ARTS

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October 17, 2004

CD Shortcuts

CAKE - Pressure Chef - Sony

I didn't even realize that Cake had a new CD out until last Friday, when someone brought it through the checkout line at Borders. As I freed it from its plastic keeper and passed it on to its new owner, I had no idea that my very own copy was awaiting me home, a surprise gift from my boyfriend who thought I'd enjoy it (and then burn him a copy, obviously).

Thus began my love affair with Pressure Chief, the latest album from the band that brought you "Rock ‘n' Roll Lifestyle" all those years ago. Now, pre-Chief, I wouldn't have particularly considered myself a Cake fan. I never heard anything off of 2001's Comfort Eagle besides the radio single—but it was supposedly worse than their 1998 release Prolonging the Magic, and "Sheep Go to Heaven" aside, I thought Prolonging was a pretty mediocre album. The Cake album that I've always known and loved is Fashion Nugget —from 1996, back when MTV's "Buzzworthy" designation actually meant something. Pressure Chief feels like a return to that aesthetic, only an updated version with better musicianship, as well as marked technical improvement in lead singer John McCrea's still deadpan vocal style.

In Cake's standard quirky style, unconventional song topics and unexpected metaphors abound on Chief, all set to imaginative, if slightly incongruous, music. "Carbon Monoxide" is a rant against automobile air pollution, but it's also a '60s-style pop sing-along that compels the listener to start jumping around while doing the Pony. There's also a breakup song (and it's not a Donna Summer cover)—"Take It All Away"—which has just the right tone of hostile moodiness, with a chorus that begins "Go/Take your economy car and your suitcase." But for the best part of the album, you have to wait until the end. The standout, "End of the Movie," is a surprisingly poignant ballad, simultaneously melancholy and uplifting. At less than two minutes, it's the type of song that is over before you're ready. That makes it a great intro to "Palm of Your Hand," a song that seems to pick up right where "Movie" leaves off. The album concludes with "Tougher Than It Is," a feel-good song that starts off with "There is no such thing as you," and could be the thinking person's "Don't Worry Be Happy."

Cake is a band that lies somewhere in the dead zone between one-(or three)-hit-wonder obsolescence and actual continuous popularity. They're also truly a band of our generation, in that we were witness to their "big break"—high-schoolers today may know "Short Skirt Long Jacket," but I doubt too many know "Frank Sinatra." With Pressure Chief, Cake has proven that they are not a one-album band or a band that could only be successful in a particular cultural moment. Last week, I didn't even know what Cake was up to, but now I'm wondering when their next CD is coming out. If you liked Fashion Nugget, then you'll be all over Chief. And even if you've been indifferent to Cake in the past, you should check out their unique take on "alternative" pop rock (remember when "alternative" meant something too?). Clearly I am nostalgic for 1996, but that just makes it even more impressive that I wasn't disappointed by Pressure Chief. Seriously, this album is awesome.

—Courtney Wassell