After a nearly seven-year hiatus from music, Cake returns with a self-released album recorded and produced entirely on solar power. That may seem like a strange enviro-political statement coming from a band whose past hits were about a guy pursuing a girl (“The Distance”) and unrealistic yet true-to-life standards in women (“Short Skirt Long Jacket”). Nevertheless, on Showroom of Compassion, lead singer John McCrea sounds much more outspoken than he has in the past.
The truth, however, is that the band has been quite politically vocal over the past six years. The news section of cakemusic.com contains, ironically, very little news about the band’s music; rather, it’s riddled with political news, personal philosophies, and tips on eating well and going green. Though this probably isn’t radical to some, by Cake’s standards it is, and it most certainly has had an effect on the band’s music. In the past, even when they were talking politics, on songs like “Carbon Dioxide”, there was something very tongue-in-cheek about it; something quintessentially Cake.
For better or worse, that’s all gone completely on Showroom. For the most part, the mood of each song neatly accompanies the subject matter of the lyrics, often of a political nature, like on the single “Federal Funding”. Even when the musical and lyrical moods don’t exactly line up though, the result is never a quirky, endearing wit as found on much of 1998’s Prolonging the Magic. I chalk much of this up to McCrea’s lyrics. Something about his writing on many of Showroom’s song isn’t as immediately accessible as fans. Nevertheless, there are certain moments that jump out and grab you. “Easy to Crash” spends a verse naming seemingly unrelated occupations (School teachers, bakers, bankers, congressmen, stargazers, stock brokers, singers, dancers, and architects) in a specific order, and it works perfectly.
The album’s only real weakness is not that there are bad songs, only bad parts of songs. This could probably be attributed to the uncharacteristically democratic, collaborative approach that Cake took when writing Showroom. When you are dealing a band wrought with “white entitlement”, as McCrea mentioned in a recent interview, democracy can be a hindrance. On the other hand, it can create moments that are much greater than the sum of the album’s parts. While “Federal Funding” arguably starts out slower than I’d like, it segues into a muddy, rocked-out bridge; and the alt-rock chorus of “Easy to Crash” is deceptively straightforward, as the band suddenly treats you to an Aja-era Steely Dan passage.
Ultimately, Showroom of Compassion has a much more intriguing appeal than Cake’s immediately preceding releases, displayed interestingly enough by their most “ambitious” album cover to date. This isn’t a situation where I’m expecting a band to “mature” or “experiment with new sounds”. I don’t particularly care. Instead, I accept that Cake, like any other band with a relatively uniform yet solidly established sound (Ted Leo comes to mind), know what they’re doing. Showroom builds from some of the production missteps found on 2004’s Pressure Chief; and they’ll build on their next one from this one. If Cake felt like going the Beatles route, they’d let you know on their website.