When Cake hit the scene more than a decade and a half ago, I was firmly in the not-impressed camp. John McCrea’s deadpan, atonal vocals left me cold, and the horns felt like a gimmick. They kept at it, though, and gained some critical notice. Like many bands that refused to cater to whatever the flavor-of-the-month style was, they eventually faded from high profile. But in 2011 the group returned with Showroom of Compassion, their sixth studio album.
And it’s not bad. McCrea hasn’t really grown as a singer – he does what he does, basically – but his delivery seems somehow warmer and more assured than in the early days. The band’s understated playing moves the songs along without truly calling attention to the instrumentation. Midtempo grooves like “Long Time” are appealing, and while that damn trumpet is still in the mix, it too is less grating than it once was. (Maybe I’m mellowing with age, but I doubt it.)
Cake still engages in a stylist grab-bag, throwing their genre influences into a musical blender and hitting the frappe button. Trip-hop and hip-hop beats propel the songs, and sampled (or sampled-sounding) instrumentation drifts in and out of the mix. Production is typically dry, giving Showroom of Compassion a recorded-in-the-living-room vibe.
“What’s Now is Now” is a hooky offering, full of the same world-weary yet smart-alecky sort of lyrics that Cake has always delivered. Some subtle analog synth – we’re talking dialed-back Greg Hawkes rather than Rick Wakeman here – adds some needed melodic interest to the sparely-arranged songs.
“Mustache Man (Wasted)” offers up a fuzzy lead guitar riff and a 70s feel that recalls ZZ Top or “Cisco Kid” era War. And some vocal harmonies leaven the surfeit of McCrea vocals (which, it must be said, begin to grate halfway into the disc…if not sooner). But again with the trumpet!
“Teenage Pregnancy” starts off with a half minute of living-room piano recital styled piano, soon joined by keyboards from the Casio school of sonic approaches. The instrumental is pretty well a keyboard (and trumpet, of course) showcase.
Seven tracks in, the band delivers what might be a Cake-take on the Rolling Stones, with a guitar riff, um, “inspired” by the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” With horns, and not the ones from “Got to Get You Into My Life.” If McCrea considered skipping the spoken vocal delivery technique on Showroom of Compassion (here’s betting he didn’t), here’s where he gave in.
Oddly, the album improves as it modestly chugs along. The songs get better, the arrangements improve, and the thing actually (almost) rocks. It’s hard to know if the country pastiche “Bound Away” is a piss-take or a heartfelt homage to the style. And in fact that uncertainty is a central source of perplexity when it comes to Cake: are they laughing at – or with – the listener? Either way, for those who dig the singular approach of the band, there’s plenty to like on Showroom of Compassion. Unless, of course, you hate trumpets.
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