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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Imagine Dragons – “Smoke + Mirrors”

Grade: D

Key Songs: “Gold” “Trouble”

Imagine Dragons are what I like to call a “placeholder” band. They’re a band that comes out, plays a few selections of music that’s popular right now for a while, and disappears. They’re like a lounge singer who’s actually got some talent and creates original music. Problem is, there’s no point to the music. The gold medal placeholder band has been Muse, for years, but it’s been a few years since that last album, and that last album was bad even by the most forgiving of objective standards, so America turned to someone else. Along came Imagine Dragons – loud, bland, talented, unoriginal, (white,) and willing to play whatever will get them on the radio. Their sophomore album, “Smoke + Mirrors,” is just that. I mean, exactly what you expect.

Imagine Dragons have built themselves a weird, contradictory niche. They exist in a world where they’re both daring – for going outside of any one genre – and not daring whatsoever. They try a whole number of things on this album, but they’re all things that have been done before. And no, bands don’t always have to be original to be successful; if that were the case, AC/DC would’ve been out of business in 1976. But Imagine Dragons are too exciting to be repetitive; too repetitive to be exciting. It’s a weird discord, and I honestly don’t know if I’ve seen any band fall into this rhythm before.

The result, from someone who isn’t a fan, is that it sounds like Imagine Dragons are pulling songs straight from the oven and feeding them directly to the radio. That’s not entirely true, of course, they weren’t planning on 13 singles. But every song on this album – regardless of genre – is dead-set on radio. There’s nothing challenging, nothing that isn’t self-serving, not a single thing you don’t expect from Imagine Dragons.

“Smoke + Mirrors” has to be reviewed on a track-by-track basis, because there are some surprisingly good tracks. Second track and second single “Gold” really isn’t a bad song; it follows a hip-hop beat, possibly inspired by their great Grammy’s performance with Kendrick Lamar last year. And once the band flows through all the loud stuff they want to do and settle into toned-down tracks, we get two more good songs – “Trouble,” a somewhat fun and rhythmic song with no declarations, and “Summer,” a decent ballad. There’s also “Friction,” at the halfway point. “Friction” is centered around an Eastern stringed instrument and has an urgent feeling to it that no other song on the album does. It’s Imagine Dragons at their heaviest and most inclusive, but that’s still not overly impressive.

And when this album is bad, it’s bad. The lyrics throughout the whole album sound like words picked out of a radio rock lyric generator. The album’s opening line is “I’m sorry for everything I’ve done,” and it’s done in a way that makes it sound like an ‘edgy’ way to start an album. But it’s not (may I direct you to these opening lines?), and they almost never work. They never turn the volume up enough to be interesting, they never fully commit to hip-hop beats, and they don’t fully adhere to their ballads. They’re trying many things, and if they spent time expanding one sound, it could be strong. They’re clearly talented musicians, but it almost always sounds like they’re restraining themselves for fans.

There’s also the issue of ripoffs. I found three, without actively looking. The most subtle (and likely accidental) is in “Trouble,” which shares too many similarities to Linkin Park’s (yep) “Nobody’s Listening.” The less accidental are vocal and lyrical nods to the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” in “Polaroid,” and to Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” in “Smoke and Mirrors.” They’re surely done in appreciation, but they don’t sound like it.

“Smoke + Mirrors” is sure to delight fans of placeholder bands, and probably won’t win anyone over. Imagine Dragons grabbed fans early, whomever would jump on, and don’t want to let go of them. So they’re exploring the boundaries of popular music from the inside, never straying out of sight of the listener. Don’t like the way this one’s done? Don’t worry, it’s over in four minutes. It’s a dull album, lacking in almost every component, with only a few redeeming songs.

So, More like UNImagined Dragons, amirite?!?!

If you like this, try: Don’t worry, teenage years are tough on everyone, it’s not just you.