With their 2009 eponymous debut, Kentucky five-piece Cage The Elephant redefined the Southern funk-rock genre with songs as rowdy and bluesy as “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” and “In One Ear”. These tracks showcased the band’s knack for crafting radio-friendly pop meets gutsy, balls-to-the-wall rock; backed with their aggressive, bad ass attitude, the record was sure to succeed. It went on to sell 400, 000 copies, generated three Top 5 singles, and garnered an internationally massive fanbase for the funk/punk outfit, who had at this point been recognized in England after signing with Relentless Records in ’07. The band then spent the next two years touring and promoting the album, during which they recorded around 80 songs in anticipation for their sophomore full length. The result, the mostly rambunctious, ear-piercing vibes that make up Thank You, Happy Birthday, can be startling to say the least.
Rather than adhering to the Red Hot Chili Peppers groove that consumes their fateful debut, Thank You, Happy Birthday is miles away from funkadelic, gathering influences from post-punk disruptiveness and 90’s alternative bands like Pixies and Pavement. Seemingly obliterating everything that made them popular in the first place, Cage The Elephant return to the forum with uneasiness and angst, yielding deafening guitar riffs, Fucked Up-like screaming from frontman Matt Shultz, and hard rock jamming sessions you’re most likely to hear on your favorite metal album. The most blatant example appears on the ironically titled “Indy Kidz”, which surely any aficionado of indie music will strongly despise. Thank You, Happy Birthday would work as a progressive punk album if they maintained this aesthetic in its entirety, but, perhaps in an effort to hold onto some of their earlier supporters, there are also songs here that recall the band’s funk-rock ambition, making this album one hell of a cluster fuck.
Opening with the sinister, ominous sounds that surround “Always Something”, and the aggressive, bass-heavy “Aberdeen”, Cage fans receive little warning of the band’s newly found influences that lie ahead. Then “Indy Kidz” materializes, and you’re left in a massive shell shock. As lead single and radio accessible “Shake Me Down” begins, with its familiar Southern swagger and funky, feel-good demeanor, you wonder if your ears had previously deceived you. From here, Thank You, Happy Birthday is primarily confusing. The band continues to shape swag with earnest on head bumping rock ditty “2024” and pop rock anthem “Around My Head”, they craft fragrant, acoustic ballads (“Rubber Ball”), familiarize themselves with grunge territory (“Sell Yourself”, “Japanese Buffalo”), and end it all with an almost eight minute, soft rock jam that really doesn’t sound like it belongs.
Thank You, Happy Birthday is technically not a “poor” album, but rather a collection of songs that simply don’t work well together. Their label (Jive in U.S., Relentless in U.K.) had warned Cage The Elephant to follow the same formula as their successful debut, and for once it seems it’s fair to side with the label. The only aspect of the first record they truly kept intact was using the same producer (Jay Joyce), but you wouldn’t be able to tell, anyhow. Though some of these songs would work well on their own, as a full length, they lack fluidity, consistency, and an overall theme that usually binds songs together.