The last time Cake made an album, in 2004, it seemed like one final reach to recapture their mid-'90s spirit and success. But the alt-rock smartasses didn't really sound into it, and the record, Pressure Chief, quickly sank from charts and memory banks.
So when the Sacramento quintet got around to making its sixth album, Showroom of Compassion, last year and releasing it during the second week of 2011, nobody had much hope for it. Unlike the band's previous three albums, Pressure Chief didn't go gold or platinum — and worse, it couldn't even spawn a modern-rock radio hit.
But something happened with Showroom of Compassion. It debuted at No. 1. Granted, it was the lowest-selling album to ever debut at the top spot, selling only 44,000 copies, and it dropped to No. 25 the following week. Still, after seven years and being pretty much left for dead by record companies and fickle music fans, Cake were No. 1. (Their chart record was short-lived; just two weeks later Amos Lee debuted at the top by selling a mere 40,000 copies of Mission Bell.)
"I don't think Cake is a band that's supposed to be No. 1," laughs frontman John McCrea, who formed Cake 20 years ago. "I'm going to get one of those big foam hats."
That break for most of the '00s was part accidental, part intentional. In addition to the usual label hassles (Cake started their own record company in 2007, after leaving the majors they've been on from the start), the band converted its studio to solar electricity and just took some time to regroup and rethink what it means to be a band in the 21st century. They bridged the gap with B-Sides and Rarities, which included live songs and covers of Black Sabbath and Barry White tunes.
It wasn't as if music totally disappeared from their lives during their seven-year absence. "I think about quitting every day of my life," says McCrea. "That said, we knew we would make another album. But I think it's gratuitous to have a sense of duty to change, like to make a thematically defined album. Each song should be its own universe, and the laws of that universe should only extend as far as each individual song."
Showroom of Compassion sounds like a Cake album. Actually, it sounds like a Cake album made by older and maybe a tad less-wiseass guys. There's still understated nose-thumbing at the world around them ("Federal Funding," "Sick of You"). There are still tossed-off cover songs ("What's Now Is Now," originally recorded by Frank Sinatra and way more sincere than the band's past covers). And there's still Vince DiFiore's trumpet punctuating many songs.
Best of all, Cake are still indifferent to everything else happening in music. During their best years — the era of "The Distance" and "Never There" — they were jokers fond of jabbing scowling grungemeisters in the gut. McCrea still sees the group as outsiders taking the shit out of self-serious rock stars. "The band started as a reactionary gesture against some of the music going on at the time," he says. "We had this aggressive gesture of smallness. Instead of turning our amps up to 11, we were saying 'fuck you' by turning our amps down to four."
In the years since they were modern-rock radio regulars, Cake somehow managed to attract a new, younger audience — fans who weren't around the first time (indeed, many of them weren't even born when "The Distance" broke the Top 40 in 1996). It's not nostalgia. It's more like a kinship with McCrea's occasionally goofy, always twisty wordplay. Their songs have shown up in commercials, movie trailers, and most prominently, their 2001 single "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" is the theme song to the TV show Chuck.
"There isn't the usual distancing by the youth of the music that came before," says McCrea. "That whole sort of dance doesn't seem to be happening with us. There is a surprising number of young people who are OK about the fact that people of different age categories like us too."
He pauses for a couple seconds, maybe for effect or maybe he's really contemplating the notion. Then he says, "Or maybe they just don't know yet that old people like us."