It’s been a few years since we have been graced with a new band that manages to merge the blues with more current music trends. Both The Black Keys and The White Stripes received acclaim in the early 2000’s with their blend of blues and garage rock, but since the early years of the millennium, there’s been a bit of a decrease in the popularity of this blend of rock (with the exception of Brothers). Perhaps one of the biggest bands to give the genre another breath of life is Cage the Elephant, out of Bowling Green, KY., who manage to fuse the blues with punk, funk and modern indie rock. The band exploded into popularity in the summer of 2009, riding on the back of their single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” which was released along with the self-titled debut the previous year. Their sophomore album, Thank You Happy Birthday, releases after a few years of major life changes for the boys of the band. While their sound has grown more hectic and abrasive, they manage to continue to be one of the best young bands in music with another remarkable album.
The band, which is known for their frenetically energetic live shows that often feature singer Matt Schultz jumping around and stage-diving, live up to the hype of their incredibly good debut here. Thank You Happy Birthday begins with “Always Something,” which starts with an electronic sounding drum beat and Schultz shouting himself hoarse. A descending guitar line launches, giving the band a sound similar to that of Arctic Monkeys. If the sound from this track is any indication, the band will lean more towards their punk sound, which was only hinted at on the debut, than their blues stylings. The song is more similar to the sound of Pixies than that of The White Stripes. The bass playing of Daniel Tichenor is notable as it drives the song, similar to the playing of Nikki Monninger from former tour-mates Silversun Pickups.
Following the intro is “Aberdeen,” named after Nirvana. Whether this is planned or not, the tribute paid is noteworthy as there are similarities in the two bands’ sounds. There perhaps hasn’t been a band since Nirvana that has struck the radio and been so chaotic. And one look at live performances of the band confirms the resemblance. The intro guitar lick from lead guitarist Lincoln Parish even bears likeness to Nirvana’s single “Heart-Shaped Box.” The guitar team of Parish and rhythm guitarist Brad Schultz, Matt’s brother, manage to create weaving riffs that often complement each other nicely. The chorus of the song features peculiar lyrics with Matt shouting, “Hold the phone, hit repeat, you got me foaming at the knees. Saw the flame tasted sin. You burned me once again. Cut the cord, she’s a creep, Aberdeen,” matching their influences’ penchant for nonsensical lyrics.
“Indy Kidz” is next and it is propelled by drummer Jared Champion’s breakneck drum beat and Parish’s surf-rock riff under Matt’s yelps. “I don’t watch TV ‘cuz it’s just a box of lies. It makes me want to stick a toothpick in my mind,” comments on the nature of pop-culture and civilization’s obsession with it. The song, while one of the heaviest in the band’s repertoire, is also one of its catchiest. The middle of the song sounds like destruction literally caught on record. It’s uncompromising, fast and fun.
One of the closest songs in terms of sound to the debut album is not coincidently the first single, “Shake Me Down.” The song is relatively soft, featuring sparse percussion until the second verse, along with clean guitar lines from Brad and Parish along with Matt’s singing. Once the fuzz-bass line from Tichenor kicks in right before the chorus, the song truly launches and it’s no wonder why this song has been chosen as a single as it is immediately infectious. The strange change of tempo and percussion in the bridge doesn’t hold the song back at all. If anything, it does the opposite, giving the song a unique edge before the end.
“2024” and “Sell Yourself” continue with the band’s hastened fondness for punk and funk, mixing the two seamlessly. One of the reasons Nirvana launched to fame was their ability to merge so many different non-mainstream genres to create something commercial. Cage the Elephant does this extremely well and while it is impossible to say if they will have their influences’ popularity, it isn’t a reach to say it’s well-deserved.
“Rubber Ball” is the first ballad on the album, halfway through. Its odd choice of instrumentation, lyrics and double tracking of vocals might turn some people off as too eccentric but it is an essential track that simply takes time to set in. It is followed by “Right Before My Eyes,” a reworked version of “Timber Me Shivers,” that Matt would play solo. As one of the most memorable tracks on the album, it’s a near shoe-in for the second single. “I can’t take this anymore, it breaks my mind,” Matt sings in the chorus. While the band often has incredibly painful or hurtful lyrics, they often cover it with their trendy instrumentation, fooling casual listeners.
The speed picks right back up with “Around My Head.” The song has a Pixies and Spoon style to it, bringing recollections of Pixies “Hey” from Doolittle. The band has an extremely “live” sound to their studio albums, catching the intensity most bands can only muster up live on record, and blowing them out of the water on stage. The chorus of the song features one of the top-notch guitar lines from Parish, making it another highlight.
“Sabertooth Tiger” is next, beginning with a fuzzy bassline from Tichenor and another drum beat at a rapid rate from Champion. The song is similar to “Brianstorm” by Arctic Monkeys, but features instrumentation similar to the bluesy, sludge of Queens of the Stone Age. The song literally sounds like an ode to the prehistoric cats. Matt chaotically shouts throughout the song, leading listeners to wonder how he doesn’t lose his voice on a nightly basis while touring. He manages to combine the intensity of past greats like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Iggy Pop, and Rob Tyner of MC5 to perfection, while throwing in his own unique touch.
“Japanese Buffalo,” the strangest song on the record, begins with an instrumental intro parallel to “Because” by The Beatles, with Matt proclaiming this is a song about a man named “Donny B.” who is apparently the loudest man in the land. The band may just be the loudest band in the land, as they thrash away throughout the song. Schultz’s singing here is nearly incomprehensible, except for the occasional, “Alright, Okay, Uh-huh” in the beginning. The song slows toward the middle and fits more traditional standards toward the end. Parish also delivers a stellar lead riff over Brad’s rhythm playing as the song ends.
“Flow” ends the album on a mellow note. Everything here is reeled in from the drive of the previous track. The song is a good end to the album, though if not listened straight through, the song doesn’t claim the same value as some of the other tracks. One reason to listen to this track and not skip it is the hidden alternate version of “Right Before My Eyes,” which is closer to the original solo version Matt would play.
While this album will surely fade from memory as music aficionados make their end of the year lists due to its early release, it would have made its way onto many lists if it was released last year. Hopefully the success the band will surely get with this album will serve as some sort of consolation, as it truly is a remarkable album from a great young band. For anyone who picks up this album, check out the band while they tour as the live shows take the songs to a whole new stratosphere.