Seventeen years. Six albums. That’s how long we’ve known Cake. It has been seven long years since their fifth effort “Pressure Chief” came out, and it feels like longer. They may have tried to keep fans satisfied with a couple EPs and a b-sides collection, but for the die hard fan, that stuff was just a poor substitute for new Cake material. Why they’ve kept us waiting this long seems to be a mystery, save for John McCrea’s pretentious explanation of the band trying to “detach from the subjective and move into the objective”. In simpler terms, it seems the guys were taking a long, hard look at their past records and where they were as a band, and then trying to unlearn the habits they had fallen into to try and obtain a new and different perspective. A few years off and away from making music probably helps in working towards that ultimate goal. The fruits of their efforts will be revealed next week in the form of “Showroom of Compassion”, an album that’s less a redefining of the band and more a wildly refreshed and forward-thinking version of them.
Have you heard “Showroom of Compassion”‘s first single “Sick of You” yet? You can stream it online or just turn on your local alternative rock radio station for awhile and hopefully they’ll play it. One listen to that track and you’re automatically re-introduced to Cake like they never left. It’s the sort of catchy and fun song that has made for some of the band’s best and most popular singles, though they probably haven’t had a song this good since the 90s. To all the young kids that haven’t heard albums like “Fashion Nugget” or “Motorcade of Generosity”, this is the sort of greatness you’ve been missing. For those of us that grew up knowing and loving Cake, here’s a singular reason to love Cake again. In terms of defining Cake’s sound, “Sick of You” is a perfect example, and a great testament to why they haven’t needed to change their game plan in 17 years. McCrea does his talk-sing vocals, gets all snarky about relationships, the electric guitar has just the right amount of fuzz on it as it rambles up and down octaves, the horn plays around a little, and all the other guys in the band do their trademark spoken-word backing shouts. Quintessential Cake, but interestingly enough, it’s one of the only moments on the record that is.
“Showroom of Compassion” opener “Federal Funding” gets the record off to an innocuous start, putting a hotly psychedelic spin on your traditional Cake model as the guitar swirl, the drums hint at Ringo Starr on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and the horns play it cool and understated. The title of the song is not deceptive in the least, as McCrea bemoans government bailouts of absurdly rich executives and companies. On “Long Time”, McCrea stretches his seemingly limited singing voice to lengths he normally doesn’t go to, which is interesting to say the least. The buzzing, Mates of State-ish keyboard and vocal harmonies work quite well too, even if there is a very standard horn and bass solo mid-way through the track. If Cake were to ever make a full-on legitimate 60s AM pop song, it’d sound a whole lot like “What’s Now Is Now”, with a dense collection of instruments that include both electric and acoustic guitars along with some keyboard and mellotron. The vocal harmonies are highly impressive, and though the song is mid-tempo, it’s bright as all daylight, even incorporating some chirping birds towards the end. At the mid point of the album is “Teenage Pregnancy”, an instrumental that starts out as a slow piano ballad before taking a decidedly darker turn with some grimy guitar work, ominous horns and creepy circus keyboards. It’s most definitely one of the most interesting things on “Showroom of Compassion”. A song like “Easy to Crash” can appear to be an almost standard, Cake-on-autopilot track, but closer examination reveals a few subtle elements that take it beyond that level. The verses may not have much worth paying attention to, but keep a careful ear out for the sounds of cars driving down a highway. The power in this song really lies in two parts – the chorus, which is ridiculously well constructed and anthemic, and the bridge, which features a great Krautrock-inspired instrumental portion. It’s this care and deeper display of influences that’s pushing this band forwards even when they may not always sound like it. And hey, do you like alt-country? John McCrea has made note recently of how he’s grown fond of the genre, and “Bound Away”, the acoustic ballad dosed with slide guitar, is his tribute to it. Who knows what the reaction would be if they tried to do an entire country-tinged record, but as a singular moment on the new album, it’s kinda nice as just a general shake-up from everything else. If you’ve never heard a Cake song begin with piano and violins before, closing track “Italian Guy” has you covered. There’s even a touch of harpsichord (more likely keyboard imitation harpsichord) amid what’s otherwise a pretty sparsely arranged song and possibly the greatest example of today’s Cake vs. the pre-2011 Cake. There’s really not much more of a fitting way to end the record.
Perhaps taking seven years between albums was the best thing Cake has ever done. No, that doesn’t mean “Showroom of Compassion” is their best record, but it does come really damn close. What you really come away with courtesy of this new album is a renewed sense of what made this band so attractive in the first place. It’s a back to basics record but in a 2.0 form. They have rebuilt themselves. Better. Stronger. Faster than before. They’re showing much more range, both in the instruments they use and where John McCrea takes his vocals. They’re lightly dabbling with genre as well, but never to the point where the Cake essentials fully disappear. If you loved Cake before, there’s nothing here that will take that love away. If you’ve only kind of liked the band but thought they showed limited range, now’s the time to look again. And if you’ve always kind of despised Cake, well, you’ll still despise them. Mostly it’s just a pleasure to have them back again and in great form. Let’s hold out hope they stay that way.