Showroom Of Compassion
Upbeat Music, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/11/2011
Surprisingly enough, last time I looked up the word “sardonic” in the dictionary, Cake frontman John McCrea’s photo was not there waiting.
It’s not for lack of trying, though, as McCrea has spent the better part of 20 years now chronicling the twisted lives and perspectives of the motley horde of sneaky, snarky poseurs and pseudo-hipsters who have populated his songs since Cake first made the scene in 1994.
Showroom Of Compassion again features McCrea’s trademark “is he or isn’t he smirking” deadpan speak-singing over the spacious yet often-unpredictable arrangements assembled by bandmembers McCrea, Vincent DiFiore (trumpet/keys), Xan McCurdy (guitar) and Gabriel Nelson (bass), with a cast of thousands sitting in on drums (actually, four).
While Cake’s vibe and execution haven’t changed much over the years, McCrea has been doing more actual singing over the past couple of outings, a trend that continues here. That said, there’s precious little else here to distinguish Showroom from the group’s previous work, and while it at least feels a bit looser and rangier than 2004’s largely paint-by-numbers Pressure Chief, it doesn’t deliver anywhere near the zingy charge of the best moments on Fashion Nugget (1996) and Comfort Eagle (2001).
It’s true that the greedy corporate welfare artists celebrating their “Federal Funding” in the jamming opener are amusing in a typically ironic/acidic way—and let’s face it, who else but McCrea would think to write a song on this particular topic—but the track's impact doesn't really live up to the amount of energy poured into it.
This disconnect persists on “Long Time,” whose dense, bounding arrangement is contradicted by a thoroughly bummed-out lyric (“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”). Other critics have suggested Cake is more or less a one-trick pony, with McCrea’s droll deadpan humor and the band’s unusual instrumental lineup and approach being its only notable assets. I resisted that conclusion while enjoying their first four discs, but with 2004’s Pressure Chief and now Showroom, the signs are unmistakable. When McCrea’s unusual perspective and characters engage, they're a blast—but when they fail to, the novelty of the arrangements is not enough to carry the songs.
Unfortunately, we get not enough of the former and too much of the latter the rest of the way. “Got To Move” and “What’s Now Is Now” are dull, sing-songy MOR wastes of the band’s considerable talents. “Mustache Man (Wasted)” restores hope by bringing the funk and featuring an actual hook, though the energy again feels undercut by a moribund lyric whose apparent punchline is “I have wasted so much time.” Perhaps the weirdest moment comes when the boys title a meandering, piano-based mid-album instrumental interlude “Teenage Pregnancy.” Um, really?
“Sick Of You” is the highlight here, a rant against boredom in all its dimensions that manages to execute a deft mash-up of the riffs from “Ticket To Ride” and “She’s So Cold” within its first 17 seconds. Every trick in the considerable Cake bag of them gets thrown in before the end of this cut—distorted guitar riffs, mid-song breakdowns, shouted background vocals, processed raps and vibraslaps—making the end result feel slightly overstuffed, but nonetheless an entertaining ride.
“Easy To Crash” gives more weight to guitar and drums than the standard Cake template, but to little real end as the lyric again fails to engage. “Bound Away” is a bit of a novelty, a loose country-rock lament about heading out on tour; it’s one of the most straight-up songs Cake has ever done, and a successful one at that. Down the stretch, “The Winter” starts out as a piano-driven ballad before developing into a mid-tempo ode to the gloom of wintertime—not exactly uplifting, but another interesting departure.
McCrea and company close out with “Italian Guy,” a brief little observational vignette over one of the oddest arrangements the group has ever employed, leading with strings and supporting with guitar, synth and jazz percussion. It's an interesting left turn, an experiment that at least shows range, even if it fails to really ignite.
In the end, it's not enough to make up for the weaknesses of this album. The punchlines just don’t have the old edge and snap, and the hooks aren’t nearly as plentiful. Some Cake is definitely better than none, but in the end, Showroom Of Compassion feels more like a full disc of lukewarm album tracks than the highlight-studded full-lengths of yore.