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Album review: Cage the Elephant's 'Thank You Happy Birthday' [Updated]

January 10, 2011 |  6:34 pm

Cage_240_ “Sell yourself, don’t be a fool!” gurgles Matt Shultz, the wiggly frontman for Cage the Elephant, midway through the young Kentucky-bred band’s second album. He’s yelling at the hipsters and fakes whose convolutions confuse and upset him, but he’s surely also offering himself a warning.

Having gained notoriety a couple of years back for intense live shows and memorable singles like 2008’s slouchy, sexy “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” Shultz and his pals, including brother Brad on guitar and secret weapon Daniel Tichenor on bass, stand at a crucial juncture. Can Cage the Elephant survive the scrutiny of jaded aficionados who call its drum kit-toppling yet sweet-toothed approach to guitar bashery nothing but a rehash of flannel rock? This set of ripping rave-ups and effortlessly tasty singalongs answers YES, in all caps.

The band’s influences are obvious. Songs like “Aberdeen,” a nod to Kurt Cobain’s hometown, and the shameless Pixies rewrite “Around My Head” trash and lovingly refashion those sources the way kids take apart their toys during the winter holidays. It helps that these pilferers have great taste. They run like rabbits from the stultifying bottom end of grunge, instead honoring what was hot and sweet about ‘90s rock: the raucousness of its hooks and the accessibility of its noise.

The twang in Shultz’s voice and in Lincoln Parish’s lead guitar betrays the band’s Southern influence. Like the Kings of Leon, Cage the Elephant gains benefits from being rooted in a region where plain old rock still has wide appeal. There’s no pretentiousness to this band, and no tricks in the clean production by versatile Nashville vet Jay Joyce. And though Shultz’s lyrics betray much self-doubt, his wildfire yelp overcomes it. When he sings about a girl who holds “her dirty hands over the flame,” yeah, he’s singing about a lost love, but he’s also singing to himself. The flame is rock and roll, unquenchable.

—Ann Powers

Cage the Elephant
“Thank You Happy Birthday”
Jive/RED Records
Three stars (Out of four)

[Updated: In the original version of this review, Matt Shultz's name was misspelled and Daniel Tichenor was misidentified as Brad Tichenor. Also, the song "Around My Head" was mistakenly titled as "Paper Cut (Walk Around My Head)."]

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