The Cake is one of the few late-‘60s albums worthy of the oft-bestowed title of “lost classic.”
The story of the three young women who made up the Cake is quintessential 1960s pop. Coming together in New York in 1966, the trio of Eleanor Barooshian, Jeanette Jacobs and Barbara Morillo had already found a bit of notoriety within the city’s Greenwich Village clubs, Jacobs and Morillo having worked together as an a cappella duo at the Scene. Barooshian, on the other hand, had found a bit of underground fame after having appeared alongside Tiny Tim, footage of which later appeared in the scene-documenting film You Are What You Eat. Within a year, they had been swooped off to Los Angeles to begin work on their debut album for Decca with producer Jack Nitzsche at the helm and Harold Battiste providing arrangements.
“Baby That’s Me” (written by Nitzsche and Jackie De Shannon) uncannily apes the iconic Wall of Sound to the point where it sounds like the greatest song the Ronettes never recorded. Had it come out three or four years prior, it would’ve no doubt been a stone-cold classic. But, having come out in 1967, after Spector’s stable of starlets had largely fallen out of favor as pop music moved ahead into more experimental directions thanks to the Wall of Sound’s influence on groups like the Beatles and the Beach Boys and their subsequent influence on all of pop music, it went nowhere.
Written by one Malcolm Rebennack, aka Dr. John, with whom Barooshian (later going by Chelsea Lee) and Jacobs would later work after also contributing backing vocals on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and touring with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, “World of Dreams” follows a similarly bombastic tact. But here it sounds a bit more like the Shangri-Las put through the Spector sonic spectrum courtesy of Nitzsche’s spot-on aural homage. “You Can Have Him” gamely rounds out the girl-group sounds portion of the album, it’s gamely loping melodic kiss-off at once a fine example of classic girl group pop while upping the lyrical game, allowing the female protagonist the upper hand.
The album’s next section is its most musically adventurous and also the most of its time (1967) as the trio venture into psychedelic/baroque folk pop. What’s decidedly not of its time, however, is that the three songs delivered in this very 1967-sounding style were written by Jacobs and Morillo. “Medieval Love” starts out with a bit of faux-orchestral tuning before embarking on a clarinet-led bit of chamber music, it’s melody decidedly baroque and with a wistful minor-key part that flirts with a round-like structure. It’s almost like an unsettling children’s rhyme delivered via ‘60s psychedelia (“There’s gypsy blood in my veins/ But the king took me in just the same”). “Fire Fly” is easily the catchiest of the three psychedelic offerings, it’s singsong chorus an unquestionable ear worm that will stick in the listener’s head for days afterward, while the verses show off the trio’s deft vocal interplay.
“Rainbow Wood” is a disorienting bit of medieval-sounding psychedelia, complete with “Eleanor Rigby”-strings, swirling harpsichord (doubled by the return of the clarinets to dizzying effect), and yet another singsong-y melody that helps illustrate the writing chops of the group. It’s little wonder, then, that for their sophomore release, 1968’s A Slice of the Cake, the band would not only do the lion’s share of the album’s writing but also veer almost entirely into the baroque/psychedelic chamber pop represented by the second half of their debut’s first side. This would also prove to be the group’s final outing, having found little in the way of success and parting ways by the end of 1968, a mere two years after their formation.
But before all that, The Cake has a third and final stylistic digression to offer, with the band venturing into straight-up soul pop territory with five covers that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the set of any number of frat house bands of the day. Tackling tracks like “Mockingbird,” “Stand by Me” and “What’d I Say,” they gamely show off their vocal chops while also turning The Cake into a surprising party record for its second side (made all the more so by Battiste’s fantastically driving arrangements). From a purely stylistic standpoint, the move doesn’t make much sense given the album’s first half.
But it’s nonetheless an enjoyable set of tunes from an undeniably talented group of performers who were never properly given their due, making The Cake one of the few late-‘60s albums worthy of the oft-bestowed title of “lost classic.” Stylistically schizophrenic in the best way possible (dig “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” on the album’s second side for a killer bit of dirty R&B to along with everything else on offer here), The Cake should be mandatory listening for fans of ‘60s pop in all its myriad incarnations.