Decline of great US rock’n’roll is the elephant in the room
THERE WAS A big kerfuffle back in early January when Showroom of Compassion, by a band with the wonderful name of Cake, went to No 1 in the US album charts with the lowest number of copies ever sold – 44,000. Cue the usual “it’s the end of the music business as we know it” hand-wringing features, but this historical footnote happened during a sales period (the middle two weeks of January) that is traditionally the worst retail period of the entire year.
With all the attention on Cake’s infamous record-setting, the band that hit No 2 the same week went virtually unnoticed. Kentucky’s Cage the Elephant are a young five-piece from the alt end of the rock spectrum. Their new release, Thank You, Happy Birthday, also went straight to No 1 on iTunes’s Top 10 album downloads on the day of its US release in early January.
Described by Rolling Stone as “one of rock’s best young bands”, Cage the Elephant are in the vanguard of the nu-grunge movement, which has seen a predominantly white cohort react to a predominantly black rap and r’n’b sound by reaching for their guitars and playing like it’s Seattle in the early 1990s.
US rock music has been in crisis for well over a decade, but the underground names now bubbling up to the surface are all refining that trademark punk-meshedwith-metal sound to launch a new guitar assault on the mainstream.
Already big noises in the US – as in the most promising rock band for a long, long time – Cage the Elephant will announce themselves in Europe this week with the release of their album. Expect lead singer Matthew Shultz to draw plenty of Kurt Cobain comparisons because of his striking physical resemblance to the Nirvana singer and his common musical influences (Pixies, Neil Young), although he tells me Bow Wow Wow and Edith Piaf are his current faves, which is always a good sign in a musician.
If US rock’n’roll is to be saved, it’s a tall ask. There’s always been a debilitating strain of “heartland rock” running through the genre. When grunge did manifest itself in the 1990s, the centre just couldn’t hold as the mainstream swooped down to engulf it, sadly leading to the egregious nu-metal movement. Papa Roach and Puddle of Mudd strode the globe and Limp Bizkit were (as unbelievable as it sounds now) the biggest band on the planet.
Since then it’s been all emo and retro-garage rock. With Americans never really specialising in indie-rock, only The National has slipped through from that quarter.
Because US labels are now only signing rap and r’n’b acts – along with the odd country-rock/pop act in the wake of the massive success of Lady Antebellum – the new rock sound is currently confined to clubs, independent labels and ye olde physical print run zines. The stars are underground, listening to Pixies records and getting ready this year to go once more unto the breach. I predict a riot.
Cage the Elephant: unpretentious rock