Showroom of Compassion

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Willful eccentricity is something that demands a certain degree of commitment, and many bands that start out strikingly weird buckle under the pressure to maintain their curious image over the course of a long career. So Cake are to be commended for sticking to their oddball guns for close to 20 years; their sixth album (and first in six years), 2011's Showroom Of Compassion, still finds John McCrea writing like he's tossing off random thoughts as he struggles not to be overwhelmed by the voices in his head, and singing as if he's waiting for that grilled cheese sandwich he ordered to finally show up. And his backing musicians -- Vincent DiFiore on trumpet and keyboards, Xan McCurdy on guitar, Gabriel Nelson on bass and guitar, and a tag team of four drummers -- still cut a geeky but potent groove, delivering a funky undertow that's engaging but just off-kilter enough to match McCrea's vision. This might suggest Cake haven't grown or changed much during the long layoff between 2004's Pressure Chief and 2011's Showroom of Compassion, and in many respects, that's true, but the flatness of McCrea's vocal delivery sounds noticeably less smug this time out, and while his deadpan tone is as bent as ever, on a few of these songs he suggests some compassion might lurk in his heart, a welcome development to be sure. And while most of these tunes maintain the funky tone that's Cake's trademark, there's enough straightforward rock & roll and quirky pop (and even a dash of country) to keep the album from sounding too lamentably consistent. After paying oblique homage to Frank Sinatra in 1996's Fashion Nugget, here Cake actually cover one of Ol' Blue Eyes lesser-known tunes ("What's Now Is Now," from Sinatra's unjustly obscure concept album Watertown), and McCrea and company twist it to their own purposes without sounding as if they're ranking out on the original. And though it's as hard as ever to figure out just what Cake are on about on most of these tunes (especially on the dour but dramatic instrumental "Teenage Pregnancy,") "Sick of You" and "The Winter" are straightforward enough to offer a break from the irony. It's worth noting that after dealing with major labels since 1995, Cake have opted to release Showroom Of Compassion on their own label, and even recorded the whole thing in their own solar-powered recording studio; they're not just committing to their own weirdness, they're banking on it, and the results are good enough to suggest they're not so crazy to be investing in their own distaff vision of the world.

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