Like going to a class reunion – most people are different, some are very much the same. Same haircut, same way of speaking, same sense of humor; maybe a bit of a gut now but otherwise exactly how you remembered them. The difference is that you’ve changed, how you receive the world’s changed, your tastes and level of tolerance for certain things are much different than what they once were. Still, it’s good to revisit old friends sometimes, especially the ones you made during your formative years. Cake will always fill me with nostalgia, even when listening to their new stuff. In fact that has been a part of their appeal – nobody else sounds quite like them, but you can rest assured that they always will.
The last time they felt particularly relevant was in 2001 with Comfort Eagle, an album I still like a great deal. Back then it seemed like people were still getting into Cake. You could still hear them often on alternative radio. That’s not to say they’ve fallen off the planet, but Cake now carries around the context of “remember these guys?” everywhere they go, and with everything they do. Hell, even their website is exactly the same as it was in 1999. All this sets some odd expectations for whatever new material they do release, since the best they can do is be exactly the same. In that sense, Cake have succeeded. Showroom of Compassion, from the title from the art to the tracklisting, is exactly like any other Cake album. All the elements of the music are the same. The droll vocal delivery, the grainy guitar riffing, the background shouting, the handclaps, the trumpet, those chugga-chugga bass lines, it’s all there. You could tell me some sort of supercomputer Markov generator spit this out and I might just believe you.
But the real question is this: are any of these songs as good as “Close But No Cigar”, the parody Cake song that Weird Al Yankovic did in 2006? The answer: not really, but only because Weird Al knows he’s doing parody. Take “Sick of You”, yet another lead single which sounds like an amalgam of hits from Cake’s past, all Frankensteined together (“Mustache Man (Wasted)” is another example of this). Or “Got To Move”, which sounds suspiciously close to the band’s cover of “Groovy Kind of Love”. Or the number of songs where it sounds like McCrea is reading straight out of a rhyming dictionary: placeholder lyrics sung during placeholder takes that somehow made the final cut.
That said, how does it compare to the Cake albums of the past? I don’t like it as much as the first four, but it’s at least on par with the fifth. But let me qualify that a bit – this may be entirely because of what those first four albums meant to me. When I hear Motorcade of Generosity I’m taken back to the hallways of my old high school. Fashion Nugget reminds me of sorting Magic cards on the floor. Prolonging the Magic brings back memories of my old paper route. Comfort Eagle puts me back in my ’91 Ford Escort, the car I bought right after getting my driver’s license. Granted this is all because I had few CDs to choose from and wound up listening to each one of these dozens of times. They’re a part of me now. When Pressure Chief came out it was clear that I just wasn’t that into Cake anymore; I was getting heavy into prog and New Wave and was enjoying a high speed internet connection for the first time in my life.
I mention this because I think it’s important to come to terms with that; Cake will always be a band I used to be really, really in to. Even my line about how “Cake sound like a parody of themselves now” is kind of ridiculous considering they have always sounded that way, from their first single (“Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle”) on. Listening to Showroom of Compassion in isolation now, five years on (yikes!), it’s occurred to me that this album is really quite fine. Good, even. There’s a ton of crunch (“Federal Funding”, “Mustache Man (Wasted)”, “Easy to Crash”) and the most Cake-like tunes hit all the right buttons (“Long Time”, “Sick of You”). The Sinatra cover is incredible, really. Things start to lag in the second half, but I think most Cake albums were like that. It’s a little strange to hear riffs and bass lines that I swear are lifted straight form earlier albums but I think that sort of thing was bound to happen eventually. Most of the songs have direct analogues to earlier work; even the oddball instrumental “Teenage Pregnancy” has a link back to their prior instrumentals (“Arco Arena”, “Convoy”). The exception is the baroque, violin-led “Italian Guy” that closes it out; not exactly exciting but at least it’s something new. Curiously enough, no one is credited with violin, so who knows what it actually is (it’s also on “The Winter”, though it sounds like a keyboard or mellotron to me). But looking through the credits I did see that Greg Brown, the band’s original guitarist, guests on “Bound Away”, which explains why it reminds me a lot of “She’ll Come Back To Me”.
As of this writing, this is Cake’s most recent album, and I’m guessing they are not exactly in a rush to get another one out. Because on one hand, what’s the point, but on the other, Cake are still remarkably popular for a band that hasn’t really done a whole lot in 15 years. They’re just a part of so many people my age, especially given that their rise came in an era where CDs were $15 a pop, and kids like me could only buy three of ’em a year. The climate has changed, but Cake never will.