Cake’s offhand cultural awareness and deadpan irony have once again become a theme on Cake’s new album, Pressure Chief, the fifth of their career. In concert at the Orpheum October 7th, McCrea debuted “No Phone,” the second track off the new disc, to an audience filled with adoration for his trademark mordant social rants. “No Phone,” along with various other tracks off the new album, denounce technology and urban culture with a blander-than-usual strain of Cake’s signature social criticism. The tracks make use of the cultural consciousness that Cake fans crave, and that McCrea obviously still has, although their delivery on the CD pales in comparison to the caustic tunes of Cake’s earlier days.
While in concept the new album is worthy of the Cake name, the songs themselves have lost the power of past albums. The band has adopted a more pop sound that makes the fith track, “Carbon Monoxide,” written about public transportation in L.A., sound like a Green Day creation. Against a setlist of old and new from Cake, their newest tracks brought out power chords that only add to the band’s changing face. The new sound is not only the fault of a bassline-in-hiding and weak hooks, but of the tragic diminution of McCrea’s powerful, rhythmic vocals. His clear baritone, once the centerpiece of Cake’s sound, is at times weakly melodic and sometimes buried in mediocre guitar riffs. Notable exceptions are the catchy “Waiting” and a cover of Bread’s “The Guitar Man,” as well as the impressive “She’ll Hang the Baskets,” all of which recall McCrea’s commanding vocal presence.
The sold-out show’s orchestra and balcony levels filled with a variety of fans. They ranged from the predominantly college-aged crew to older fans, who might have caught onto the band’s work in the early 90s. There were punks and indie fans. There were very few as old as McCrea, but most seemed to know the words to songs released as early as 1994. While “Pressure Chief” marks a significant turn in the band’s evolution, old fans can still cling to their old work, while a newer audience discovers the band.
Frank Black Francis
(SpinArt Start Records)
Since every one of the songs on Frank Black Francis was previously recorded, and in almost every instance more memorably, by the Pixies during Mr. Black Francis/Frank Black’s original tenure with the group, none of the songs on the new double-album—which bookends the Pixies’ career Phase I—is destined to be a revelation. Disc One contains fifteen demos recorded by Mr. Francis (perhaps apocryphally) the day before the Pixies went into the studio to record their debut Come On Pilgrim; Disc Two offers almost as many remakes of Pixies songs recorded by Mr. Black just before the since-much-talked-about reunion. Disc One is, at most levels, what one might expect almost any demo tape to sound like: the pleasure here comes almost exclusively from the post-hoc knowledge of the songs’ evolution. The utterly bassless “I’ve Been Tired” and “Ed is Dead” are surprisingly intriguing, and “Nimrod’s Son” and “I’m Amazed” are particularly delightful for the way they demonstrate how much electricity was in them from the start. But there’s often a good reason demos aren’t released until long after a band’s critical acclaim is chiseled into the edifice. It’s not that these are bad, but the oft-quipped music-lover’s adage that “if you’re not already a fan...” holds true here.
Given the bareboned feel of Disc One, Disc Two is startlingly, well, boned; if One is proto-Pixies, Two is plush-parallel-universe Pixies. Gone is the ruggedness of even the originals’ instrumentation, replaced instead by electronic tones and effects slipped over unexpected delay-echoed muted horns and muffled acousto-electric guitars. “The Holiday Song” and “Is She Weird?” are particularly affected by these new arrangements, though in the case of the latter, and elsewhere, only moderately effective. Mr. Black was assisted in the Disc Two project by art-punkers Two Pale Boys, and it is evident in the musical production that he (and they) took great delight in refashioning Black Francis’s songs into Frank Black’s covers. Where it isn’t always evident, unfortunately, is in the vocals, often coming across as either weak or too ornamental given the song material, and at times (“Where is My Mind?”) just plain silly. Particularly excessive is the disc’s final, whopping, fifteen-minute version of “Planet of Sound,” which expands the whirlwind-punch of the two-minute original into a lumbering hurricane (the phrase “fucking around” is repeated over forty-two times). With a few debatable moments, none of these songs is really better than the original version, and though Disc Two has more for a non-devotee to appreciate than Disc One, Frank Black Francis is ultimately at heart a showcase for Mr. Black to battle his Pixie and non-Pixie musical personae, which is cool if you know the fighters, but will leave you little cold if you’re outside looking in.