For their fifth album, Pressure Chief, Northern California band CAKE hunkered down in a Sacramento home studio in the summer of 2003, working with a hard-disk recording system, professing to take a pragmatic approach to making a record rather than an ideological one. �We didn�t actually know what we were doing when we first started,� confesses John McCrea, the band�s frontman and principal songwriter. �We kind of learned as we went, and ended up making mistakes that are on the record that I think ended up sounding good. �I�m glad we jumped off that cliff without a parachute,� McCrea adds. The signature elements of CAKE are evident on Pressure Chief�McCrea�s warm baritone, which can range from deadpan irony to deeply sincere crooning, backed by his chunky-sounding acoustic guitar, run through a battered Fender Sidekick amp. Vincent di Fiore�s trumpet lines, which add an oddly cinematic touch. Bassist Gabe Nelson provides a solidly pulsating superstructure. The songs, mostly penned by McCrea, which wed interesting melodies to strikingly original narratives. And the album�s simple graphics� CAKE spelled out in Copperplate Gothic type, with a clip-art style illustration and basic color scheme�does not depart from earlier album packaging. �It�s anti-art,� says McCrea, who designs all the band�s graphics. �The idea of �art� rubs me the wrong way. It�s about handing someone a can of dog food.�
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But Pressure Chief represents an evolutionary step forward, too. Even though CAKE wrote, arranged and produced all five of its albums, which isn�t all that common in pop music, Pressure Chief departs from what preceded it by sheer force of the band�s newly invigorated experimental proclivities. As guitarist Xan McCurdy puts it, �I had the sort of luxury of being in a room with everybody, with technology and guitars and basses. No one was on the clock. So we all got to express ourselves. It really was a breath of fresh air.� About a minute into the opening track, a minor-key plaint on mobility and lost love called �Wheels,� you get an idea that McCrea, di Fiore, Nelson and McCurdy�holed up in their home studio with a Pro Tools rig, drum programming and a pile of musical instruments�were having a pretty good time producing themselves. The next song (and first single), �No Phone,� begins with a synth line and McCurdy�s pulsing guitar, which demonstrates how well he�s turned his predecessor Greg Brown�s guitar style into a jumping-off point. They combine nicely to nuance the singer�s position of self-imposed alienation.
From there, the band animates McCrea�s familiar aesthetic with a surprising amount of textures. �Take It All Away� captures McCrea�s fascination with 1970s disco ballads; �Dime� rides on a chrome-plated synth riff that could have come off an old Cars record; �Carbon Monoxide� is a stripped down, upbeat riff-rock tune about how infernal internal combustion engines are choking the planet. �Guitar Man,� a cover of a 1972 David Gates-penned song by the L.A. soft-rock group Bread, is a tuneful exploration of rockmusic fandom that, in Cake�s interpretation, manages to balance the ironic with the poignant; it�s fleshed out with some killer glam riffs on guitar. McCrea goes full-on poignant on �Waiting,� one of his more affecting songs. �She�ll Hang the Baskets� has the kind of melody that will stick in your head longer than you�d like. �The End of the Movie� is a meditation on mortality and man�s inhumanity to man; instrumentally, it�s the closest thing CAKE has done to anything on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Music. �Palm of Your Hand� opens with a Stax-Volt-style guitar figure, and its Booker T-like organ part nicely underscores McCrea�s oddly soulful vocals. By the time the rhythmically irresistible anthem �Tougher Than It Is� arrives, which sounds like Cake reinventing the Little Feat reinventing Southern music, you realize how much Pressure Chief is filled with American music, from the part of California that most closely touches the American south.
By the time singer-songwriter John McCrea began playing around Northern California, in the 1980s, the last remnants of the Summer of Love were long gone. Except for the Grateful Dead, most of the hippie-era bands had morphed into satin-jacketed arena-rock acts; many of those bands contained at least one member from McCrea�s native Sacramento. But Northern California had a few other choice lines of musical heritage. California�s Central Valley, for example, was home to Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and various Western Swing transplants from Texas and Oklahoma, and their hard-twanging sound would shape such Northern California rock bands as Creedence Clearwater Revival. Jazz was quietly influential, too; Dave Brubeck had a long connection with the University of the Pacific in nearby Stockton�which went under most young rockers� radar, but band-class students like trumpeter Vincent DiFiore were very aware of Brubeck�s contributions. Also in the mix was 1970s horn-band funk, which could be heard blasting from car tape decks around California after home-grown bands like Sly and the Family Stone, War and Santana hit their mark. And, it being California, you couldn�t flip through the radio dial without encountering at least one Spanish-language station playing Mexican nortenos, corridos and rancheras.
But the corporate rock sound dominated interior California by the late 1980s, and an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter like McCrea did what any frustrated musician who couldn�t get noticed in his hometown would do�he took his guitar to England, but he hated the music then popular in England, so he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a record deal instead. Not much happened, so McCrea returned to his native Sacramento and subsumed his identity in a new band, CAKE, which he put together with trumpeter Vincent DiFiore, guitarist Greg Brown, bassist Sean McFessel and drummer Frank French around 1990.
Gabe Nelson soon replaced McFessel, and the new band quickly became a hot item in Sacramento�s downtown club and caf� scene. McCrea�s deadpan amalgam of Jonathan Richman, David Byrne and Woody Guthrie, backed by CAKE�s shambling countrified funk, took the locals by storm. And for a while, you could see the band several nights a week, packing small venues like Caf� Montreal�where the dance floor would be packed with waitresses from the restaurant where McCrea was waiting tables during the day. Shortly thereafter, CAKE began trading shows with bands from the San Francisco Bay Area; the ploy worked for bands like the Loved Ones, who wanted to break out of San Francisco as much as CAKE wanted to break in.
In 1994, CAKE released its debut album, Motorcade of Generosity, on its own independent label, Stamen Music. When the band signed with the revived Capricorn Records label, Motorcade was re-released, and the song �How Do You Afford Your Rock�n�Roll Lifestyle?� became the band�s first college radio hit, followed by �Ruby Sees All� and �Jolene.� (Ironically, CAKE found success in England, along with Germany and France, before it made an impact Stateside.) The signing and subsequent tour precipitated another personnel change, as Nelson and French left, replaced by bassist Victor Damiani and drummer Todd Roper, both of whom had played with Brown in a power-pop trio called Saturday�s Child.
In the spring of 1996, Capricorn switched from independent to major distribution, and CAKE�s second album, Fashion Nugget, was released. One of its songs, �The Distance,� helped propel the album to platinum. Another major hit, a cover of Gloria Gaynor�s disco-era hit �I Will Survive,� was misunderstood by some as an ironic swipe by McCrea. But a cursory listen to some of McCrea�s original songs, like �Take It All Away� on Pressure Chief, will reveal long, unraveling eurostyle melodies similar to Gaynor�s signature hit. Another cover from that album, Osvaldo Farres� �Perhaps,Perhaps, Perhaps,� demonstrated McCrea�s affinity for Cuban and other Latin music forms. (CAKE continues its way with covers on this album with the aforementioned �Guitar Man�; this is a band that knows how to bring something new to its cover versions.)
The following year, Brown and Damiani left CAKE to form a glossier pop band called Deathray. Nelson returned as bassist, and McCrea used several guitarists on CAKE�sfollowing record, Prolonging the Magic, which was released in 1998; it contained such band staples as �Never There� and �Sheep Go to Heaven.� One of that album�s session guitarists, Xan McCurdy�whom McCrea was long familiar with as a member of the Loved Ones, then the Supernaturals, which became the Kinetics�was asked to join the band. In early 2000, CAKE signed with Columbia Records, and in the summer of 2001, the band�s fourth album, Comfort Eagle, was released, after a single, �Short Skirt/Long Jacket,� had charted. At the time of its release, Rolling Stone described the band�s music as �modern pop that is both mechanized and organic��a pretty apt summation. (Meanwhile, CAKE�s first three albums were reissued by Volcano Entertainment/Zomba/BMG, after that label acquired the Capricorn Records catalog.) The remarkable thing about Comfort Eagle was that it, like its predecessors, contained a couple of songs that CAKE had been performing way back in its early caf� shows. �It�s a testament to John�s catalog of great songwriting� is how guitarist McCurdy puts it. Pressure Chief contains two songs originally written for Prolonging the Magic��She�ll Hang the Baskets� and �Tougher Than It Is��but the rest are all new. So it can be said that CAKE�s first four albums are prologue. On Pressure Chief, the band takes their place as on of the most enduring and iconoclastic artists in postalternative rock with their strongest collection of songs to date.
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