By Melissa Caruso
[O]n their fourth studio album Tell Me I’m Pretty, Kentucky rock band Cage the Elephant brought in the Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach to manicure their sound, but he wasn’t the only name the band threw around.
“Our fantasy producer was Andre 3000,” guitarist Brad Shultz told Elmore, “but you know, we didn’t know how to hook it up.” Auerbach’s efforts, however, do not go unnoticed on Tell Me I’m Pretty. “We tend to get overtly excited and put every idea that we have into a song and sometimes that covers up the bare bones of the songs. Dan was really great about stripping away a lot of unnecessary things.” Initially, Auerbach’s approach threw the band off, but eventually it allowed them to grow and become comfortable in their own skin. “A lot of the times we ended up using Matt’s scratch vocals; some of the tracks were like one or two takes and we used those takes.”
Tell Me I’m Pretty is more of a statement than a supplication, and sounds like a band finally comfortable in its own skin, after having shed a layer or two. The album pulls from a wall of psychedelic influences that allows Cage the Elephant to explore their capabilities, often unearthing unexpected surprises. Opener “Cry Baby,” Shultz says, was his favorite to record because it “became a different beast” from its initial conception.
“Actually,” Shultz added, laughing, “Dan would always say [of the track], ‘What are you all a fuckin’ prog band now?’” Here, complex themes that cannot be fully developed within the span of a three-minute window unfold, and at the end, takes on a seductive strut that highlights the group’s virtuosity rather than individual skill. Trappings of desire come center stage on the Auerbach-fingerprinted “Mess Around” bounces off walls of garage rock, while the ’60s-blues-inducfluenced “Cold Cold Cold” sounds like something a young Eric Burdon could get down with. Throughout, singer Matt Shultz’s penchant for bold lyricism elevates tracks like “Punching Bag,” creating vivid portrayals of characters: Afraid of nothing and she carries a knife/She says, ‘I’m not your punching bag.’
Grammy-nominated Melophobia, “was a difficult record to make,” Shultz explained.
Disputes within the band led to the departure of guitarist Lincoln Parish, and brought in guitarist Nick Bockrath and later keyboard player Matthan Minster, whose sense of harmony adds color to the Cage mix. “They had been touring with us live and we really liked the vibe that they brought to the live show, so we just thought it would be a great idea to carry that into the studio,” Shultz said. This camaraderie is evident in the music video for “Cry Baby” where snippets of the band’s life in between gigs singing at airport pianos, dancing to bagpipes, and exploring cemeteries comes to life. “They bring this revamped energy and excitement into the band that’s really fun to work with.”
Having already tested songs off Tell Me I’m Pretty this past October at a secret CMJ show, the band looks forward to two sold-out shows at Central Park’s Summerstage with Portugal. The Man on May 16 and 17.
Since their 2007 debut Thank You, Happy Birthday, the band has turned its ears to newer, up-and-coming bands like the Orwells, Deerhunter, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard for inspiration.
Just as Cage’s sound has evolved over the span of four studio albums, so has its visual expression. On the newly released music video for the single “Trouble,” Matt Shultz takes a stab at directing in a John Wayne-influenced trip in the desert. Dig it.