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Cage the Elephant Thank You, Happy Birthday Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

A catchy US hit that’s not afraid to offend mainstream sensibilities.

Mark Beaumont 2011

This has been a surprise hit in the US – a surprise because the second album from Kentucky’s Cage the Elephant’s dares you not to like it. Where their eponymous debut was hailed as a 21st century take on grunge back in 2008, this follow-up digs deeper into 80s post-punk and hardcore to create something altogether pricklier.

Singer Matthew Schultz howls, screams, growls and whimpers like a transforming werewolf while his guitarist brother Brad plays tangle-wire riffs throughout that sound like Joey Santiago being strung up by his own E string. On Indy Kidz, CTE even mock their own (potential) fanbase with an intentionally discordant gutter-rock splatter featuring a wailing blues breakdown and Schultz’s open-throated croaks and lisping impression of a geeky indie scene victim desperate to "get the right haircut". Provocative and anti-trendster, it’s what everyone told you The Vines were like in 2001.

Like all the prickliest fruit, however, plunging past the defensive outer layer opens up a delicious core. Though essentially pop at heart, Thank You… aspires to the pre-plaid, pre-skater US alternative of Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Pixies, when no-compromise underground ideals were religiously adhered to and bubblegum hooks were buried beneath mainstream-scaring wildcat vocals, guitars like out-of-control chainsaws and the production values of the average abattoir. In an age where US indie rock is as easily digestible as Kings of Leon, The National and The Drums, it’s refreshing to find a deeply catchy album that’s nonetheless out to choke.

There are points where Thank You… slips into all-out Pixies pastiche – Around My Head is the offspring of Where Is My Mind?, Subbacultcha and Here Comes Your Man; Sabretooth Tiger crawls, bruised and bloody, off Side One of Surfer Rosa; Schultz’s vocals take on a Black Francis retch throughout 2024 and Sell Yourself is I’ve Been Tired having seven shades beaten out of it by a robot Slipknot. Japanese Buffalo even opens with the line "There was a guy…" in homage to Monkey Gone to Heaven before becoming a perfectly spliced amalgam of Vamos and Tame. But when that tune lopes away into a 50s prom coda it’s indicative of the subtle and original melodic twists CTE are capable of.

Elegant acoustic strumbler Rubber Ball lilts along with a cracked, vulnerable charm, Flow is their – successful – stab at an afrobeat ballad and the ‘secret track’ – an esoteric, slow-trotting take on the album’s pop highlight Right Before My Eyes – could lay claim to being the best alt-country weepie since Elliott Smith. Throughout, CTE prove that they are an ‘alternative’ act that’s not scared of offending mainstream sensibilities. Time to break their locks.

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