For alternative music fans hoping to light up their New Year’s with great new tunes, the pickings have been incredibly slim. This reason alone was enough to build the anticipation for the release of the new Cage the Elephant album Tell Me I’m Pretty. Over the course of their three previous releases, Cage have built a reputation as one of the best things going in alternative music today. With Tell Me I’m Pretty, let’s just say that the boys from Bowling Green do not disappoint.
Although these would seem to be the best of times for Cage leader Matt Schultz, you would never know it by the overall tone of Tell Me I’m Pretty. From the title, to the homely girl on the cover, and on down to the lyrical offerings, Schultz seems to have lost the sneering and defiant swagger of his recent past. A lot of this album seems despondent, even depressed, with Schultz seemingly looking for vindication of some sort. The music takes a bit of a turn, as well, sounding less 90’s alternative and more 60’s and 70’s classic rock. Is this because of the production work of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, as many have been alleging since the release of first single “Mess Around” in October? Who knows, and who cares? Just sit back and enjoy the music.
One of the hallmarks of Cage the Elephant in the past has been their versatility, which can be the defining factor between a good band and a great one. They’ve had their post-punk moments, their Stones-ish moments, even their dance rock moments. Certainly, they’ve gotten their shimmy and shake on at times, and it is in just that mood that Tell Me opens with the exuberant “Cry Baby.” Renouncing our corporate society behind a funky bass line, Schultz channels his inner Lennon by imploring us to remember that “without love, nothing else will ever be enough.” The band keeps the dance vibe going on the aforementioned “Mess Around.” Truly, if this song doesn’t get you moving, nothing will. Built around a guitar hook that is sure to provide satisfaction, it sounds like a blast from the past, circa 1965.
Buoyant music serving to mask morose lyrics pops up throughout the album. “That’s Right” is a nice slice of neo-psychedelia, the subject to which is drowning your sorrows because life sucks and there’s nothing better to do. “Punchin’ Bag” is a shuffling blues that utterly delights in an abused woman striking back at her tormentor. Schultz taunts him (“What kind of man are you? Instead of kisses you gave bruises”) while also warning him (“If you take a swing, she swing back…afraid of nothing and she carries a knife”). Then there is “Portuguese Knife Fight”, which sounds more like an album-opener than the closer it serves as here. Carried along by a scintillating guitar line that alternately ascends and descends to tremendous effect, this is a song that Iggy and the Stooges would have been proud to call their own.
We do find the gears shifted down from typical Cage the Elephant territory quite often here, more in line with the lyrical tone. “Trouble” is a powerful and heartfelt lament in which Schultz is searching for a safety net (“My sweet love, won’t you pull me through?” he asks) to cushion a fall from a guilt that is bearing down heavily on him (“the wicked get no rest”). “Too Late To Say Goodbye” is a bluesy dirge with a weeping guitar solo, while “How True Are You” recalls some of the lighter moments on The White Album. The most ‘classic rock’ offering of all is probably the mournful “Cold Cold Cold,” in which Schultz begs his doctor to help him with the problem “in my chest,” a heart that is “cold as ice.” Auerbach smartly uses echoed vocals to reflect the frigidity of the lyrical matter on a song that sounds like nothing that Cage the Elephant have ever done before. Yes, it recalls the Black Keys, but the bottom line is that this is a great song.
Cage the Elephant truly are one of the best bands in rock today, and Tell Me I’m Pretty only confirms that judgment. Like all great bands, they revel in pushing the boundaries of what they can be. Of course, some critics won’t allow themselves to like them or give them their due credit because of an accusation that they wear their influences too prominently on their sleeves. My question to those critics is, who doesn’t? Maybe this is why Matt Schultz seems so depressed. But in actuality, he deserves tremendous credit. He has gone from a screamer to a master of melodies, and only seems to be getting better, bringing Cage the Elephant along with him. If it’s vindication that Schultz and Cage crave, Tell Me I’m Pretty provides all the justification they could ever need.
David A. Bene is a freelance journalist who, during the day, works at a ‘real’ job bringing home the bacon. But at night, when everything comes alive, he can’t help but regularly indulge in two of his greatest passions…writing and music. Put the dude at a corner table with a laptop and some tunes and what do you get? Why, the guy who writes album reviews for Live from the Internet, of course! David, who has authored two books, resides in Independence, KY with his wife and four (yes, four) kids. Read more work from David here.