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It’s not that Cage the Elephant has “grown up” since their first album and followed it with a sophomore effort that’s just a stronger extension of the first, because in some ways, Thank You Happy Birthday is the lyrical antithesis of their debut. The self-titled first recording, rife with hit singles, harbored some very general frustrations with the ways of the world, while Thank You scrubs off a lot of youthful angst, turns the pointing finger around, and examines problems more personal to the songwriter. Matt Shultz sings about music industry tricks, TV ad poison and stereotypical hipster self-aware B.S. in a punk-funk mash-up that, on this album, leans more towards punk with occasional glimpses of their southern roots, and an obvious appreciation for the Pixies.
Shultz alternates a scratchy, expressive yowl, much like The Whigs’ Parker Gispert, with aggressive Frank Black vocals, and the instrumentation similarly juggles abrasive with soft. While the fuzzy, foreboding opener “Always Something” is intense and has a vague dance vibe, “Aberdeen” loosens up with a hooky melody and chipper bass line. Unsteady highs and lows are found in the grungy Beatles-like single “Shake Me Down,” in which the guitars create a sorrowful tick tock amidst a rolling drum cascade (drummer Jared Champion implemented a toy drum for this one).
Even traces of post-hardcore sneak in like on the bruising, adrenaline-pumped “Sell Yourself,” which is countered by the reeling 3/4 time strumming of “Rubber Ball.” More Pixies influence is found in “Sabertooth Tiger,” though its angry, buzzing riffs could also belong to The White Stripes. It’s “Paper Cut (Walk Around My Head)” that sounds as if it could have slipped right off of Doolittle, and it’s also one of the best on the album, along with the wiry plucking and layered percussion of “Flow.” It all seems more diverse than it actually sounds, and true, the band borrows plenty, including some room to play around with the sound, but Thank You Happy Birthday transcends its genres, and would be better simply labeled as a solid second step. — American Songwriter