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.

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Lana Del Ray – “Ultraviolence”

ultraviolenceGrade: A-

Key Tracks: “Cruel World” “West Coast”

“Ultraviolence” is a slow album. It’s easy to overlook the album as a long, long wick attached to a room full of fireworks, burning slowly and ending before the big bang. But to look at “Ultraviolence” like that is to ignore the music’s subtleties, and the complexity of the album’s subject matter. “Ultraviolence” is a dark record, one that examines a woman who tries to ride her way to the top, but never excels past being “The Other Woman” (as evidenced by the final track). Given Del Ray’s recent, questionable comments on feminism, the album isn’t a critique on women in society today as much as it is a semi-personal narrative. It helps to strengthen the cinematic quality of the album. And it doesn’t hurt that Del Ray’s vocals are stronger this time around, rationing out a few strong performances across the album.

The album’s opener, “Cruel World,” is also the longest, at 6:39. It’s a building and intricate song, one that sets the tone by really taking it’s time to get to an engaging climax. It’s a slightly captivating song, and an unexpected one to open an album, even for Del Ray. What follows is a number of polarizing songs – sometimes engaging, other times putting up a strong barrier. Nearly all of them are a medium tempo, which should be a distraction or even a boredom, but when almost every song has it’s own identity, it doesn’t even matter. The only real exception is the excellent “West Coast,” full of tempo changes and a low-key funk that isn’t present anywhere else on the record.

Del Ray’s lyrics focus on struggling to find your identity and struggling to find success, accepting defeat in both. They’re typically dark – with titles like “Old Money,” “Pretty When You Cry,” and, of course, “Fucked My Way to the Top.” They call back memories to the pratfalls of luxury in the 20′s-50′s, even with modern references and a decidedly more provocative and profane tone. And her vocals are stronger; she’s allowed herself to open up and expand her range. “Shades of Cool” finds her in a high pitch, alternating between beautiful and off-setting. “Money Power Glory” is another track where her voice flourishes in big, grand ways. She’s often cooled down, but the rare times when she wants to take control – she does. These rare moments highlight the album’s otherwise restrained times, both benefits.

The album is bolstered by fine production, as well, courtesy mainly of Dan Auerbach (singer for the Black Keys and producer of everyone). The production is borderline cavernous, adding a faint echo and an ungraspable dark feeling throughout. It’s slickly produced – but not to the point where it’s actually pop.

“Anti-pop” isn’t a phrase, outside of a long forgotten Primus album, but it’s almost something that could describe Del Ray. With meandering tempos, cinematic music, dated lyrics and often 5+ minute lengths, her songs aren’t designed for radio. Yet they’re distinctly pop, a type of dream-pop. It’s melodic, and catchy, but in a low-key way. It isn’t possible to dance to this (as we now know, thanks to SNL). Like Nico long before her, and Lorde shortly after, Del Ray’s pop music is one of depth and density, not one of rapidity and popularity. You probably have a strong opinion of Del Ray, good or bad, and “Ultraviolence” isn’t going to change that. But it’s a strong pop release, ripe for analysis, and an improvement over her still notable debut. Like her or not, Del Ray’s strongest quality has been her ability to establish a persona in no time. And “Ultraviolence” really runs with it.

-By Andrew McNally

The Black Keys – “Turn Blue”

(Photo Credit: chimes.biola.edu)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Weight of Love” “Bullet in the Brain”

The Black Keys either like to take corners, or listen to criticism. Their last two albums – “Brothers” and “El Camino” – were distinctly different from what they’d done previously, and both suffered from it. “Brothers” had some quality songs, but it was too long and stuffed with slower tracks. After they found it difficult to play them live, they wrote more upbeat songs for “El Camino,” but they were so focused on the quality that it didn’t seem like they enjoying themselves. “Turn Blue,” however, sees the duo having fun again, and balancing loose and polished.

The first track on “Turn Blue,” called “Weight of Love,” is just ten seconds shy of hitting the seven minute mark. This is pretty different for band who is known for a quick and heavy blues sound. (Look through the Keys prior albums, it’s rare to find a song over five minutes). But it sets the tone of the album. The song is sleepy and a little psychedelic, a drastic departure from the old Keys. It isn’t fast, it’s much more of an extended way to open an album. But Dan Auerbach sure sounds like he’s having fun. The song, as do a few others later, has a distinct classic rock feel to it. Though always resembling garage bands of the 60′s, the Keys have usually stayed away from a classic rock sound. But it gets embraced on “Turn Blue,” and it’s a surprisingly welcome shift. Even the album’s hypnotic cover shows an embrace of a more suspended sound.

The album also benefits from having Danger Mouse on board, producing. He worked on “El Camino,” too, but the relationship between him and the band is more equal. Though still a duo, the band has added distinct bass parts that make a much groovier sound. It’s most evident on the title track and the hit “Fever,” but it adds a fun element throughout.

The album’s only real fault is a handful of songs that still sound a little too prepared. “Year in Review” sounds a little too strained, a little too rehearsed. “It’s Up to You Now,” meanwhile, feels so loose it almost sounds improvised. It’s also possibly the album’s heaviest track, with a booming drum intro. It’s very enjoyable, reminiscent of early Black Keys. They recapture a little of their earlier sound in some of the other heavier songs, like “Bullet in the Brain.” While “Tighten Up” and “Lonely Boy” were heavy in their own right, they felt more directed towards songwriting. The guitar fuzz and the loud, crushing drumming are more ambitious here, less constrained to an album format.

“Turn Blue” has many things working for it. It’s more energetic than “Brothers,” it’s more open than “El Camino,” and it’s just as wide and heavy as “Attack & Release.” A welcome groove makes the album more fun than what we’re used to, without sacrificing any of the volume. And on songs like “Weight of Love” and closer “Gotta Get Away,” it’s easy to tell the band is having fun with the record. “Turn Blue” doesn’t quite stand up to “Attack & Release” and “Thickfreakness,” but it is definitely one of the band’s better records.

If you like this, try: Given that most of the bands that resemble the Black Keys are equally famous, I’ll recommend another fuzzy, bluesy duo – The Creeping Ivies.

-By Andrew McNally