Has there been a better time to be an indie-sounding rock band than 2011?
The past decade saw the shape-shifting genre of indie tiptoe closer to ubiquity, as your favorite bands signed to majors and your favorite website got co-opted by platitude-spewing Grandmas watching your every status update. Not that the loss of exclusivity is worth being bitter over. Think of all the benchmarks, most of which you might’ve saved in a shoebox in ticket stub form. Garden State and Juno. NBC’s Brian Williams big-upping Deer Tick. Zooey Deschanel’s multimedia manic pixie. Kings of Leon. Any of the guests on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, really.
If a squirmy, ragged outfit on Jive Records like Cage the Elephant is in on some sort of Operation Mainstream conspiracy, they’ve done their homework for Thank You, Happy Birthday. Ghostly closing ooh’s, lonely bassline and all, “Aberdeen” cops the messy swagger of college radio heroes Pixies, which is appropriate considering their influence on a famous trio from the titular Washington town. Logically, the next song nods to Nirvana with a mechanical thump reminiscent of their take on “Turnaround”.
Influences aside, there’s no more satisfying a comparison for Cage the Elephant than Cage the Elephant. The very meh self-titled debut was pop music for indie kids as much as it was indie for pop kids – the pick of the litter in the ever-dwindling CD selection of any given Target store. Thank You, Happy Birthday is scruffier and more abrasive in all the right ways, making the previous effort sound nearly obsolete by comparison.
Singer Matthew Shultz is no Donald Fagen with the pen – not even close – but he’s not at Fred Durst’s goatee level just yet. Couplets such as “Hold the phone, hit repeat / got me foamin’ at the knees” (believe it or not, an album highlight) are stupid sloppy, but kind of fun at the right level of intoxication. Shultz goes clear overboard with wild monkey sounds on “Around My Head”, although his Black Francis could fool the world.
Cage The Elephant have more going for them musically. Opener “Always Something” is a bit of twerky mischief even if it recycles the premise of “No Rest for the Wicked”, while “Indy Kidz” and “Sabertooth Tiger” sound like hardcore for spy films. Between those two, “Right Before My Eyes” works it with crisp U2-ish production as a palate cleanser for those not digging primordial stomps like “Sell Yourself”. There’s nothing wimpy about the quieter moments, either. Witness the crackerbox waltz “Rubber Ball” or the mossy mountain folk of “Flow,” which sounds like the Pacific Northwest’s past five years compressed into three minutes.
Like Philadelphia free spirits Free Energy, Cage the Elephant excel at not taking themselves too seriously, dismissing all-important genre signifiers and rock politics in favor of having a messy good time. There’s admittedly some politician-like charisma at play here, because hating Cage the Elephant for not bringing more lyrical weight or Xeroxing chord progressions (“Japanese Buffalo”) can’t help feeling like a serious case of missing the point. They’re just good at what they do, and if rarely as enthralling as the fuck-all power pop of “Aberdeen”, at least worth cracking a tall boy with.
As indie rock in 2011 continues the path to where “alternative rock” overflowed in 1996, Cage the Elephant are dancing on the lip of the volcano, and if they fall in, so be it. As the hungover economy slowly gets out of bed and scratches itself, that’s just what we need: one big melting pot of a party.
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// Notes from the Road
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