Comfort Eagle looks absurdly like Cake’s previous albums: kitschy clip art on the front, a list of random phrases doubling as song titles on the back. And its crackerjack single, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” still entertains from Cake’s home turf, that well-travelled territory between The Cars’ angular, tongue-in-cheek minimalism and Talking Heads’ feline instrumental precision. Singer and primary songwriter John McCrea, like Ric Ocasek and David Byrne before him, makes the most of his clear, flat voice, emphasizing syllables conversationally.

For a long time, McCrea’s band has been stuck at an unenviable juncture between two equally hoary cliches: Brevity is the soul of wit, and consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Cake makes short, pithy songs that only avoid the ghetto of pure novelty because McCrea’s targets are small, and the band has done so without an audible urge to expound on its slim sonics and narrow parodies. As McCrea’s singing unselfconsciously straddles the median between Ocasek’s moody, self-effacing voice and Byrne’s morbidly self-absorbed one, so have McCrea’s songs weaved, Weezer-like, between clever and stupid.

Until now. With Comfort Eagle, McCrea hits every musical and topical bullseye. (Best shot: the staccatto He is calling you duuuuuude! chorus of the title track.) The songs are still short and Cake’s sound varies little from its blueprint (its sound is all blueprint), but these things now play as confident choices, not limitations.

Anyone amused by the simple video for “Short Skirt” — the song is played for eager-to-comment passersby whose nonreactions and studied, focus-group suggestions are profoundly funny — is encouraged to grab a copy of the disc right away. Gabriel Nelson’s prowling bass and Vince DiFiore’s jubilant, fat blasts of trumpet are the stars of most songs here; album-opener “Opera Singer” sounds like nothing so much as a souped-up “Theme from Barney Miller” — inexplicably a good thing. The Cake-produced album is frosted with layers of handclaps, layered shout-along background vocals, clicking analog drum machines and, on “Pretty Pink Ribbon,” Hammond organ, all of which punctuate McCrea’s verbal jabs rather than distract from his songs’ keenly pointed dynamic. Cake isn’t likely to make an album anyone will call a tour de force, but the crisply inventive Comfort Eagle lands on ground the unique band can finally call its own.

Categories: Music