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Cage the Elephant

Thank You Happy Birthday


Buy if you like: The Von Bondies, Paper Tongues

What a difference a few years make. Cage the Elephant's self-titled debut album, first released in 2008, was a critical and commercial success, but it was also a one-trick pony that, in its laziest moments, came across as a Red Hot Chili Peppers or Butthole Surfers retread. Thank You Happy Birthday takes a quantum lurch forward. Matt Shultz's vocals are consistently more expressive, guitar parts more inventive, the overall arrangements punchier and less predictable. Lyrically, the album is smarter, if not exactly happier: "From the goodness of your heart, you save him from the flood / A couple miles down the road, he's covered in your blood / It's always something." And yet the music, especially on anthemic pop gems like "Aberdeen" and "Right Before My Eyes," makes it all strangely uplifting. Cage's newfound freedom is definitely a surprise worth celebrating. — Bill Forman


David Banner & 9th Wonder

Death of a Pop Star

b.i.G.f.a.c.e. / Entertainment One

Buy if you like: Common, Big Remo

This full-length collaboration between Southern rapper David Banner and in-demand producer 9th Wonder is less about the death of a pop star (i.e., Michael Jackson) than the parting of the soul from current hip-hop. Based on individual track records, 9th Wonder's preservationist past makes him more suited to the task, but Banner steps up his game here, trading his gangsta lean for a more conscious stream. See, for instance, "The Light" ("Started livin' for money / Yeah, most of us did / Rappers turning to singers / Preachers touching the kids"). Or the strange-fruit sentiment of "Diamonds on My Pinky" ("I'm from Mississippi / Where you let your nuts hang / And where the white folks let my ancestors do the same"). 9th Wonder's production, along with standout vocal contributions from Heather Victoria, Erykah Badu and Lisa Ivey, adds further musical resonance, making this one of the most seriously soulful albums in recent memory. — Bill Forman



Showroom of Compassion

Upbeat Records

Buy if you like: Soul Coughing, Cracker

Ahhh, Cake. We sort of missed you, but then again, you're not quite back. Showroom of Compassion, your first album in seven years, is a little less funky and a little more trance-y than the Cake we consumed in the past. It's still kinda groovy, though, even if it doesn't ooze the hipness of "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," "The Distance," "Never There" or your resuscitation of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." "Sick of You" offers bites of the old Cake, with harmonies, mariachi horn, staccato-gun guitar and that telephone-transmission call with shouted response. And you do bring some funk to "Mustache Man (Wasted)," with up-front bass and a street-chaos ending. But the most affecting song is the anomalously acoustic "Bound Away," your life-on-the-road trip, with its echoes of "I Wish I Was in Dixie" and your irony-dripping lyric, "My plastic utensil has broken in half." For your weary plight, we offer ... compassion. — Lynne Margolis

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