Make no bones about it – I’m a huge Cake fan. Whilst you may be familiar with one or two of their occasional hits from the last decade or so, I went out of my way to acquire their back-catalogue: As you nibble on a vague recollection of The Distance or Short Skirt / Long Jacket, I indulge in feasts, from debut album Motorcade Of Generosity right through to 2002’s Comfort Eagle.
Going on such a diet, you’d imagine that I’d be sick to death of Cake by now, and probably quite bloated too. The fact is, however, that John McCrea’s band sticks to a very light formula, consisting of light funk, country elements, new wave hooks and a coating of brass section. As such, perhaps the first thing I noticed about Pressure Chief is its lean towards synthesisers. Read on.
As Comfort Eagle sessions began, Cake’s drummer left them. Instead of bringing in a replacement, singer/songwriter McCrea taught himself the drum machine, and Comfort Eagle, compared to its predecessing siblings, was noticably sythetic. It went down well with fans, although I’m sure that some (myself included) would have welcomed a return to real drumming and a larger emphasis on acoustic or analogue methods for Pressure Chief. McCrea, it seems, had different ideas.
If you are bracing yourself for a slating, fear not – Pressure Chief certainly meets the Cake standard. Album opener Wheels trundles along a deadpan groove, and immediately plays a trump card with actual singing rather than sarcastic spoken-word poetry. No Phone sticks to the same principles, layering with synth-beeps and keyboard handclaps for good measure. As Dime’s minor-chord minimalism kicks in, the Cake veteran may well raise an eyebrow to the fact that all three tracks so far had a distinctly pessimistic style (not that the band are known for wide-eyed hope, but three in-a-row seems unusual).
Anticipating the script, like all good albums do, Pressure Chief follows with Dime – an ode to small scale that would have sat on earlier albums if it sounded more garage jam than computer generated. Carbon Monoxide, unfortunately, is rather too simplistic by Cake’s standards, and sounds more like Sugar Ray than the funky, Generation-X attitude they made their name on.
A cover of Bread‘s Guitar Man passes rather anonymously (and is either catchy or irritating depending on who you listen to) before the sombre-but-helpful Waiting turns back the clock and pours generously forth with all the reverbless acoustic guitar and close-harmonied choruses of a She’ll Come Back To Me or Let Me Go (Cake’s songwriting highpoints to the layman). The eminently adorable She’ll Hang The Baskets aims to hit the same mark, and ends up as Pressure Chief’s prettiest, most organic moment, whereas Palm Of Your Hand and Tougher Than It Is wrap things up with hammond organ and mellowtron tinged bluegrass and strike-a-chord, funky sing-along respectively (“The more you try to qualify / The more it will pass you by.” Sings McCrea on the latter).
To abuse the most obvious of metaphors, Cake’s music before 2002 could be compared to a Victoria Sponge – light, fluffy riffs with a sweet layer of jam (trumpets) and cream (bass grooves), and a light sprinking of icing sugar (quirky lyrical narrative). Pressure Chief (and Comfort Eagle before it, though to a lesser extent), is more of a sticky toffee pudding – somewhat less organic, but just as mouth-watering with hot sauce (addictive synth noises), almonds (acoustic instruments used minimally to maximum effect) and a side of ice-cream (McCrea’s interminable knack for striking lyrics). In other words, Pressure Chief is the same Cake on a different plate. You can’t really go wrong with that.