Cake: Showroom Of Compassion

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When you say, “Six years,” out loud, it doesn’t sound like a long time, especially when you start to get a little bit older. But when you apply it to a life, six years is a long time. Six years ago today, I had a different job, a different girlfriend, a different home – in short, a completely different life. And six years ago today, Cake released Showroom Of Compassion. And they haven’t released anything since. See, six years is a really long time in the life of a rock band, too.

Here’s the thing about trying to review an album by Cake: just write, “it sounds like an album by Cake,” and everyone knows what you mean. This is a band whose one big hit was written by a guy in the band who is neither their regular songwriter nor their lead singer. So you get the casual fan saying, “Oh, yeah? Cake? Good band. I love ‘Going The Distance.’ Great song!” Trouble is, though it’s their most well-known song, it’s not a John McCrea song, so it doesn’t sound like most of their output. That said, if you have someone who has listened to a couple records by the band and has some familiarity, you can just say, “It sounds like a Cake album,” and they’ll nod knowingly. This is good whether you like the band or not because you can immediately make an assessment about whether or not it’s worth your time and money.

That said, Showroom Of Compassion sounds like a Cake album… almost. It sounds like Cake-by-numbers, like someone took all the ingredients, mixed ’em up, but they didn’t all go together quite the way they should. Part of that is because the band attempted to do a couple of things differently on this album while still very much maintaining the idiosyncrasies they’d developed over a fifteen year career. You’ve got a solo piano intro to the instrumental “Teenage Pregancy” that smacks of Beethoven‘s “Moonlight Sonata.” There is a string quartet employed liberally on “Italian Guy” which seems out of place.

I’m not one of these stodgy fans that says, “This is the way this band sounds and how it should always sound and they shouldn’t do anything different, ever!” Some of my favorite bands and artists change things up record to record – Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Crash Test Dummies. No two albums sound the same. But this record still sounds very much like a Cake album, though it seems like there are moments where someone said, “Let’s try to make it sound less like every other album we’ve ever created.” It comes off as a half-hearted effort that only occasionally works. So what we end up with is a Cake album with unexpected guests. And we all know that the wrong guest can ruin the party.

Which is not to say that this album is a ruin. Far from it. I know it seems like I’m hemming-and-hawing quite a bit, but this is a tricky album from a lot of standpoints. I could just say, “Sounds like a Cake album,” and I wouldn’t be wrong and everyone would know what I mean. But it also sounds a little bit off from every other record the band put out previously. They’re a different sounding band to begin with – not many rock bands have a full-time trumpet player who shows up on the majority of their songs –  and with this album, they sound… differenter? Still clearly John McCrea & Co., but maybe with a new head of marketing division.

The album charted at number 1 in the U.S., their only record to do so, but none of the singles off the album charted at all. My guess is that Cake fans had been waiting almost seven years since ’04’s Pressure Chief and so they bought up the new release as soon as it hit shelves. I know I did. But it’s only just now, six years later, in preparation for writing this review that I’ve gotten to know the album well. I like it. It’s got everything I like about Cake’s music: McCrea’s laconic, sardonic delivery, heavy walking bass throughout, sparse instrumentation, a capable but unobtrusive drummer, lyrics that seem more like sketches than fully formed ideas. But then we’ve got piano and string quartets so after half a dozen listens, something still seems slightly off.

My favorite moment on the whole record is the segue from “Bound Away” to “The Winter” where, if you’re not listening closely, you can be excused for mistaking the latter for a continuation of the former. And this is a really specific moment – it’s about ten seconds toward the end of the album – and it’s not particularly Cake-like. But it is brilliant.

So the point I made to open the second paragraph still stands: It sounds like a Cake album, so you already know what it sounds like. I just wanted to let you know it sounds a little different from every other Cake album you’ve heard, too.

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