Music

Cake: Showroom of Compassion

Cake sounds re-energized here despite doing the same things they've always done. Maybe that six-year break between new albums was something we all needed.


Cake

Showroom of Compassion

Label: Upbeat
US Release Date: 2011-01-11
UK Release Date: Import
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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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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

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Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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