Monday, December 21, 2015

album review: 'tell me i'm pretty' by cage the elephant

So I'll be the first to admit that there are some producers that tend to rub the wrong way - and if you've watched any of my rock or country reviews, you'll know the name that leaps to the top of my list is Jay Joyce. Most well-known in the country sphere for working with Eric Church, he's got a knack for production that can have impact with chunkier riffs and rougher edges, but it can lack subtlety or finer instrumental details. The funny thing is that if you flip over to the rock side, there's also been a band he's been working with since the start of their career who have had some success on modern rock radio: Cage The Elephant.

And I've always been kind of on the fence about this group, in that I really wish I liked them more than I do. They've got a knack for melody and there's are broad strokes to their explosively messy sound I find appealing to go with the occasionally twisted lyrics, but they're also not a subtle group, and it's led to their past three records being good but not quite great - you can definitely see why Jay Joyce worked with them. Part of this was the gradual maturing of their lead singer Matthew Shultz, as his early vocals has a nasal quality that got grating, especially on their wilder, more punk-inspired second album Thank You, Happy Birthday. Things improved the most on their third record Melophobia in 2013, which was a much thicker, heavier, more bluesy and psychedelic album, but despite a fair few great songs there were a lot of instrumental flourishes and genre shifts that I wish were a little more grounded or given more room to breathe, especially considering most of them served as outros that didn't really fit with the rest of the songs. That said, it was their most diverse and well-structured and helped define their most unique sound to date, and it seemed like they had a good groove going...

So naturally it makes sense to pitch their lead guitarist, Jay Joyce and start working with frontman of the Black Keys Dan Auerbach on production for their newest album. Now in theory you could have seen this coming - Cage The Elephant toured with The Black Keys, they were moving more towards blues rock, Jay Joyce is busier than ever these days, and Dan Auerbach has handled production before. Unfortunately, the last thing I covered that he produced was Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence - not a good sign, and neither was the buzz suggesting that early singles for this album had shed some of Cage The Elephant's newly defined sound in favour of sounding like The Black Keys. But hey, this was my chance to evaluate if the compositional strength and writing could hold up in a different production environment, so I gave Tell Me I'm Pretty plenty of listens - what did we get?

Well... okay, it's not bad. But it's not that good either, and what's frustrating is that I don't think I can blame Dan Auerbach entirely for this, because the problems are across the board, from production to vocals to the songwriting. I've gone through this record a number of times hoping that it would click, especially considering the styles of rock that Cage The Elephant draw from on Tell Me I'm Pretty, but all that reminds me is that I could be listening to Temples or better Black Keys albums. In other words, it's okay, but the more I've listened through it the less I've liked it, and that's never a good sign.

And let's start with the most obvious issues; the instrumentation and production. Now what I found really refreshing about Melophobia is not only did it prove the band could write interesting and dynamic melodies, but that they could handle transitions and take their songs in different, unexpected directions. And we only get roughly half of that on this album: for the most part the foundational melody lines are good, sometimes even great, but it's very rare that any song shifted in a cool or unconventional direction. Just because some of the outros felt abortive on Melophobia didn't mean I wanted the band to get rid of them entirely, but flesh them out a little more, and with the exception of the tempo shift on 'Cry Baby', it doesn't happen. Part of this I suspect was the recording process itself, where Dan Auerbach urged them to go rougher and rely more on first takes - which I'll say right now was a mistake, because these songs do not nearly develop as much as they could. Now there's a decent foundation here: the bass and drum grooves are pretty damn solid and punchy across the board, and most of the guitar tones work, even if there are points where the texture feels too flat and overexposed to mesh with the rest of the mix, specifically on 'Mess Around' or 'Portugese Knife Fight', or the more compressed riff on 'Too Late To Say Goodbye'. At their best we get tracks like 'Cold Cold Cold', easily my favourite song here for actually having a solid interweaving melodic riff and a great hook, to say nothing of the only guitar solo that lands any sort of impact. And for most of this I'm blaming Auerbach, because for a band that actually had some southern muscle on Melophobia to be stripped down to something this thin and wiry does nobody any favours, and just like on that last Black Keys album Turn Blue the synthesizers are almost universally weedy, oily, and add nothing to the mix. And that's not even getting to tracks like 'Trouble' or 'How Are You True' - yeah, I love The Beatles too, but am I the only one who hears 'Somebody' in the composition of 'Trouble' and it gets incredibly distracting.

Granted, the vocals aren't helping. I'll lay my cards on the table: I've never loved Matthew Shultz, but when he sticks to his more brash low-to-midrange and actually brings some aggression to the table, it works for me. And yet on this record, he spends so much of it in a crooning falsetto that is whispy and painfully underweight, not helped by the compression on the vocal production like on 'Too Late To Say Goodbye' or when he just sounds half asleep on most of 'That's Right'. I get why you might try this - again, Beatles callback - but when you have such meaty basslines and pretty aggressive melodies, to have vocals so underweight or lacking in body, I stop caring.

And it's not helped by the lyrics. Now let me stress that I tend to like Cage The Elephant's songwriting for at least being a little sharper and self-aware in comparison with some of their peers. But that doesn't excuse how very self-involved the writing on this record can feel. Thematically, this record feels a bit scattershot - you could argue that there are elements about finding and taking control of one's life, all with the sort of hard, confrontational language you'd expect, but the record also seems keenly aware that when done for its own sake or without love it can feel hollow, like the one genuinely nuanced track 'How Are You True', where that self-involvement leads to a painful missed connection when a girl confesses real secrets. But more often you have songs like 'Too Late To Say Goodbye' - which reminded me of Hozier's 'Take Me To Church' minus the biblical scope and power, where the guy is trapped in a bad relationship that leads to disaster, which is later reflected on the quieter 'Trouble'. Both of these songs show guys who become more reliant or are seduced by some girl and it leads them to disaster - 'Mess Around' does the same. And yet for as much brash, aggressive alpha swagger as this record brings, it undercuts it again with 'Sweetie Little Jean', where the titular character was dumped by our narrator and then vanished - presumed kidnapped and dead - where our narrator seems more concerned with putting aside his own guilt then finding the real truth - it's an uglier side and again seems more self-involved than I'd argue it really should when a girl is dead. And then we have the final two tracks, the former called 'Punching Bag' focusing on a girl who was abused by her boyfriend finally getting violent retribution. And while I liked this song done in the past with 'Karate' by Brad Paisley, I never get a sense that this girl would ever tolerate this when she's described in the first line as a 'stone cold straight-faced killer'. And putting aside the questionable choice to coach so much of this record in violent rhetoric, the bigger issue is when on the next track you get a hookup described in the same violent rhetoric but it's clearly idealized. It feels very dissonant on a tonal level.

But then again, the more I went through this album the more it feels at odds with itself - embracing hard-edged language only to undercut it, production that seems to want to go a little wilder hemmed in by production and an underwhelming vocal performance. And while I'll give this album some credit for recognizing its two faces - 'Cold Cold Cold' does this especially, and hell, the album's title seems to admit some self-awareness - it doesn't exactly make for a pleasant listen, and it's not an album I found easy to repeat. in short, I wanted to like Tell Me I'm Pretty, and I can appreciate some of the ideas, but it feels undercooked musically and I definitely get the feeling the songwriting could have used a few more drafts to really hit harder. So for me, I'm thinking a 6/10 and a recommendation, but if you're a big fan of Melophobia and you don't like modern Black Keys, this is not for you. Otherwise... it's worth a listen, but they've definitely done better.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mark, I'm pretty interested in what you ended up thinking about that Icon For Hire track Jon & CoverKiller put on their worst songs lists, considering their last album was on your best list a couple of years ago.