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Showroom of Compassion

(Upbeat; US: 11 Jan 2011; UK: Import)

Maybe it was the right time for Cake to take a break. Their last album of new material, 2004’s Pressure Chief was a solid effort that nonetheless found the band sounding a little tired. Dropping out of sight just as “indie-rock” was truly replacing “alternative” in the modern rock lexicon seems, in retrospect, like perfect timing. In the interim, we’ve seen the rise of the “Alternative Gold” format on both satellite and now terrestrial radio, which mines Gen X-er’s nostalgia for the ‘90s. When Cake’s ‘90s singles like “The Distance” and “Never There” show up on those stations, they don’t sound like anybody else, and it’s refreshing. The band’s minor hit “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” has been repurposed as the theme song to the tv show Chuck, now in its fourth season. It seems like a good time for the band to remind us that they’re still around.

Showroom of Compassion‘s lead single “Sick of You” has gone a long way towards doing that. It’s a song that skillfully deploys all of the elements that Cake usually mixes together into one catchy package. It’s a loping, mid-tempo track that mixes a funk bassline with country-inspired guitar work and frontman John McCrea’s trademark fuzzed-out acoustic guitar. Meanwhile Vince DiFiore trades off between bursts of trumpet and catchy synth accompaniments. McCrea alternately sings and speaks of his own self-loathing and the annoyances of his significant other. There’s also some vibraslap in there as well as gang-shouted echoes from the rest of the band. It sounds exactly like you’d expect Cake to sound, but they still don’t sound like anything else out there right now.

The rest of the album makes the band sound re-energized, even though they aren’t really doing anything different from what they’ve always done. “Federal Funding” opens the album with one of McCrea’s somewhat arcane target songs. In the past he’s deflated mook-rockers like Fred Durst (“Comfort Eagle”) and he took on hipsters way before the term was even coined (‘94’s “Rock’n'Roll Lifestyle”). But he’s also needled opera singers and 18th century European barons (“Opera Singer” and “Commissioning a Symphony in C”) for no apparent reason. “Federal Funding” seems to take on corporate fatcats, but does it in a bit of a tuneless way. The song has a decent beat, but utterly fails to make the chorus “You’ll receive the federal funding / You can add another wing” catchy. After that problematic opening, though, things get back on track with “Long Time.” Bassist Gabe Nelson and drummer Paulo Baldi lock in on a great groove while DiFiore’s synth line drives the song behind McCrea’s melancholy lyrics.

The country-style “Got to Move” returns to the melancholy side of McCrea, as he realizes a lover is no longer interested in him, and maybe hasn’t ever been. The album’s other full-on country number is the great waltz “Bound Away”. It’s a back-on-the-road song based in airports, as McCrea reflects on life in a touring band. There’s a jaunty trumpet solo, perfectly placed pedal steel guitar, and a nice use of tambourine. Showroom‘s deepest groove comes courtesy of “Mustache Man (Wasted)”, which features a danceable bassline and a drum part that borders on classic disco. Guitar, trumpet, and synth flourishes abound, including a great solo from guitarist Xan McCurdy. Even the album’s instrumental “Teenage Pregnancy” works well. Opening with a straight piano line instead of synths, the song allows the listener to focus on the interplay between the instruments instead of the lyrics. Which doesn’t mean that McCrea’s voice is absent. He can be heard in the background shouting and exhorting the band, much as he’s done on past Cake jams. Musically, the song swirls from thumping minor-key rock to a circus-style organ bit. It’s strange, but it works well here.

Showroom of Compassion will fit in well with the rest of Cake’s catalog. The band hasn’t changed up their sound at all, but it feels fresh again. The one song that adds new elements here is album-closer “Italian Guy”, which makes heavy use of harpsichord, a string quartet, and what sounds like a euphonium. And yet the song still sounds sparsely arranged compared to the rest of the album because the drums and bass lay back, playing minimal accompaniment. While rock radio has continued to support various forms of lunkheaded guitar rock since we last heard from Cake, the indie music scene has expanded substantially over the last few years. Surprisingly, both genres seem to have ample room for Cake under their umbrella.


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