Cage the Elephant: Thank You, Happy Birthday

Squirmy Kentucky boys get wild on their second album, which, while far from perfect, wipes the floor with their retrospectively weak-sounding debut.

Cage The Elephant

Thank You, Happy Birthday

Label Website:
Artist Website:
Label: Jive
US Release Date: 2011-03-21

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.