Dom Listens To Music: Cake – Fashion Nugget

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Here’s one of those “staple albums” that I’m behind on. Did you know Cake’s career spanned back to 1991? I didn’t. Have you heard of Cake? I guess it depends on the circle you find yourself in. With a few platinum albums under their belt, they definitely aren’t the most obscure of Alt Rock bands. And as I was to find out, it’s largely due in part to their sound (which I’ll get into). So what’s this all about?

I came to this album in an interesting way. During a night of YouTube song sharing with friends, a link to a song (I can’t remember which) off of this album was posted, and I was instantly intrigued. It sounded totally different! There were a few things going for it: talksinging vocals, a crunchy and tweedy sounding guitar, and a trumpet?! I was soon to find out that this largely comprises the band’s signature sound, but I wanted more.

And this album delivers.

We’re greeted with a dry and very forward sounding album. Normally, I’d consider this uninviting, but considering the songs and the style of music, it works surprisingly well. It makes you feel as if the band showed up to record the album, hit the big red record button, and we’re hearing the direct results. I’m absolutely enamoured with the guitar sound. It can be incredibly thin and ratty at times, but with that stated, it can cover a lot of sonic ground.

The musicianship on Fashion Nugget is fantastic. Every part of the music has something intriguing about it. The thin guitars work well in context with the incredibly poignant and groovy bass. It’s always refreshing to hear an inventive bassist. Victor Damiani did a great job on this album of knowing when to lay back and fill out the low end, or lay a funk/soul groove for the rest of the band to fall around. The inclusion of the trumpet serves to bring a defined melody to the songs with the added effect of opening the palette of styles to choose from.

Good songwriters borrow. Great songwriters steal. This album finds somewhat of an equilibrium. Most of the songs wouldn’t be original in any other context – the acoustic guitar in Friend Is A Four Letter Word draws from Zeppelin’s classic Babe I’m Gonna Leave You – but paired with the band’s unique style, the songs sound fresh, even though they shouldn’t. Stickshifts and Safteybelts belongs on a Jerry Reed country album, and I Will Survive is indeed a cover of the same Gloria Gaynor song you’re thinking of, but in its new setting, it manages to find its own identity.

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I feel the determining factor to the enjoyability of this album comes down to the vocals. I didn’t have a pleasant initial impression. I’d guessed the band couldn’t find a singer, so they had John McCrea imitate a bored Anthony Keidis. It can give the songs a nerd-rock feel at times, but as the album began to grow on me, so did a deeper understanding. I paid attention to “It’s Coming Down” (punctuated by some Beatles-inspired harmonies), and realized that the vocals set the tone for the entire album. As defined as Cake’s sound already is, they wouldn’t sound anywhere near as smooth and laid-back if not for the vocal element.

As a quick note, I’m torn on the lyrics. While some songs can seem nonsensical, others will linger in your head. One that stuck with me is the chorus to Open Book: “You think she’s an open book, but you don’t know which page to turn to, do you?”

I want more. Cake struck a winning formula with Fashion Nugget on a few fronts. Their sound is retro-chic. The songs borrow just enough to sound somewhat familiar, but fresh enough to compel closer examination. Within that, the album spans from Rock, to Country, to an almost Spanish Mariachi, to end with a reimagined Willie Nelson cover. Fashion Nugget is unique, which is one of the most difficult challenges for any band; an honourable compliment which Cake is entirely deserving.

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