Cage the Elephant

Fifth Time’s the Charm: Cage the Elephant in Chicago

Cage the Elephant at UIC Pavilion June 7, 2016

Cage the Elephant at UIC Pavilion June 7, 2016

Ever since their second album Thank You, Happy Birthday I’ve been a huge fan of Cage the Elephant. Seeing them for the first time in 2011 at the Aragon Ballroom cemented them as one of the best live bands. This past Tuesday night marked the fifth time of seeing them on stage and they didn’t fail to disappoint. It wasn’t the same intimate theater setting they usually play, but they didn’t let it intimidate them. They commanded the stage with the same fire, energy, excitement, and passion they bring to every show proving themselves to be comfortable performing to bigger crowds.

Morning Teleportation and Portugal. The Man were the opening acts, which I intentionally missed. I was miffed that the first band was added at a later time. Personally, I hate concerts with more than one opening band especially when it’s two bands I don’t care about. Not only do I hate sitting through them, I feel it takes away time from the band I really want to see. So I caught the last two songs from Portugal. The Man and they seemed alright. They at least riled up the crowd and prepared them for Cage. Finally, the band walked out on stage one by one with Brad Shultz strutting around on stage with so much swagger. Matt hit the stage last greeting the crowd with a big smile dimples and all.

They opened with “Cry Baby” from their new album Tell Me I’m Pretty. Matt wasted no time dancing and shaking like he was about to fall over. After that they launched straight into fan favorite “In One Ear,” which exploded the entire venue. No matter how many times I hear the song live, it sounds better each time they do it. It never gets old and it’s great to see it’s a staple of their live shows. Matt stumbled and jumped around stage with the same energy and passion you’d imagine he would have at the start of the tour. They turned UIC Pavilion into a dance party with tracks like “Spiderhead,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “Mess Around,” and “Aberdeen.” Matt’s not afraid of losing himself in the music as he dropped to his knees headbanging while guitarist Nick Bockrath shredded away. Matt even showed Brad some love as the two embraced in a headlock while Brad continued to play as if nothing is going on.

The band finally gave fans time to catch their breath during slow tracks “Too Late to Say Goodbye” and “Trouble.” I was actually surprised how just about every person in the venue knew the words to these songs. Matt stopped several times to let the crowd take over on vocals, holding out the mic with a big smile on his face. Usually when a band plays new songs, fans politely listen waiting for the band to get back to songs they know. That wasn’t the case with Cage the Elephant. The crowd was actually excited to hear every song from the new album they played.

But the evening wasn’t perfect. The band had a few feedback issues, but the biggest problem was the arena itself. I’ve never been to UIC Pavilion for a show before, but I was disappointed with the sound. It doesn’t have the best acoustics, which made it difficult to hear the band at times. In between songs Matt took time to address the crowd, yet it was hard to make out what he was saying. The venue wasn’t very kind to the band, but they powered through it and didn’t let sound problems bother them.

A lot of the songs from the setlist were culled from their last tour: most of it was from Melophobia with few tracks from their first two releases. Of course songs from the new album got the most spotlight. It’s not a bad thing, but it would’ve been nice to shake up a few things. Pull out some older tracks they haven’t played since 2011 or leaves off tracks like “Telescope” or “Come a Little Closer,” which feel overplayed at this point. But while you were there you didn’t care what they played; you just wanted to hear them.

During songs “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” “Back Against the Wall,” and “Cigarette Daydreams” the crowd let their voices ring out, singing so loud it drowned out the band. At that moment, the attention turned to the audience who sang every word with Matt, something you didn’t see too much at their shows a few years ago. As a fan it was an amazing sight to see. The thought of all Cage the Elephant fans coming together for one night and sing these songs as they had done many times in their bedrooms.

After “Come a Little Closer,” which prompted more sing-a-longs, the band returned for a three song encore: “Cigarette Daydreams,” “Shake Me Down,” and “Teeth.” It wasn’t until the last song that Matt unleashed any pent up energy and dove into the crowd, something that’s a staple at Cage the Elephant’s live shows. While Matt swam through fans to get back to the stage, the rest of the band took a bow and walked off with Brad flipping his guitar in the air and leaving with more swagger. Once he got back on stage, Matt stayed behind throwing picks, shirts, and random gifts to loyal fans. With one last smile he ran off leaving the venue filled with screeching guitar feedback.

Even though the venue kind of sucked, there were sound problems, and it wasn’t a small theater they still killed it. The vibe of the night was about having fun and dancing the night away. Matt was as charming and hyper as ever. Every time he moved, the crowd moved trying to copy his spastic dance moves. Though I still prefer them in more intimate settings, it’s great to see they can thrill larger audiences especially since it seems like their concerts are only going to get bigger. I didn’t leave the concert with the usual high I get from shows, probably because this was my fifth time of seeing them, but I still had a big smile on my face. It was an amazing pick me up from a crappy week and I’m already looking forward to the next Cage the Elephant show.

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You’ll Pay for This – Bear Hands

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I first heard of Bear Hands when I saw them open for Cage the Elephant in 2014. I really dug their revolving musical styles and upbeat songs, so I quickly became a fan. I was pumped to hear about their upcoming album, looking for more infectious synth and unique tunes. And I was not disappointed.

The band has a knack for mixing synth with indie rock and it’s no different on this album. It opens with the 80s tinged “I Won’t Pay,” which starts out soft and mellow with falsetto vocals by Dylan Rau until it amps up for a bigger sound. When the guitar takes over during the bridge, it gives the song a rock edge. It’s catchy, which is a running theme for most of the album. Next comes their current single “2AM.” Though it describes partying until the early morning, the music is surprisingly chill. The mood is very soft and kind of atmospheric as it explores trying to stay out even though you’re too old. Lyrics like “All I want is/to forget how old I am” and “I put my best dress on/crawl back in bed” brings up images of being stuck at a party feeling miserable. It’s not the most grabbing song on the record, but it grows on you after repeated listens.

The band continues exploring getting older on “Too Young,” which sounds like a lounge song from the 70s at times. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it’s not horrible. It manages to be interesting with it’s subject of being too immature for a relationship. The song does boast the memorable line “Youth is overrated,” which goes against the grain of common thought. Things are tuned down for the dreamy “The Shallows.” It begins with soothing sounds of rain and continues the calming theme with falsetto vocals and light surf rock guitars. It’s not necessarily a high point on the album, but the relaxing nature of it allows listeners to catch their breath.

Similar to their previous release, most of the songs on the album are fun, memorable, and made to get you dancing. “Like me Like That” has a simple hook and is another song taken straight from the 80s and “Chin Ups” is a synth pop, energetic ride with a hint of rock. Bear Hands let’s their old school influences run wild on the catchy “I See You.” With even more raucous synth and spacey sound effects, it sounds like it was taken straight from their favorite era. It sticks with their established style, but it’s another upbeat hit for the band.

The mellow, tropical opening of “Boss” seems unfitting at first, but once the hook kicks in the song comes alive. The guitar has a Southern rock flavor giving the song a boost. The track gets stuck in your head from the memorable hook of “I’m the bitch and you’re the boss.” The 80s feel returns on the bouncy and infectious “Deja Vu.” As soon as the bright synth riff kicks in, it makes you feel good. This is mixed with Rau’s rapid rap-like flow to make an irresistible track. The mood gets even better when brassy horns come in towards the end and amps up the feel good mood.

The most forgettable track is the closer “Purpose Filled Life.” Even though it’s dreamy, atmospheric, and has heart behind it, it’s buried under the stronger songs. The music is innocent, sounding like something from a simple Casio keyboard. The song itself seems to deal with making sure your life has meaning to it, which is a universal feeling. It’s kind of a depressing way to end a thrilling album.

What makes Bear Hands’ music so appealing is how exciting, different, and fun it is. Fans will be happy to know there’s more of the same on this album. It doesn’t really stray away from their beloved electric, synthpop, rock vibe, but it cranks up everything they did on their last effort and makes it better. The theme of the album is at least different and will be relatable to fans in their late 20s and older. It seems the longer Bear Hands around, their output gets stronger.

Playlist: For Kurt

Last week marked 22 years since the death of Kurt Cobain. As usual fans and critics paid their respects from posting pictures on Twitter or writing lengthy pieces on the late singer. But instead of thought pieces on who Cobain was or why his death isn’t as straight forward as we want to believe, the best way to remember him is through the music. This month’s playlist is dedicated to covers of Nirvana songs. There are a lot of them out there and I couldn’t possibly cover every one, so here are some of my favorites.

“In Bloom” – Sturgill Simpson

I honestly don’t know much about Sturgill Simpson, but his version of “In Bloom” has been spreading around the internet last week. While it’s not the best Nirvana cover I’ve ever heard, it is the most interesting and musically diverse. When the song starts you’re looking for that familiar growl of the guitar riff. You can’t even tell what song it is until Simpson starts singing. His Southern twang in his vocals oddly works with the lyrics along with the light music and Western feel. The track comes alive at the end when an unexpected brass section joins in. I’m actually surprised by how much I like his mellow, soulful version.

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” – Jay Retard

I remember listening to the In Utero tribute album released by Robotic Empire a few years ago. And it was fucking awful. The only redeeming quality was this cover by Jay Retard. Sounding like he’s submerged underwater, his version is more rock and a bit psychedelic than harsh and heavy. It’s not too drastically different from the original, but Jay Retard’s touch makes this cover interesting and at least not a carbon copy of the original.

“Lithium” – The Vaselines

It’s pretty cool that The Vaselines did a cover of this Nirvana single since the guys covered one of their songs in their early days. Unlike the original which is instantly catchy, harsh, and melodic, this version is haunting and subdued. There’s very light music recreating the unforgettable riff and Frances McKee’s vocals are fragile and soft. What makes it even more eerie is the background singing that sounds like moaning and the swelling organ that becomes more apparent as the song reaches its end. It’s actually really beautiful and something Kurt might’ve appreciated.

“All Apologies” – Sinead O’Connor

For some reason, this Nirvana song is a popular one to cover. It’s been done by many artists, but Sinead O’Connor’s version is among the best. She presents a delicate version of the tune. It’s nothing but her and a soft guitar that sounds like only two notes are being plucked. She brings out even more heartbreak and sadness in the song with her light delivery of the song. Just when you thought the unplugged version of the song was depressing, O’Connor makes things even worse.

“Stay Away” – Charles Bradley

Ever wanted to hear what Nirvana would sound like if they were a soul band? Charles Bradley gives you an idea with this soulful rendition of “Stay Away.” It’s different from most Nirvana covers out there, which either try to recreate what the band did or just play the song louder. I’ll admit it took me a bit to appreciate his version, but I actually like the different take on the song. It slows things down a bit and adds a little funk to the mix. Bradley succeeds in showing how Nirvana’s music can span various genres.

“Lithium” – Muse

Muse aren’t shy about their love of Nirvana. In various interviews, the members have talked about how Nirvana were one of their early influences and part of the reason why they started their band. Though they haven’t officially released a Nirvana cover, they’ve played their songs several times live. When they played Lollapalooza in Brazil, it was the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. They acknowledged it by playing “Lithium” and they did a kick ass job with the song. It’s a very straightforward cover, but Bellamy’s voice surprisingly works well with the song. And watching the clip, which is interrupted by interview footage, it’s clear Muse are enjoying themselves while playing the song.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Tori Amos

Tori Amos version of the famous Nirvana song often pops up when looking for the best Nirvana covers and for good reason: it’s beautiful. Apparently, she was the first artist to cover the song and she made it her own. She takes this angst ridden song filled with aggression and anger and turns it into something heartbreaking. It’s nothing but Amos and the piano, which gives it a classical air. Her version changes the entire mood and vibe of the song turning it into something completely different. It’s so haunting you’ll have chills as her voice hits those soaring notes. Cobain even commented on the cover, calling it “a great cereal version.”

“Heart Shaped Box” – Dead Sara

If there’s any band fit for a Nirvana cover, it’s Dead Sara. Emily Armstrong’s vocals are rough and raspy, which perfectly fit with the grunge genre. Their cover the In Utero track is pretty straightforward. They keep same mood and vibe as the original. Still, Armstrong and crew sound amazing when performing the song. The guitars are harsh and dirty while Armstrong’s vocals hit all the right notes. It doesn’t do anything new with the song, but it’s still a respectable cover.

“Breed” – Titus Andronicus

Recorded for Spin’s tribute album to Nevermind, Titus Andronicus takes on Nirvana’s “Breed.” It doesn’t stray far from the original keeping the same general vibe and feel. Where their version does differ is it’s a more raw, sloppy, punk rock version of the Nirvana track. The music is generally the same, but Patrick Stickles’ vocals are edgy and on the harsh side. It’s simple, but it’s very satisfying to listen to.

“Come as You Are” – Yuna

Yuna is a Malaysian singer/songwriter who does a lot of covers of popular artists, like Drake. Her version of “Come as You Are” is something you wouldn’t expect to like. She slows things down considerably, turning the grunge song into something mellow. Her vocals are relaxing and flowing as she sings the familiar chorus. Her voice is actually beautiful and works really well with the R&B/indie pop vibe of the song she’s set up. The whole thing is really dreamy and soft, something you wouldn’t expect from a Nirvana song.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Patti Smith

For her 2007 covers album Twelve, Smith did a folk rendition of the Nirvana classic. With her wavering vocals and plucks of a banjo, the track sounds fragile and haunting. If it wasn’t for the well known lyrics, it’d be difficult to tell it was a Nirvana song at all just because the mood is so different. Smith takes liberty with the bridge where she starts speaking about injustices and problems within the world. This part isn’t for everyone and it kind of kills the mood, but it wouldn’t be a Patti Smith song if there wasn’t some sort of commentary on society.

“All Apologies” – Cage the Elephant

For a live iHeartRadio broadcast Cage the Elephant, who have always had some similarities to Nirvana, covered “All Apologies.” Unlike Sinead O’Connor’s version, this one doesn’t stray far from the original. It’s very bare bones featuring only Matt Shutlz on vocals and Brad Shultz on an acoustic guitar. Though Matt’s vocals are raspy and raw like Cobain’s, it never sounds like he’s trying to copy the late singer. Instead he does things naturally. His voice works so well, I would love to hear more covers featuring the entire band.

Which Nirvana cover is your favorite? There are a ton out there, so which one did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

Tell Me I’m Pretty – Cage the Elephant

Release Year: 2015

Rating: 8.5/10

Ever since I watched the intro to Borderlands, I’ve been in love with Cage the Elephant. To me this is one band that can do no wrong. I was both excited and weary when they announced their fourth album towards the end of the year. Was it going to be even better than their previous effort or were they going to take a misstep? Ever since their second LP the band have been moving away from their insane rock sound; they move even further away from their sound on this effort. So is it a hit or a miss?

The first thing I noticed about the album was how mellow it is. There are no high pitched, squealing guitars losing control. Matt Shultz doesn’t sound like he’s having a breakdown as he howls through a song. In other words, these aren’t songs to lose your mind to and start moshing. Rather, they make you feel good and get you swaying to the light groove. They also take the psychedelic sound they explored on their third album even further on tracks like “Cry Baby,” which sounds like it’s straight out of the 60s. The same can be found on lead single “Mess Around,” which has grown on me since I initially heard it. It’s still not the strongest track on the LP, but it’s hard to resist that groove. This song also made me worried the LP would sound too similar to the Black Keys, since this track sounded like something they would do. Luckily, this is as far as the comparison goes.

With each album, the band has been struggling to find their sound and though longtime fans may not like it, it seems they’ve finally found it with this new soft, vintage tone. Songs like “Sweetie Little Jean” and “That’s Right” continue the old school psychedelic vibe with the free flowing guitars, lush rhythms, and swirling beats. “Portuguese Knife Fight” is a notable track that immerses itself in the trippy sound. It begins with this rapid trilling riff before slowing down into this catchy shuffling riff. What’s really cool is how lazy the groove sounds and it gets you swaying like you’ve taken a hit of something. It’s kind of sleepy sounding, like it’s putting you in a trance, but it’s one of the coolest songs on the album.

Throughout the band’s career Matt Shultz has grown as a singer, which you can really hear on this record. He still has the chops to stretch and strain his vocal chords to the point of tearing, but this time around he plays it cool. He croons so sweet and gently on the infectious and thoughtful “Trouble” and he amps up his falsetto on the slow burning “How Are You True.” His voice can still pack a punch, like on the upbeat and funky “Cold, Cold, Cold,” but he never gets to the point of losing control. He also sounds sultry as hell on the best track “Too Late to Say Goodbye.” This is the song that made me excited for the LP: it has this great sexy, bluesy crawl to the music, while Matt manages to sound smokey and lonely at the song’s peak. I always thought Matt was a talented singer and it’s great to hear him push himself to do something different.

The closest the band gets to their really energetic sound is on the fun track “Punchin’ Bag.” It’s an upbeat track with a dirty rock vibe that’s as close to their old sound as you’ll get here. It’s also really catchy with the way Matt sings during the hook “Oh ain’t it a drag/If you take a swing, the kid swing back/She say I’m not your punchin’ bag.” Listen closely to the lyrics and you’ll discover it talks about domestic violence and how the woman has had enough. With such a serious and touchy subject, it’s weird that the music is so upbeat and fun. But it still one of the highlights of the album that’s sure to be even better live.

I was honestly surprised by how good the album is. The first couple of songs I heard from it didn’t do much for me. A part of me was worried it would be too similar to The Black Keys with Dan Auerbach in the producer’s chair. This isn’t the case at all. Though I’ll always miss their wild, unchained sound I fell in love with, their new light, mellow vibe is great too. It’s a different kind of album for the band where they seem comfortable with what they’re doing, yet remain true to themselves. If you have an open mind and don’t hate songs that chill you out instead of riling you up, then you’ll love this album. Now, it’s time to sit back and wait for the tour announcement.

“Mess Around” – Cage the Elephant

Release Year: 2015

Rating: 7/10

If you guys couldn’t tell by now, Cage the Elephant is one of my favorite bands, so I was surprised when they announced their next album is coming out in December. I sat and eagerly waited for a new single, a snippet, anything to keep me satiated until I could get my hands on the new release. Well, the guys put out their new single “Mess Around” a couple weeks ago. So, how is it?

One thing I noticed right away about the song is it expands on the psychedelic sound they explored on their previous release Melophobia. This isn’t necessarily bad since I really enjoyed the album, but it seems they’re moving away from the hard rock sound that made them so awesome. I would be lying if I said it didn’t disappointment me. I’ve always loved the band for their raw energy, their intense sound, and out of control vibe. While all of this still comes through in their live shows, it’s not in their music as much. With this new song it seems even less likely they’ll revisit that sound and it makes me a little sad.

The song itself is pretty good. It didn’t blow me away or get me really pumped the first time I heard it, but similar to “Come a Little Closer” it grows on you. As usual, I love Matt’s vocals, which are hypnotic and mesmerizing. And while there is no actual chorus, it manages to stay in your head with the simple “ahhh’s” and Matt singing “no she don’t mess around.”

For this album the band teamed up with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach and you can definitely hear his influence on this song. The weird high pitched squealing guitars will remind you of the Black Keys. The more I heard it, the more it made me think of their song “Fever.” This doesn’t make me like the song anymore or less, but it does make me worry his influence will take over the entire LP.

It may not be a blazing first single, but it still makes me curious as to what Cage the Elephant will do on this album. Seeing their sonic change between Thank You, Happy Birthday and Melophobia, makes me excited to see where they’re taking their sound next.