October 15, 2004

CAKE -- PRESSURE CHIEF

Cake -- Pressure Chief.jpg

Keyboards alter the usual formula

It takes a certain amount of skill and an equal amount of luck to hover just under the mainstream rock radar for a decade.

Sacramento, Calif.'s Cake has used this combination to keep its quirky brand of alt-rock at that exact spot. With the release of its fifth studio album, Pressure Chief (Columbia Records), the band looks to keep that string going.

The disc's first track, "Wheels," bounces along with a heavy bass groove, funky horn blasts and a sing-along chorus. It also highlights the other great strength that primary songwriter-lead singer John McCrea has -- clear pronunciation. McCrea never mumbles and rarely varies from his half-rapped, half-crooned vocal style. It also helps out that the band's secret weapon is his unique acoustic guitar style, which serves as a timing device, signaling when the verses begin and when the chorus takes over.

The album's first single, "No Phone," is a fine enough effort and befitting of inclusion on the album, but it doesn't pack the instant likeability that prior singles such as "The Distance" and "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" did in the past. The problem is that it doesn't illicit imagery in the way those singles did. "No Phone" relies too heavily on the repeated "No phone/No phone/I just want to be alone today" refrain to imbed itself into the listener's brain.

Elsewhere, the band's basic sound is tampered with by adding a distinctly out-of-place synth sound. A usual Cake song could guarantee the liberal use of hand percussion and the anti-jangle of acoustic guitar. That's not to say the band hasn't used these keyboard sounds before, but they seem to take over the arrangement, most notable on "Dime." This song obviously will draw comparisons to They Might Be Giants, as does the antipollution ditty, "Carbon Monoxide," but more for the goofy factor than for the content of the songs.

One constant trait that the band (McCrea, Vincent DiFiore on trumpet and keyboards, Xan McCurdy on electric guitar and Gabriel Nelson on bass) has put to good use is its knack for picking an unusual cover song. Here Cake tackles the light-rock standard "Guitar Man" by Bread, taking the song from a bland, snoozy guitar ballad to a more new-wave version that might fit neatly onto a Cars album. An assist goes to guest "guitar man" Chuck Prophet, who adds his own left-of-center style to the tune.

The album's second half is highlighted by frequent contributor and pedal steel guitarist Gene Vincent on the excellent "She'll Hang the Baskets." Vincent also does all he can to add a haunting backing to "Palm of Your Hand," but the song is completely forgettable and poorly conceived.

Pressure Chief comes to a close with the appropriately titled "Tougher Than It Is." The title sums up where the band seemed to be going for most of the album. Changing the formula by adding different keyboard sounds doesn't work for Cake. When the band sticks to the basics that make it unique, then the songs make sense.

-- By Mike Madden

Posted by medleyville at October 15, 2004 12:49 AM
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