One thing is unmistakable about Cake’s new album: it’s a new Cake album. There is something about the band — a combination of John McCrea’s ironically droning vocals, their twanging guitars and easy-going melodies — that makes all of their songs happily recognizable. But on top of delivering everything their fans have come to know and love about the band, their fifth album adds some ’80s Nintendo-style synthesizers and a little bluegrass to the California group’s distinct sound. Fans of Cake’s first four records won’t be disappointed by “Pressure Chief,” and those who’ve never heard them before won’t be sorry either.
Like only a handful of bands, Cake has an easily identifiable but eclectic sound. On albums like 1996’s “Fashion Nugget” and 1998’s “Prolonging the Magic,” the band mixes together funk, hip-hop, jazz and, of course, good old college rock. Over their five albums they have stuck rigidly to their recipe of tossing together such motley ingredients, and it is a testament to the band that they’ve succeeded in a music world that insists that reinvention equals maturation.
“Pressure Chief” begins the typical fashion: a slightly distorted guitar riff intermixes with short trumpet lines. Off course the sardonic lyrics haven’t been left out, either. “And the muscular cyborg German dudes dance with sexy French Canadians / While the overweight Americans wear their patriotic jumpsuits,” McCrea sings on “Wheels,” the opener.
Sadly, the good trend gets quickly turned around. “No Phone,” the next song, is the album’s weakest track by far. The trance-party panging of bad synthesizer music (which, incidentally, are a reminder of why cell-phones are so hateful) rubs the listener in all the wrong ways. It is the only immediately unlikable song in Cake’s catalogue.
But things quickly pick up. Listening to “Dime” is like swimming in a green frog-suit in a warm, blue, aqueous Nintendo world. The lyrics are wonderfully comfy: “I’m silver-plated I’m underrated / You won’t even pick me up because I’m not enough for a local phone call / I’m a dime, I’m fine, and I shine.” If listening to the track doesn’t remind you of your favorite Cake songs, then at least it should remind you of your childhood.
Of course, McCrea’s absurd metaphors, and the bleeping sound-effects, can get a bit annoying. The gem of the album is its simplest song: the short “End of the Movie” features little more than a Doc Watson-like guitar, bluegrass fiddle and deadpan lyrics. The song mixes North Carolina foothill rolls with an indie-rock sensibility in a way that only bands like Grandaddy have been successful at.
Cake is breaking no new ground with their new album. In fact, they haven’t broken much new ground as a band. But in contrast with bands like Radiohead, whose greatness comes from a constant metamorphosis, Cake can be happily relied on for consistently happy records. “Pressure Chief” is no exception.