By Paul Balazs
Cage the Elephant hails from Bowling Green, Kentucky where they got their start around nine years ago. They first hit the radio waves in 2008 with “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” off of their debut self-titled album. That single went on to rank Number 32 on the UK Singles chart, as well as be featured on a few video game soundtracks. Fast forward through two more albums and six years later, they are releasing Tell Me I’m Pretty, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. The album has a very rock-and-roll yet pop-centric atmosphere that is riddled with catchy lines and baroque backgrounds.
The album starts with a driving riff backed by airy synths on “Cry Baby”. The lead guitar simply follows and supports the vocals, which is clearly the focal point on this record. “Mess Around,” the first single released from Tell Me I’m Pretty, is the most simplistic and dried out track on the album for me. It does come off as catchy and fun, yet there is a level of authenticity that seems missing. The song just doesn’t have much to say, but that isn’t really an issue. You will still be singing along and bobbing your head by the second verse. You can really hear Auerbach’s influence in the backing vocals.
On “Sweetie Little Jean,” they stick with a staccato pop tune style. The chord progression takes you to a place of imagery: a grassy field with a few hundred yards between you and the one you care for. You can really hear the meaning behind “I, I want you back,” where each of you are just thinking about the options, but not making a move. The ultimate decision is made and the feeling of the song foreshadows that nicely. In “Too Late Say,” Cage the Elephant keeps on with the dark mood. You get a heavy yet spacey feeling like The White Stripes provided us in their later releases. The baroque strings coming from a synthesizer really assist the song in flowing through the sound waves.
“Cold Cold Cold” has an infectious bass line, a couple of twangy guitars, and spatial, hard-hitting toms to guide you into the uneasy lyrics. The meaning of the song gets a little clogged with vague metaphors and excuses to rhyme, and this method still works for most people, but I tend to get distracted by it. The first thing I think when “Trouble” begins is that is sounds too similar to Portugal. The Man’s In The Mountain, In the Cloud. With that being said, it is still a well-done song. “How Are You True” tones it down with a beautifully recorded acoustic guitar and thumping bass. The vocal melody is also very lovely and Beatles-esque. Matthew Shultz’s falsettos are delivered perfectly and then replaced with the more serious lower register for the bridge section. The synth strings come back and woo you along until the guitar takes you out even softer than how it brought you in.
In “That’s Right,” the bouncy rhythm section backs up a Nick Diamonds-(The Unicorns, Islands)-sounding Shultz. This track serves as a bopping little jam about having fun and staying up late with the people you love. Tell Me I’m Pretty then moves along into “Punchin’ Bag,” which is another look into how Auerbach put his piece of mind in here. The similarities to the simple blues rock format on this album are apparent. It absolutely tells itself apart from previous releases. The last track on the album is “Portuguese Knife Fight,” which sort of reminds me of The Black Lips from Georgia, a dirty Kinks throwback, or both.
Tell Me I’m Pretty is great sonically. The flow of the songs and overall production is pretty great with the slight exception of being a little too compressed for my tastes. The main drawback here is the quality of melodies. To me, it seems the band just wants to play it safe most of the time to be more acceptable by a larger audience. I guess I can’t blame them, but there still could be some more feeling like on “Sweetie Little Jean,’ my favorite track from this album.