Seven Years in Heaven: The Return of CAKE

Showroom of Compassion
Independent Upbeat

Seven years is an eternity in the world of music. In 2004 Phish “retired,” Ashlee Simpson lip-synced, Britney and K-Fed got hitched, and Gorilla vs. Bear was just a cool-sounding cage match. That year was also, for all intents and purposes, the last time we heard from CAKE, the sardonic rock outfit known for catchy, crunchy numbers like “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” and “The Distance.” Other than some tours and a 2007 B-sides compilation, the group’s last blip on the radar was 2004’s modestly-received Pressure Chief.

A lot has changed in a musical landscape since then. Thanks to the accelerated news cycle, on-the-cusp bands can blow up or burn out in a matter of weeks; the phrase “buying music,” meanwhile, pretty much provokes laughter from anyone under the age of 30. With the impending release of sixth album Showroom for Compassion, CAKE’s extended hiatus raises the question of whether the Sacramento quartet can hold the same relevance it did a decade ago. What happens now that these quirkily off-the-grid underdogs have evolved into grizzled rock-scene veterans?

Since their 1994 debut with Motorcade of Generosity, CAKE has always been a study in juxtapositions. Unabashedly melodic and dance-friendly, with crisp guitar licks, punchy bass, and a bevy of funky Moogs and trumpets, the band’s upbeat tunes are belied by some deceivingly cynical sentiments. (Case in point: “Sheep Go To Heaven,” whose jubilant hook and skipping rhythms slyly hide McCrea’s downright downtrodden lyrics about how he’s “not going to smile today.”)

From the start, CAKE has etched out its place as alt-rock’s black sheep: too cutting and tongue-in-cheek for top-40, yet largely indifferent about – and even dismissive of – the too-cool-for-school indie heads. “How much did you spend on your black leather jacket?” John McCrea sneers on their snide first single “Rock N’Roll Lifestyle,” with a hint of a wink. You’re never quite sure whether to take CAKE at face value. Satire or sincerity…which one is it?

Trumpet player Vince DiFiore, acknowledges that CAKE has frequently felt as though it has had its feet planted in different doors of the music scene. “I suppose we can be off-putting at times, maybe because we don’t pander so much,” he says, pausing quizzically. “To be honest, I have no idea – I’m trying to stay as confused as possible about it, and just be grateful that people are listening to us,” DiFiore says.

A touch more subdued than past albums, Showroom doesn’t try as hard to mask its melancholy, boasting a fair share of ballads and midtempo tracks, from the delicate “Got To Move” to the pedal-steel country of “Bound Away.” There are also more instrumental codas, and psychedelia-tinged experiments like album opener “Federal Funding,” which finds DiFiore multi-tracking trumpet, tuba, sax, and euphonium.

Before naysayers start piping in about all the slow songs, let it be known that CAKE still revs up the BPMs on riffy numbers such as “Moustache Man,” and generally displays a steadfast resolve not to tinker with its formula too much. The first single off of Showroom “Sick of You,” sounds like a long-lost cousin to “Italian Leather Sofa” and “Shadow Stabbing,” while DiFiore unleashes a furious torrent of brass on the intense funk march of “A Long Time.”

Showroom was written, rehearsed and recorded at CAKE’s entirely solar-powered studio in Sacramento, which they converted back in early 2008 after realizing how easy it was to do. For an environmentally conscious band known for giving away a tree at every concert, there’s also the bonus of selling the studio’s surplus electricity back to Sacramento for upwards of $25 a month. “That’s good to have in the back pocket,” DiFiore says with a chuckle.

The solar studio is not the only new direction for CAKE: Showroom represents the outfit’s first studio effort on its own independent Upbeat Records label. The move was prompted by band members’ perhaps unsurprising desire to manage their career on their own terms, from marketing and distribution to the simple freedom of being able to wait seven years between albums. “As an established group, we figured a label wasn’t going to help us sell any more records than we could by ourselves,” DiFiore says. “We wanted to have more ownership over what we’re doing.”

It has taken 17 years for CAKE to travel from its Motorcade of Generosity to the Showroom of Compassion and the structural similarity of the kindness-related titles is no coincidence. “This album and our debut were the only two times when we were really on our own, with no help from a record label,” DiFiore says. “It feels like we’ve gone full-circle, as a band without an time table or pressure from anybody to succeed. There’s absolute autonomy to do what we want artistically.”

The band’s upcoming national tour runs January through June, with dates at the Fillmore in San Francisco and Terminal 5 in New York. And over the summer, the band even plans to resurrect its Unlimited Sunshine Tour, which has featured such eclectic artists as De La Soul, the Flaming Lips and Gogol Bordello. Whatever happens next, suffice to say, will all be done at CAKE’s own pace. “With an album like Showroom, you can throw it out like a fistful of sand, or you can really nurture it,” DiFiore says. “My goal is to truly enjoy the moment of creating music with the guys around me.”