The good news, Cake fans, is that the band is still up to its old tricks. The bad news is, it feels like bad news.
“Showroom of Compassion
” is the Sacramento band’s first studio work in six years. The title of the set itself reeks of the usual, dry sarcasm perpetuated by John McCrea and his crew; its cover features a fierce-eyed tiger attacking a human. I see what you did there.
But irony is blunted by joylessness. In between the signature whoops and “heys” from McCrea’s speak-singing yaw are lyrics of droll disenchantment -- of coughing cars in “Easy to Crash,” L.A. hipsters, goobers of “Italian Guy” and the politicos of “Federal Funding.” The interplay between mariachi brass arrangements, and mechanical, frills-free drums are punctuated with the cute dots of vibraslap or cheap keyboard sounds, like those on “Long Time” and “harpsicord” in “Italian Guy.” Same thing with ominous instrumental “Teenage Pregnancy,” as an elementary piano line gives way to an obnoxious retelling of that same line on a plunky keyboard. It’s not a story, it’s a diversion.
The band even seems to make fun of – and pull punches – on itself in single “Sick of You.” “I’m so sick of you / so sick of me / I don’t want to be with you” the lead-in to the thin, conclusive chorus line “I want to fly away” (so you… just want to fly?). It lacks the upbeat ascent or any ounce of fun that previous hits like “Wheels,” “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” and their cover of “I Will Survive” boasted.
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Similar to previous album “Pressure Chief” on songs like “No Phone,” this album doesn’t want to take itself too seriously as it sharply requests you get off its lawn.
A few bright spots somewhat emerge, though they’re not always feel-good. “Federal Funding” really does capture a common American sentiment that the people of the “government” are mostly only interested in putting additions on their houses and granting their donating constituents government money. Its sung in McCrea’s grayest voice, an opinion delivered non-coincidentally in a folk/slave song structure.
“What’s Now Is Now,” highlights thoughtful, excellent arrangements, with the acoustic guitar line pushed way out front of what sounds like a dozen reverbed instruments. The 7th harmonies – a vocal trick Rufus Wainwright so frequently, delightfully dabbles -- ring out with success. “Mustache Man (Wasted)” features a funky electric bass part that sounds like it returned from the ‘70s to report what it’s found. McRae seems to struggle singing (not clipped talk-singing) his own lines, chipping into the overall polish that dominates this set... but in a good way.
“Showroom’s” only truly country-esque song “Bound Away” is skillfully cobbled together in the same way that Beck did his on “Odelay.” (Both artists burst mainstream alt-rockin the ‘90s, but only one seemed to learn drastic new tricks.)
There’s nothing truly surprising off of this album, which is one of the pluses and minuses of having played in the same band for two decades. And with six years in completing this one, some over-thinking may have occurred. But over-thinking is precisely why this group of grumpy nerds gained its following to begin with – a case of the tiger eating its own tail