Review Summary: You're getting there, Cage the Elephant. Just don't mess around too much.
It’s pretty impressive how much Cage the Elephant have changed since breaking out into the alternative scene. Their 2008 self-titled debut was one of pure indie rock energy, earning them early success right out of the gate. The radio hit “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” seems like a distant memory now, because it barely sounds like the same band. Two albums later, the group dug out their old Beach Boys records and let that inspiration lead them. Their previous LP Melophobia
showed these energetic youngsters in a whole new light, one of sophistication and reverence toward a dreamy age of classic rock gone by. Melophobia
, flaws aside, was a turning point for Cage the Elephant, but their newest record Tell Me I’m Pretty
erases any doubt of their conviction. There are some dark, ambitious tracks on Tell Me I’m Pretty
, and these amazing tracks manage to fight back against its sloppy and dull missteps.
Tell Me I’m Pretty
features Black Keys
guitarist Dan Auerbach as producer and his influence isn’t hidden in the slightest. The suave, bluesy flow and rattling percussion are all over Cage the Elephant this time around. The lead single “Mess Around” sounds eerily like a lost Black Keys track, and while that’s not a bad thing (the song’s radio-friendly groove is still pretty enjoyable), it shows Cage the Elephant in a less-than-ideal light. The fuzzed-out guitars are nice, but this aesthetic tends to wear thin quickly. The second half of Tell Me I’m Pretty
lacks any real standout musical moments (aside from a good little swing in “Portuguese Knife Fight”). “How Are You True” sounds like a lame B-side between Thank You, Happy Birthday
, and lacks substance behind its spiraling dreaminess. “That’s Right” and “Punchin’ Bag” just aren’t interesting at all, trying to build upon the Melophobia
framework, but without any of the creativity. The latter song is another example of Auerbach’s influence never going beyond imitation of his more prominent project. These moments manage to dry out the potential Melophobia
cultivated; it simply doesn’t flow well here.
Nearly halfway through, however, Tell Me I’m Pretty
takes a fascinating turn. The trifecta of tracks “Too Late to Say Goodbye”, “Cold Cold Cold” and “Trouble” are easily the best songs on the LP. “Trouble” is a dreamy ballad, bringing the band’s love of the Beatles and Beach Boys right back on stage. It’s a beautiful left turn that triumphantly stands out on the album. But “Too Late to Say Goodbye” and “Cold Cold Cold” step far
away from the more upbeat tracks and get much, much
darker. Both tracks echo more free-flowing blues jams, and between Brad Shultz’s nimble organ keys and Matt Shultz’s up-and-down croons, it leans toward the black magic of The Doors. It’s a musical aesthetic that’s very alien to Cage the Elephant: not many of their songs have been this unsettling, but these guys sound completely comfortable adopting it. Lesser examples of this shift in tone include “Sweetie Little Jean”, which takes some better moments from Melophobia
and gives them a bit more bite. This move is astonishingly well-done, outshining the disappointing staleness of the latter half of the LP.
Cage the Elephant are proving to everyone that their punk upbringing is officially behind them. Tell Me I’m Pretty
all but solidifies a desire to bring out that Sgt. Pepper fever that the band never got a chance to catch in their early years. But so many of these tracks feel duller than anything on Melophobia
; while their previous LP had the novelty of taking a sharp change in aesthetic, Tell Me I’m Pretty
runs in place so much in its worse moments, wasting a bold new direction for the band on uninteresting compositions. That being said, the moments where the band left turns the left turn is where the gems lie. The blood of the Beatles and the Beach Boys isn’t the only blood pulsing in these guys: the influence of Jim Morrison and the bluesy work of The Doors burst from Cage the Elephant’s veins in “Too Late to Say Goodbye” and “Cold Cold Cold.” This is a fantastic new direction for the band to delve into and these moments (along with some less-developed, but still impressive moments like “Sweetie Little Jean”) manage to push back against the duller tracks. Tell Me I’m Pretty
is a mixed bag; for every bold new trail blazed sits a dull, uninteresting detour. It’s clear that Cage the Elephant are committed to this more classic-sounding aesthetic, but it’s about time these indy kidz tighten the bolts before this sound’s novelty disappears. As they say, there ain’t no rest for the wicked.