Cage the Elephant – “Tell Me I’m Pretty”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Cry Baby,” “Trouble”

On their debut album, Cage the Elephant gave us a funky, bluesy version of themselves. On “Thank You Happy Birthday,” we got the grunge version of the band, and on “Melophobia” we were given a garage-soul version of them. On the band’s fourth album, we get a new version of Cage the Elephant – themselves.

With a few big albums and a slough of hit singles under their belt, Cage the Elephant is finally exploring themselves instead of making odes to music past. That may have also come from the production of Black Key Dan Auerbach, who is on his quest to make every artist from Dr. John to Lana Del Rey sound a little more like the Black Keys. Auerbach is a no-brainer for Cage the Elephant, a riotous Midwestern alternative band. Take away a few members and you have the Black Keys.

“Tell Me I’m Pretty” is the band’s most coherent album; ironically, the coherence comes from a wider diversity in emotion. This is easily the band’s most personal and introspective album yet, filled with emotional ballads and tales of loss and separation. In fact, the middle portion of the album is all ballads, until late-album kicker “That’s Right.” Lines like “I been facing trouble almost all my life” (“Trouble”) are expected, but “I think we should just let go” (“Sweetie Little Jean”) is a new, softer side for them. It’s telling that they’ve stripped away other instruments, along with the mania. Here, they’re a band – vocals, drums, guitars, bass.

I’m usually turned off when fun alternative bands start writing slower music (*cough* TV on the Radio), but I’ve always had faith in Cage the Elephant. The band has said that by working on their own identity as a group, they’ve focused on making every song individually different from every other song, and it shows. That’s where the cohesiveness comes in – their first three albums focused on the album as a piece of art, this one focuses on songs. There’s a broader range in emotion and influence. “Mess Around” was an obvious lead single, but each song is so crafted that really any of them would be prepped for rock radio.

The songs on “Tell Me I’m Pretty” might not immediately grab a listener the way some of the songs on, say, “Thank You Happy Birthday” do, they require a little more patience. But each one eventually grabs, even without any hooks or bursts of manic energy (though some do with that, too). The songs here feel more like we’re being let in, like we’ve been invited to finally see the real Cage the Elephant. This might not be their best album, and it won’t have the replay value of their crazier work. But it proves that Cage the Elephant have done their homework and can create music that’s their very own, not an ode to a different era. In this reviewer’s opinion, Cage the Elephant are four-for-four.

If you like this, try: Cold War Kids’ “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,” another indie band that’s used various influences to create their own, wholly original sound.

Cage the Elephant – “Melophobia”

(Photo Credit: IGN)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Come A Little Closer,” “It’s Just Forever”

Cage the Elephant’s previous album, 2011’s “Thank You Happy Birthday,” was a nearly-perfect throwback to the early 90’s grunge bands like Mudhoney, Pixies and the Meat Puppets. “Melophobia” kicks it back even further, embracing that sound with healthy doses of 60’s harmonies and 70’s rhythms.

On the whole, the songs on “Melophobia” are not quite as fast or rowdy as those on the predecessor, but previous great ballads like “Rubber Ball” and “Back Against the Wall” have shown us that the band can handle pretty much whatever they feel like trying to do. They do have moments of speed and distortion, the best being “It’s Just Forever,” a song that has a great guest spot from Alison Mosshart and sounds more like a Libertines-style garage song than anything else. “Teeth” also starts off as a late-album surprise with this speed, until it turns into music behind spoken word (something many bands try, usually unsuccessfully – it isn’t great here). This is a different Cage the Elephant, sonically, but not fundamentally. They’re still embracing decades worth of influence on each song.

Opening track “Spiderhead” has a backing keyboard beat that gives it a funky rhythm – like Fitz and the Tantrums waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Second track and leadoff single “Come a Little Closer” is a ballad in the same way 2011’s “Right Before My Eyes” is; it’s a pretty song, one that acknowledges the roughness behind it. Cage the Elephant has a way of making radio-friendly songs out of wild rhythms and rough vocals, and they continue that on “Melophobia.” The 60’s odes hit a peak on “Telescope,” whose chorus is lifted from a famous John Lennon quote (also, happy birthday John. Well timed, guys).

This album isn’t as inherently memorable as the two previous, because the songs feel a little more conventional on this album. On the whole, it doesn’t quite stand up to the band’s first two. But it is still a very enjoyable album. The band’s blending of typical structures and off-the-rails energy sounds even more perfected now, and they’re using 90’s angst on top of funkier rhythms and harmonies that sound straight from the 60’s. Although it’ll take a number of listens to learn, it further cements Cage the Elephant as one of alternative’s most unique and underrated bands.

If you like this, try: My all-time favorite album – Foxygen’s 2013 album “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic,” a self-referential indie duo ripped straight from Lou Reed.

-By Andrew McNally