Monday, September 22, 2014

CD Odyssey Disc 666: Cake

Given the number of this next review, I would have loved to have rolled a Black Sabbath album or maybe some Robert Johnson, but it was not to be.

Disc 666 is…. Showroom of Compassion
Artist: Cake

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover?  For Cake covers this is pretty involved – they usually just put some graphic drawing on a manila background and call it a day. The flourish of line art adds a touch of class to this image of a tiger mauling a young child.

How I Came To Know It:  I’ve been a Cake fan for years, and this was just me buying their newest album when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have seven Cake albums, which I believe is all of them. I enjoyed “Showroom of Compassion” but it still came in 6th out of 7 albums. I like all of Cake’s albums so it isn’t a slight.

Rating: 3 stars

A great bass line can go a long way, but you’ve got to work some new tricks on that old dog as well if you want to keep making good records fifteen years into a music career. Cake demonstrates ably on “Showroom of Compassion” that they can do both and for the most part, do it well.

“Showroom” is largely standard Cake fare, featuring the ironically detached but strangely magnetic singing of John McCrea and generally funky bass licks from Gabe Nelson. Trumpet flourishes and basic guitar riffs are the icing on the…er…cake. The whole thing comes together nicely for a band who has long since figured out what they do, and now focus on doing it well.

The bass is particularly sweet on “Long Time” and “Moustache Man (Wasted)” where it makes everything else work. I’m not one for noticing the bass that often, but Cake really draws your attention there and makes it worth the visit. “Moustache Man” has a very similar construction to their 2001 song “Comfort Eagle.” This is unfortunate, because “Comfort Eagle” is the better track, and hearing it echoing in the background took away some of the fun I had with the new song.

Better is “Sick of You” an up-tempo sequel to “Take It All Away” their angry break up song from 2004’s “Pressure Chief” (reviewed back at Disc 431). McCrea’s bleak delivery is the perfect approach to a song about how everything you like about someone can become the very things you hate about them in the end. This can be an artist, a leader or a lover in equal measure; nothing breeds contempt like familiarity, after all.

The short instrumental “Teenage Pregnancy” attempts to create a musical caesura halfway through the album, but just drags the energy down. I found the track very – wait for it – unwanted. Bands take note – you don’t always need a pause midway through your album. Momentum can be a good thing.

In the second half of the album the band tries a few twists on their sound, to varying degrees of success. “Bound Away” is a cross between barroom swing and a sea shanty, but despite it being a good song, McCrae doesn’t have the crooner’s soul to pull it off. I’d love to hear Tom Waits or even Mark Knopfler tackle this one instead, but they’re busy writing their own great stuff these days.

The Winter” is an introspective folk song, where the bass riff is traded in for a sparse piano piece. This song shouldn’t work for McCrae’s style either, but this time it somehow does. By singing higher in his range his detachment becomes a bit more desperate, which is what a breakup song like “The Winter” calls for. Also the lyrics here are the strongest on the album:

“The winter's chill chilled me to the bone this year
And something in my mind just got away
Being in the places where we used to be
Somehow being there without you's not the same.

“Parking lots, office parks and shopping malls
And all you left were bills you hadn't paid.
The winter's chill chilled me to the bone this year
And something in my mind just got away.”

I love that the places that they used to be are all big, emotionally empty places like parking lots and shopping malls. It is the loneliness of being surrounded by people who don’t give a damn why you look so sad. Instead, they just push past you on the way to their own business. That's a chilly truth, regardless of the weather.

Cake is known for doing innovative covers of old standards. The entry for “Showroom” is the Sinatra classic “What’s Now is Now.” The key to this song, is capturing the right mix of heroism and resignation – two people who’ve done bad things to one another, but still willing to start fresh. Cake captures the paradox perfectly, and adds a nice modern funk to it as well. I prefer the Sinatra version, but that doesn’t make Cake’s effort any less good.

Indie music is pretty diverse – there’s indie versions of folk, pop, rock. Cake is on the rock side of the equation but is also a fairly close approximation to indie funk. They throw in a lot of the other genres on “Showroom of Compassion” as well. While they didn’t blow me away with creativity, for the most part it works out well for them. I wouldn’t start your Cake collection with this record, but I wasn’t disappointed with it either.

Best tracks: Federal Funding, Long Time, Moustache Man (Wasted), Sick of You, The Winter

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