Article by special guest contributor Rebecca Wilcox
After a long break during which they converted their recording studio to solar power, Cake released their latest album in 2011. The album marks the return of one of the more unique alternative rock bands to come out of the 1990s rock scene. The album was released on Upbeat Records, their own label. Showroom of Compassion debuted in the top spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart. With its stripped-down sound and iconic sardonic lyrics, the album is classic Cake. The band has several shows booked this autumn to support the album.
The Sacramento-based band has had a number of personnel changes since they were founded in 1991, but the current members have been together for eight years. The current lineup of singer John McCrea, bassist Gabe Nelson, trumpeter Vince DiFiore, guitarist Xan McCurdy and drummer Paulo Baldi all contribute to the band’s signature sound. Although each musician has a primary instrument in the group, each also plays additional instruments. Electric and acoustic Gibson guitars, piano, cowbells, keyboards and other instruments are intermingled to create the quirky Cake sound. All five musicians contribute vocally as well.
Because the band is independent of the constraints of a major record label, they are free to concentrate on creating their own musical vision. Although their fourth and fifth albums were released on Columbia, they have had as much or more success with their independently-released works. The group has always retained a degree of control over their music, even when they were working with Columbia. However, after the release of Pressure Chief, the band and label went their separate ways.
The musicians in Cake have been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles. The twangy guitar and spare melodies of country music are a big influence. On this base the band layers accents of rock, funk, hip-hop and Iranian folk music to create their alternative rock style. The prominent use of the trumpet to carry melodies has always differentiated the group from most rock bands. Heavy reliance on the trumpet was an early innovation for Cake, since they didn’t want to repeat the stereotype of the rock band driven by the sound of a guitar.
Cake’s vocals are also well-known for their lack of histrionics. McCrea’s deadpan and nearly monotone singing style is one of the signatures of the group’s sound. The lyrics themselves are often sarcastic, and they often touch on political themes as well as standard rock themes of love and loss. The half-spoken and half-sung presentation of lyrics works well to emphasize the irony evident in many Cake songs.
The new album doesn’t explore any new territory, but instead continues the band’s trademark sound. The melodies are catchy and upbeat, even when the theme of the song isn’t. There is less reliance on synthesizers and more emphasis on tight playing. The lyrics are still dripping with irony. The combination somehow works for Cake, so there’s no reason for them to change.