De­cline of great US rock’n’roll is the ele­phant in the room

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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

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