Cage The Elephant are known for their brash and vital rock music and manic live performances. On their fourth album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, the band reign in the recklessness, and create a sound heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia and British Invasion bands – and it suits them. Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, whose work is often beautifully dark, fuzzy, and blues-inflected, this record is a significant reworking of Cage’s sound.
Opening track, Cry Baby, sets the tone of 60s inspiration. Guitar phasing and two-part harmonies roll over heavily rhythmic guitar and bass riffage, which culminate in a trippy tempo change around the 3-minute mark (if you like this, listen to Temples’ Keep In The Dark – it’s uncannily similar and also excellent). The following track, lead single Mess Around, was released back in October; it’s got more of an old school Cage vibe, with a simple-but-effective chord structure, galloping momentum, and wailing guitar.
Singer Matt Schultz’s interest in storytelling on this record makes for enthralling tracks like Too Late To Say Goodbye (a take on Bonnie and Clyde, from Bonnie’s perspective), Punchin’ Bag (about an intimidating woman who takes no shit and carries a knife), and best of all, Sweetie Little Jean. This track tells the story of a girl who’s run away from home and possibly wound up dead - a dark take on The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home. The song showcases a punchy verse moving into an expansive chorus, which, in its sinister feel and use of falsetto, reminds me of Blur’s Beetlebum.
The riotous Cold Cold Cold has an aggressively electric chorus (reminiscent of The Animals and The Zombies) that needs to be yelled in a dingy cellar full of sweaty young concertgoers. Meanwhile, Portuguese Knife Fight’s repeated “Oh yeah’s” and heavy fuzzed guitar riff is an ominous take on The Kinks’ You Really Got Me, with Shultz sneering, “I want to waste my life on you”.
Many of the tracks on this album were recorded in one take, which comes across in the sense of immediacy and careful spontaneity that pervades it. While this record is less explicit in the wild dynamism of the band’s earlier work – there is no yowling to be found – it is more mature in its approach to the themes of frustrated love and life’s trials that Cage have always dealt with. At a time when many band’s seem to be jumping on the 70s funk revival bandwagon or incorporating more electronic aspects into their music, it’s fantastic to hear the band take things back to basic in terms of recording and influence, while still remaining both current, and fundamentally Cage.