The Trash Can Sinatras – Cake

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This is one of those special debut albums whose stature is increased by virtue of the inability of the band to match it again. Like with Aztec Camera (with whom The Trash Can Sinatras share many characteristics) and the Stone Roses’ debuts, the first Trash Can Sinatras album arrived with a fresh, joyous, and self-assured sound, for anyone who was paying attention. And like those bands, the Scottish group was never able to achieve such heights again, even though they have survived to this day and released a great deal of very good music. Obviously, living up to the hype of a near-perfect debut is impossible. Roddy Frame willfully chose to alter his sound, ostensibly to avoid being pigeonholed. The Roses (whose debut appeared a year before Cake) found themselves differently victimized by the fame their first album produced – upon choosing to sign to a major label, their original indie label would not release them from their contract. Two years of legal battles hobbled the band, and their second album arrived a full five years after the first one. The expectations were Himalayan . . . and the Zeppelin-influenced blues rock that the band offered up resulted in Kashmir-sized disappointment. The Trash Can Sinatras endured their share of misfortune as well, but the simple reality is that every album that they managed to release since Cake has not come close to replicating its shimmering beauty.

What I Think of This Album

This is a gorgeous, harmony-rich, jangly delight, with pristine melodies and guitars that ring out across the Atlantic. The comfort the band felt working out of their own Shabby Road studio (nice) comes through on the confident delivery of these ten tracks. The stars are vocalist Frank Reader (who sounds a great deal like Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera) and guitarists John Douglas and Paul Livingston, though the entire band (including drummer and John’s brother – another sibling band! – Stephen Douglas and bassist George McDaid) deserves praise.

“Obscurity Knocks” was a hit and rightly so. Sprightly and bouncy, the song only gets better as Douglas and Livingston strum their way to the chorus. With a touch of brogue, Reader delivers wordplay (“snug as a thug” and “looking at my watch and I’m half-past caring”) that nonetheless speaks to longing and frustration (“Know what it’s like  / To sigh at the sight / Of the first quarter of life? / Ever stopped to think / And found out nothing was there?”). The guitars spring to life, ripe with jangle, and the harmonies rise and Reader emphasizes key lyrics and downplays others expertly. There is some xylophone which shyly pokes out at critical moments, and this is one of my favorite things.

Strings introduce the lush “Maybe I Should Drive,” which again offers up fun with lyrics (“I said ‘your hardship’s / Only one of a fleet’ / That didn’t go down well” and “If you’d spent your life in the last lane / You’d have an accent to grind” and “I can see for miles / But all I do is watch the time”). Meanwhile, the jangle is set on rapid (is there a banjo in there?), and the robust harmonies give support to Reader’s enthusiastic vocals. Irresistible “Circling the Circumference,” with a guitar sound that reminds me of “Fairground” from James’s folky Strip-mine, a plethora of inspiring “ba ba ba”s, lyrics like “a straightforward answer is out of the question,” and a somewhat unconvincing scream buried in the mix. The final song that makes up the top tier of Cake is “Only Tongue Can Tell,” which demonstrates that the band is not done with lyrical dexterity (“And if the matchmaker calls / Hand in hand / With the catch of the day / I’ll rise to the bait”), nor has it set aside the dextrous guitars or dispensed with the rich backing harmonies.

Complementing this enviable 40% of the album – ample reason to own it – is another couple of very good songs. “The Best Man’s Fall” starts out as a delicate ballad but shifts gears as the harmonies kick in; the harmonium or accordion (or whatever) is a nice touch, as are the percussion flourishes, to say nothing of the mournful cello in the background. Ironically, “Even the Odd” does not feature witty turns of phrase, but it still provides a great melody, a soulful vocal from Reader, an unusual smattering of controlled feedback (which should not fit in with the rest of the arrangement, but works anyway), and an even more unusual bridge (that definitely does not fit in and almost derails the tune).

“January’s Little Joke” probably needed a little more work, as it is not sure what it wants to be and as a result is not enough of anything. Acoustic “You Made Me Feel” gets by on Reader’s excellent vocal, with supporting cello and piano. “Thrupenny Tears” derives from High Land, Hard Rain-era Aztec Camera, though it lacks a bit of fire. “Funny” is the only song that completely fails.

Several of the songs were produced by John Leckie, who also happens to have produced the Stone Roses (and also Radiohead, XTC, and Public Image, Ltd). Other tracks were the handiwork of Roger Béchirian, who has worked with Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, Rockpile, and the Undertones. And the inimitable Audrey Riley (the Smiths, the Cure, the Go-Betweens) contributed strings on several tracks.

The Best Thing About This Album

The wordplay, natch.

Release Date

June, 1990

The Cover Art

It’s nothing special but it is far from bad.

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