Cage The Elephant - Unpeeled

by Mark Moody Rating:7 Release Date:2017-07-28

After four studio albums with plenty of hook filled songs it’s not out of the realm of reason for a band to put forth a hits album or live release. Cage the Elephant take the tack of a live acoustic recording put together over several dates in the U.S. Not only acoustic, but also with a string section in tow which ultimately proves to be the deciding factor here. If you’ve seen the band live you are well aware of the unbridled energy of Matt Schultz and frankly the band in general. So I was a bit concerned that the format would be a constraint and tamp down the energy level. I felt that even more so when I saw the video of the first single, a cover of an old Wreckless Eric song, ‘Whole Wide World’. The song itself sounded fine, but Schultz, even in the liveliest moments, looked like a man ready to jump out of his skin and take it a notch further. However, on balance the approach produces a lot of worthy renditions of their songs and several tracks really shine.

Not surprisingly over the course of 21(!) songs there are winners, losers, and the ones that just don’t sound that different from the studio recordings. The production quality is great throughout and crowd noise is not intrusive at all, so at a minimum this works as a greatest hits package and the band has plenty of solid songs to bear that up. Honestly, given the strength of their songs you could probably record with a German oom-pah band and come up with something worth listening to.

On the front of songs that just don’t sound that different from the original tracks, there is a threesome near the end of the album that epitomize that – ‘Come A Little Closer’, ‘Back Against the Wall’, and ‘Cigarette Daydreams’ are all great songs, but the casual listener probably wouldn’t notice much difference side by side. While the ones that just don’t work so well just fall flat in the format – ‘Whole Wide World’ is the best of the covers, with ‘Instant Crush’ and ‘Golden Brown’ being interesting choices but not resulting in much. Their own songs are so much sturdier than these and ultimately these just aren’t salvageable. Only a few of their own tracks suffer from the treatment.

However, when the format shines it shines bright. Essentially, the strings serve to supplant the lead guitar and there are a handful of tracks where the orchestra fires on all cylinders, as if to say if you’re going to take us away from Brahms for the day let’s make this count guys. ‘Shake Me Down’, ‘Trouble’, and ‘Aberdeen’ are all stunning renditions of those powerful songs. ‘Shake Me Down’ and ‘Aberdeen’ are given a psychedelic swirl that absolutely works while ‘Trouble’ rocks as hard as the original but in a stripped down format. ‘Aberdeen’ is a very compact track but Schultz gives his most impassioned vocals and the orchestra is right there with him. Even more inspired than those faster paced tracks are the handful of ballads that sparkle more than the original tracks. ‘Telescope’ and ‘How Are You True’ are gorgeous renditions of those songs – sincerely and sweetly sung and showing vulnerability that may have been not so obvious in the original versions. It’s worth it to hang in for the final track ‘Right Before My Eyes’ to hear a song totally reconstructed from the original and benefit from it – a mid-tempo rocker turned into a beautiful ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounding ballad with soaring strings and gently strummed guitar.

Ultimately, the string arrangements are what make or break these versions of the songs – whether sawing away full bore or softly accenting a ballad – the extremes to either end win out here. The band has more than its fair share of hits scattered over four studio albums that this release is warranted and the hits are worth the misses when all you can really complain about on the latter is they don’t necessarily get any better than what they already were. A problem that most bands could only wish for and a totally deserved diversion for the Schultz brothers and company.   

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