There was a peaceful time in which mere mention of Cage the Elephant — an alternative act from Kentucky that sounds less like Kentucky than today’s run of KFC commercials — would send terrifying alarms of crackling vocal pubescence rippling through mainstream America. Vocalist Matt Shultz used to resemble a panicked hyena at the microphone. First-person shooter video game Borderlands practically (and painfully) burned their first big single into brains en masse. CTE had some rough edges, and stood out because of them.
Today, that’s changed some. The ubiquitous Dan Auerbach had a hand in production for new album Tell Me I’m Pretty, and his presence is impeccably obvious — as elegant as a Rick Rubin stand-in and as blatant as a studio appearance from Phil Spector. Regardless of your feelings on the particular type of fuzz Auerbach brings out of the acts he produces, he’s made Cage the Elephant into a workhorse, and this time the reverb is utilized less like a thin vibrato hum and more like a psychedelic Floydian echo. Together, they wring out sounds that recall an ethereal wind chime (“Cold Cold Cold”) or a trumpeting pop march from some catchy Apple commercial (“That’s Right”). These changes work heavily to Cage’s advantage, especially now that Shultz isn’t shlocking unnecessary juvenile screams all over it.
The band’s musicality shines far greater than ever, even when blended together into a psychedelic soup: Brad Shultz has perfected his pedal work (“Too Late to Say Goodbye”, “Mess Around”), drummer Jared Champion has strengthened his grip on Starr quality (“Sweetie Little Jean”), and Daniel Tichenor is determined to make bass line love to each and every harmony on wax. Most importantly, Auerbach’s leadership acts like an epic spotlight, differentiating the fourth Cage album from everything else in their catalog. To his credit, the ironically warm embrace of “Cold Cold Cold” and the chugging “Punchin’ Bag” couldn’t exist anywhere else in the Cage canon. In addition, the Kentucky outfit are joining the likes of Alabama Shakes in favoring balanced equalizers after the devastation of the loudness wars. This is Cage the Elephant’s best-recorded album, as well as their biggest step up the hype ladder since opening for Foo Fighters.
Cage the Elephant has never been terribly esoteric or grandiose, and the less-than-concealed neo-blues influences from Auerbach’s presence presents a dichotomy. One has to wonder where his influence ends and the band’s autonomy begins. Sometimes, the producer’s fresh ears bring out the best of the band; elsewhere, though, it sounds like they’re chasing a trend together. Do we take it as a band trying to evolve via a tried-and-true sound or as a band desperate for a current sound that they could develop through copious copycatting?
What I do know is that the singles show off what an act known to be rather exorbitant can do when they’re dialed back. Last I checked, the Black Keys have reined themselves in too, so maybe Cage will continue to grow in their line of succession. But the problem with growing through well-tested routes of development is that there’ll likely be another band nipping at your heels, just as you’re chasing the group ahead of you. Newfound static-laden FM jammers Royal Blood are climbing that same mountain. While Cage the Elephant deliver a well-rounded record, this one’s not enough to vault them multiple steps ahead. They’ll need to watch their back, and beware the “Little Monster”.
Essential Tracks: “Sweetie Little Jean”, “Punchin’ Bag”, and “That’s Right”