Sophomore releases: they can go one of two directions.  The one most bands experience, the “sophomore slump,” can be a bummer for fans and the musicians who bestowed an amazing debut upon their listening audience.  The toll of transitioning to the national spotlight, arduous tour schedules, Saturday Night Live spots, signings, meet and greets and more can suck the creative life out of a prolific music entity.  But there are some bands that are able to push through; they refine and tweak their sound and create an improved follow-up release.

Welcome to Cage The Elephant’s sophomore attempt, which I believe is a trek down the road less traveled.  Thank You, Happy Birthday is a different animal (no pun intended) than Cage The Elephant was.  In their debut, I found a band that cultivated a particular sound; an amalgam of 70s, 80s and 90s rock, but did not have the endurance or catalog for an entire record.  The album opened with a fury, but sputtered out halfway through.  In their second release, Cage The Elephant took a more measured approach.

Along with that, they decided to take more chances with their sound, that or more drugs.  Matt Schultz still screams half his vocals and varies his range somewhere between Black Francis and The Joker.1 The album opens with a watery, dream-state sound in “Always Something” and contains other strange tracks like “Indy Kidz,” railing against the television and cultivated look of being “indie.”  If I had to create a moniker for this sound, it would be “circus punk.”

These are balanced out by counterweights of straight forward rock ‘n’ roll songs like “Right Before My Eyes” and my favorite throwback to ‘90s grunge, “Aberdeen.”  “Rubber Ball” slows down the pace of the album, but in an honest childlike way.  “Japanese Buffalo” swings between doo-wop and punk, and then settles into some great ‘50s style rock riffs.  Thank You, Happy Birthday closes out with the mellow “Flow,” a fitting denouement for the emotional journey the listener takes.  This album reminds me a lot of Faith No More’s The Real Thing; not in content but on the roller coaster it takes your consciousness on.

I wasn’t sold on the album fully on my first few listens, but then songs started getting stuck in my head and I’d start drumming my fingers to the imaginary beat.  The only cure was to play the album some more.  Some songs are starting to grow on me, and the album is a step in the right direction by an up and coming band.  I hope their third album is even better and doesn’t go back to Cirque Du So-So.

1.  If anyone ever puts together a music video of a song by “The Arkham Inmates,” they would be sitting on a pile of comedy gold.  My vote would be the Joker on vocals, Mr. Freeze on drums, Two-Face on lead guitar, the Penguin on a parasol-shaped rhythm guitar, and Poison Ivy as the token female bass player.