cold”, “Portuguese Knife Fight”