When Pressure Chief begins unloading—in anxious tones—lyrics about jets flying against a “darkening sky,” it may give you pause: since Cake has accumulated a three-year backlog of material since their last album (2001’s Comfort Eagle), could it be they’re just now treating us to their 9/11 remembrances? Not exactly. As it turns out, “Wheels” has more to say about the aftermath of a break-up than the state of the world, but it introduces the worries haunting much of this album, representing the only detour by a band that still sounds unmistakably like Cake.
Fans of this long-lived California pop staple already know what to expect. Cake’s sound is as reliable as a toaster: frontman John McCrea mechanically steps syllable by syllable through his lyrics while synths and guitars follow lock-step, and Vine DiFiore’s signature trumpet interjections—like McCrea’s voice—only rely on humor and sorrow for the slightest nuances.
The imagery is as clever and the jokes as dead-pan as on previous albums, like when McCrea self-disparagingly compares himself to a dime: “You won’t even pick me up because I’m not enough / For a local phone call.” But this time, the tone is more worried. Instead of the customary mid-record anthem like “Sheep Go To Heaven” or “Short Skirt / Long Jacket,” we get “Carbon Monoxide,” a more complicated song McCrea sings as though he’s recovering from a coughing fit, especially on the sloppy but fervent sing-along “Where’s the Air?”
Pressure Chief lightens up halfway through, however, and “She’ll Hang the Baskets” and “Tougher Than It Is” are well-crafted pop songs in the tradition of Cake’s previous four records. And that’s the problem: aside from the band’s uncharacteristically heated hit single, “The Distance,” Cake has honed its style and refuses to budge. For a fun party game, try shuffling the last three albums together and see if anyone can hear the band age. It’s a given that to maintain his voice, McCrea mustn’t smoke or drink, but is it possible he also found a way to apply the wonders of Botox to his voice?
Credit Pressure Chief for consistency and quality control—only a couple of throwaway tracks here, namely “End of the Movie”—but it’s hard to get revved about an album that incubated for three years, only to trot out the same proven formula. Cake doesn’t seem like the kind of band that would overreact to world events, but let’s hope the fears and frustrations shadowing this album push them into uncharted musical territory.