What does it sound like?:
Cage The Elephant were formed in Kentucky ten years ago and relocated to London before their first album. Ironically, their albums sell well in the US, but not in the UK where they struggle to make the charts at all. They are said to be great live. Most importantly, they carry the flame for guitar rock, consisting of two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and charismatic frontman, Matt Schulz.
To begin with, they had a rough-arse blues-rock sound. Their second album revealed a Pixies obsession. For their fourth, 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, they recruited Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys to produce. He got them more organised, the songs tighter and the performances more focussed. They won a Grammy, a sign they had moved away from the edge towards a crowd-pleasing middle road. Unpeeled documents their Tell Me I’m Pretty tour.
So far, so straightforward. At this point, they decide to stretch themselves. They rearrange the songs for acoustic instruments and add a string section. Unpeeled is a very nice listen, too nice. All the wildness is gone. Matt Schulz hardly ever comes close to his legendary Black Francis scream, the closest is on Aberdeen. The crowd sound distant and very polite, singing quietly along with some of the choruses. It works very well for four or five tracks but this is a 79 minute, 21 track CD. After a while, they all merge into one. Sadly, the quirkiness of their songwriting is lost under the wash of the strings.
It’s difficult to recall highlights. The opener, Crybaby is lively with percolating percussion. Perhaps, they should have applied percussion to more of the songs. The acoustic version of Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked could be Beck in his early slacker incarnation. Their best songs are Punching Bag and Trouble. Picked out to listen to individually, their best songs, Punching Bag and Trouble work very well indeed, but as track 7 and 11 respectively, they are easily overlooked.
There are three cover songs. Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World is the next single and a reminder of their endearingly chaotic beginnings. The strings are an effective replacement for synths on Daft Punk’s Instant Crush but the vocal lacks the bite of Julian Casablancas. The Stranglers Golden Brown puts its finger on Unpeeled’s problem. The sweet melody, without the harpsichord becomes almost bland.
A lot of thought, a great deal of work and hours and hours of rehearsal has gone into Unpeeled. Full marks for trying, then, but file under noble failure. Within these 21 tracks is a great 11track album. However, before long, the acoustic with strings format is wearying. Even they sound exhausted by the closer, Right Before My Eyes.
Unpeeled is an interesting, yet decisive step towards the mainstream for Cage The Elephant.
What does it all *mean*?
In the digital age, many of these tracks will thrive when selected for a playlist but, collectively, 21 is about ten too many.
Looking at the track list, song titles are at a premium in Rock. Take It Or Leave It, Shake Me Down, Trouble, Rubber Ball, Cold Cold Cold, have all be used before, haven’t they? Even Aberdeen was originally called Maybellene until Matt couldn’t stop singing ‘Aberdeen’ when rehearsing in that fair city. Is Rock running out of song titles?
Goes well with…
A Spotify Playlist.
Might suit people who like…
Fans familiar with Cage The Elephant’s work will enjoy the variations on display. People new to the band should sample first.