Showroom of Compassion

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Label: Upbeat Records

How can you not love Cake? Playful funk rhythms, happy-go-lucky nuances, a frontman who bears the posture and presence of a preacher – the inimitable band and its idiosyncrasies galore never fail to crack a smile. Recorded in their Sacramento recording studio – armed with recently installed solar panels – Showroom of Compassion is truly organic in every sense. Though when have they not been? Take the backwoods simplicity of “Bound Away” or the droning blues that ignites “Federal Funding;” Cake defies any pretensions of the many genres they exploit.

It’s 2011 and Cake sounds right at home. Yet chief scribe John McCrea warned us this album – Cake’s first in six years – would be a mild departure from the stripped-down, gloss-free sound we’ve all been used to. Eh, so there’s a touch of reverb here, a drum machine there, a string ballad to wrap up the album. Relax, people, it’s Cake. There will be no qualms in embracing the band’s new speckles of diversity. To start with, “Teenage Pregnancy,” a dark piano number that’s hardly the humdrum snorer it sounds like. An acoustic piano – a rarity for McCrea and his beloved keyboards- trickles over classical, minor-key triads before the band kicks in with tastefully tamed brawn; electric guitar, synth and horn accompaniments suddenly inject the song with the album’s most concentrated moments of adrenaline. The piece weaves and climaxes through emotions to portray the aural experience of its title. “Italian Guy” – that aforementioned string ballad – is the epitome of Cake’s personality transposed into an adept classical composition. Hopefully Cake realize their new prowess and continue to explore other avenues on future releases.

Now that we’ve endorsed the band’s new forays, let’s get to the grind: Showroom of Compassion recalls Cake’s ’90s roots to a T. Guitarist Xan McCurdy and bassist Gabriel Nelson are all about the rolling cowboy licks so prevalent on Fashion Nugget. “Mustache Man” and “Sick of You” find the distinct John McCrea balance of funk rock, noir and laidback rockabilly. Those who crave Cake’s country-rock side, fear not. “Bound Away” is chock full of southern-drawled harmonies and pedal steel guitars, the rootsy ambiance spun with slight ethnic inflections courtesy of Vincent DiFiore’s cornerstone trumpet layers.

Showroom’s highlights are inevitably most in-tune with previous Cake hits. “Sick of You” and “Long Time” sound simultaneously fresh and achingly familiar thanks to distinct bass lines and hooky progressions. You could say they are each a cross between “Never There” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” but the songs are worth so much more than this pale comparison. Perhaps each song’s success is indebted to their blatant themes of parting ways. “It’s been a long time/ Since I’ve seen your smiling face/ It’s been a long time/ Since I’ve seen a sunny day,” McCrea expresses his growing disdain on “Long Time.” “Sick of You” sums up Showroom’s recurring theme even blunter: “I’m so sick of you/ So sick of me/ I don’t want to be with you.” Few artists can turn relational disappointment into such a catchy, upbeat, sing-a-long experience.

Once considered a novelty act, Cake is now a pioneer of its own distinct and untouchable genre. Just as frontman John McCrea had been the constant during Cake’s incessant game of bandmate musical chairs during the ’90s, Cake is contemporary rock’s constant, churning out music that recalls simpler times in such a volatile atmosphere. The musical landscape has changed dramatically since their last album, but Cake still holds its own.

by Jory Spadea

Key Tracks: Long Time, Teenage Pregnancy, Sick of You

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