Cake

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Once upon a time, Cake were one of the big players in the alt-rock scene that included bands like Pavement, Soul Coughing, and They Might be Giants. The best way to describe Cake is that they blend a lot of rootsy types of music together but add a few modern touches to keep current. There is a ton of 60's-style rock n' roll riffs to go with funky bass lines and snappy percussion (usually things you shake). They mostly stick to rock n' roll but sometimes foray into odd genres like samba or ballroom. Also, each album usually has one country or folk song on it, usually done completely straight. The signatures of the group are Vince DiFiore's trumpet playing, shouted background vocals, and of course, singer John McCrea's unique interpretation of what being a lead singer entails. It is McCrea who inspires such odd reactions to the band - at best, you may find his sarcastic half-effort vocals endearing or amusing; at worst, he comes across as smug, detached and unbearable. He is a lot like Mike Doughty, but without the edge. Unsurprisingly, the critics usually saw the worst in them, which has given them a bad reputation; but if nothing else, McCrea was a good, often great songwriter, and the band's shtick was so inoffensively catchy that it's hard to imagine someone having a problem with it. Indeed, most people I knew as a teenager loved this band. Keep in mind the 90's were a time where people wanted to make great art but didn't want to look like they were trying too hard.

The major sidelight to the Cake story is that of their breakthrough hit, "The Distance", which was sort of a novelty tune that somehow exploded and made them seem destined to become one-hit wonders. While McCrea is the primary songwriter in the group, it turns out that guitarist Greg Brown actually wrote the song, which caused a rift in the band as McCrea was receiving almost all of the credit and spotlight. The resulting fallout led to Brown and bassist Victor Damiani leaving to help form the short lived Deathray, which eventually picked up drummer Todd Roper (meaning they had more original Cake members than Cake itself). Cake's sound actually didn't wind up changing too much, though they did start to add a few non-rock instruments like synthesizers and the drum machine.

One thing you'll notice is that Cake really does not go outside of their comfort zone often, which means that their albums pretty much all sound alike. You can either view them as a band that know their limits and stick to what they do well, or a one-trick pony. If you really like the band's sound, you will probably enjoy all their releases to some degree, and likewise, if you don't find a particular album appealing, getting a different one isn't going to help. Either way, I don't foresee anyone developing a Cake obsession now. Still, they were such a big part of my adolescence that I owe it to myself to review them.

Motorcade of Generosity (1994)
Although it doesn't have the reputation of their more mainstream works, all the pieces were firmly in place on their debut album, right down to the non-sequitur title and screen-printed cover art. They can write snappy, good-time rock songs ("Ruby Sees All", "Jolene", "Is This Love?") as well as anyone, but they thrive on exploring the more bizarre sides of kitsch, delving into rockabilly ("Pentagram", "Jesus Wrote a Blank Check"), rumba ("Up So Close"), country ("I Bombed Korea"), and tango ("Comanche"). So there's a good dose of whimsy, but the songwriting is there, and the lyrics are equal parts strange and memorable. The core of the sound is made up mostly of gritty country-rock guitar lines and well-placed trumpet parts that amp up the catchiness factor considerably ("Ain't No Good"). As far as the vocals go, McCrea (and his background shouters) are mostly in good form; though McCrea's vocal range is probably not even an entire octave, the benefit is that it's awfully easy to sing along to, which is the point of most of these songs. The one time he really lets loose is on "Jolene", which concludes with him screaming over a funk rock backdrop, and may be the best moment on the disc. Otherwise, the better songs are the ones that pack the most ideas - for example, "You Part the Waters", a funky tune with a bunch of hooks and some unexpected dramatic piano and string sections. Sometimes they even get a little too weird for their own good, but in a good way, such as on "Mr. Mastodon Farm". The single was "Rock n' Roll Lifestyle", a condemnation of music culture over blatant 60's riffing, which would classify as satire if the lyrics made any sense. Maybe that was the point, but it winds up being the worst song on the album (or at least the one with the fewest ideas). The album's main flaw is the recording and the mastering; it's muffled and seems to have been done mostly in one take, so some obvious mistakes are included. The levels fluctuate pretty wildly from song to song (the bass on "Is This Love?" is turned up to the point of ridiculousness), and the drums were very poorly recorded, sounding more like a guy banging on his desk rather than an actual drummer. While the album was recently remastered, I am not sure if even that would help; this needs radical remixing or even re-recording in order to get this to sound like their later albums. That's frustrating, since in some ways, this is as fun and clever as they ever got, but I have to dock half a star for sound quality reasons.

Fashion Nugget (1996)
This was Cake's big contribution to the canon of hip, self-aware alt-rock, and it's mostly a success, even if it's kind of uneven. This time they focus more on Greg Brown's hard riffing style to give them an edge, which resulted in their one big hit ("The Distance"), which is a song that your Dad probably likes. It's good but thankfully the rest of the album doesn't sound like that. Most of this is a homage to the styles of the 50's, 60's, and 70's, with three (!) cover songs and a few originals that sound like they could have been old standards ("It's Coming Down", "Stickshifts and Safetybelts"). Of the covers, the most shocking is the straightforward rock cover of "I Will Survive", which surprisingly transcends its built-in novelty value. Also shocking is their take on the old Spanish classic "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps", which sounds exactly like the type of Latin-tinged tune you'd hear on Motorcade of Generosity, and as such if you haven't heard the original you probably wouldn't know it was a cover. The third is Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes", which is not shocking at all. Most of the standouts are the originals, some of which are structured rather oddly - on "Frank Sinatra", they're able to pull together what sounds at first like a dubbed out dirge into a brilliant offbeat pop song. "Daria" doesn't do as well, but it's memorable for its sudden shifts and dramatic phrasing. "Nugget" is even stranger, a half-song that combines heavy riffs with nonsensical lyrics and a ridiculous chorus, making it this album's "Mr. Mastodon Farm" (though not as good). The problem with the album is that it feels like more flash than substance; most of the lyrics seem primed to gather some kind of gut reaction (like "bowel-shaking earthquakes", or "she's got a silk dress and/healthy breasts"), and the more "interesting" movements don't quite work. Some of the songs are very good - "Italian Leather Sofa" runs through a bunch of great moments in 6 minutes (including a neat but ridiculous trumpet solo), and "It's Coming Down" is as catchy as anything on the debut. Even the good but unremarkable country ballad "She'll Come Back to Me" helps things out. But only a few of these songs fully work from start to finish. It gets less interesting every time you hear it, which winds up making it sound fairly dated, especially if you first heard it in the 90's. They do score points for musicianship; the rhythm section plays loose and funky which fits the songs well, and Brown's guitar playing is usually very good. That said, unless you really like "The Distance" I'd start by getting one of the following two albums over this one.

Prolonging the Magic (1998)
Losing guitarist Greg Brown and bassist Victor Diamani didn't seem to hamper the band's sound at all; new guitarist Xan McCurdy plays the same gritty style, but he doesn't rock out as much as Brown did. But only the opener ("Satan is My Motor") really calls for it, as the band shifts more towards pop. This time, they give the bass a few leads ("You Turn the Screws", "Never There", among others) which allows the band to focus more on the groove. The side effect of this is that the catchiness factor goes way up; this one delivers on the promise of Motorcade and is the type of album that can easily become a one-off obsession. The more upbeat stuff is almost all a success - "Hem of Your Garment" and "Let Me Go" are both seriously excellent and should stick with you for a while, not to mention the amusing single "Sheep Go To Heaven", based off a famous Bible verse. Most of this is more thoughtful singer-songwriter type stuff, which can either resonate really well in some spots ("When You Sleep", "Alpha Beta Parking Lot"), or be kind of forgettable ("Walk On By", which is just a straight country-rock tune, "Where Would I Be?", which is underwritten). The only real experiment is the processed vocals and keening synths on the otherwise insignificant "Cool Blue Reason"; otherwise, everything sounds rather workmanlike. Still, they have their moments - the jam during the bridge of "Sheep" makes the whole song worthwhile (not to mention the singalong bit at the end). The quality of songwriting is higher than it's ever been, which more than makes up for the lack of neat cover tunes or stuff like "Race Car Ya-Yas". McCrea seems to have the band's shtick worked out to a science - all the background vocals and trumpet parts are in the right place, which is a good thing (if a little boring). In fact, he's so on his game this time that "Mexico" could have became a country standard if it was done by an actual country band. Once again, the single on this one was pretty atypical of the band's sound - "Never There" has a great spy-groove but still feels a bit gimmicky the same way "The Distance" did. Overall this isn't as notable as the last one but it's a better album overall - listen to it twice and you should know all the lyrics by heart. Oddly enough, this one came with a "Parental Advisory" sticker on it, despite no profanity. Perhaps it's a make-up call for "Nugget"?

Comfort Eagle (2001)
I remember being a Cake fan in 2001, not knowing another album was in the works (after all, the internet wasn't really around much then), flipping channels and hitting upon the MTV premiere of the new Cake video, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket". It was very low-budget - just people listening to the song and telling the camera what they thought, but it was clear that Cake had really crystallized their strengths and delivered a song that was so Cake-by-the-numbers that you wonder if it was done tongue-in-cheek. Predictably, most of the public hated it - you have a generic and agreeable riff, obnoxious lyrics (it's a love song to a boring but practical woman), and a chorus that features both trumpet and wordless backup vocals. Their whole career encapsulated in one song. Anyway, the album - there are a few small changes for the new millennium, with a drum machine on a few tracks, some new guitar pedals, and more funky bass parts (which almost sound synthesized at times). This is probably the most well-thought out of their albums, as the songs have more depth and don't venture often into "goofy sing-along" the way their older songs did. There are a few should'a-been radio staples ("Love You Madly", easily one of Cake's best riff tunes, "Shadow Stabbing", which features about the catchiest bridge ever), and a few forays into other genres such as disco ("Opera Singer") or hard rock (the title track), both of which are incredible and rank among their best work. It doesn't quite have the fun factor of the previous albums, as the attempts to be lighthearted don't work out as well as they have in the past ("Pretty Pink Ribbon"). But it's one of their most consistent and impressive from a songwriting stance, and it does actually leave you wanting more; leaving only 10 songs (and a short instrumental) was a good move, since that way there's nothing on here that drags, and songs like "Meanwhile, Rick James" and "Commissioning a Symphony in C" have a lot of replay value. Plus, I'm still kind of amused at McCrea writing himself a song where he plays the part of an opera singer, so that's worth something.

Pressure Chief (2004)
This was one of my most anticipated albums of '04, so when I say it's mediocre, keep in mind that I tried really hard to convince myself it was as good as the other Cake albums I liked so much. The good news is that Cake is not a band that is going to just churn out a bad album, and you can always be assured of at least a couple of good rock songs on each one. McCrea is simply too skilled of a songwriter, and the band's formula was a proven winner for over a decade now, but this just isn't Cake at their best. It's Cake making a Cake album for no reason other than they hadn't made one in a while. I always liked how even their lesser songs were inherently catchy and singable in the past, but some of the stuff here never quite registers ("Waiting", "Take It All Away", "Palm Of Your Hand"), and the excess of synthesizer cheapens some of the tunes that could have been great ("Dime"). Furthermore, the lead single here ("No Phone") is their worst one since "Rock n' Roll Lifestyle", as it's basically a retread of "Never There", with phone sound effects and all. The group is heading down a funkier, more synthesized path, with more drum machine, and bizarre handclap sound effects sprinkled over some of the tracks. For the first time, they let the synths lead in a song ("Take It All Away"), which isn't really a great idea, but at least it's something new. McCrea seems to be singing more and talking less, which is good, but there's not much room for DiFiore here, with some of the horn parts sounding like an afterthought. It works in spots – "Carbon Monoxide" is a boogie (!), and it's one of their catchiest yet, and while the closer once again uses a reflective bass-led approach, it's their best along these lines ("Tougher Than It Is"). There are a few more rootsy songs, and they generally work – "Wheels" is a fine (if simple) opener, "She Hangs The Baskets" is one of their better country-rockers, and they do a straightforward but fine update of Bread's "Guitar Man". So there are some good things here, but overall the album feels flat. Not a bad purchase if you were a big fan already (as I was), but get the earlier albums first.

B-Sides and Rarities (2007)
After three more years, Cake needed to drop a good single quick or slide into irrelevancy. Unfortunately, they didn't and now they are, but we at least got this compilation of tracks from hard-to-find singles. It's a 12-track release with 7 covers, 2 original instrumentals (or near-instrumentals), and 3 live tracks (and let's face it - these guys are not good live). So it's basically an album of covers with a few extras tacked on. This is a good thing, because I'm not sure who's clamoring to hear Cake's second-rate material. Most surprising of these is that they take on Sabbath's "War Pigs", and do not entirely destroy it. It's entertaining, but not exactly something for repeat plays, and most of the rest of the covers are done straight – the closest to getting the "I Will Survive" treatment is Barry White's "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up", which fits their style well and could nearly pass as an original. Otherwise they're all fairly decent but a bit uninteresting, outside of a nice take on "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" which is probably my favorite track here. I must point out that the only one the band really feels at home on is The Muppets' "Mahna Mahna"; otherwise there's always this kind of awkwardness to Cake's music that's apparent when they try to do too many covers in a row. As an album it can wear thin, especially as there's only nine songs here if you don't count the live tracks (one of which is "War Pigs", again), but it's good fun, which is all you can ask of Cake at this stage. I do find it strange that there are no original songs here, but then again that is probably a blessing. This is the kind of album that sounds good on random playlists.

Showroom of Compassion (2011)
"It's 2011, and Cake have just released a new album". There's something oddly endearing about that - I remember discussing the finer points of Cake songs with my classmates way back when Comfort Eagle was brand new, and even though we resigned ourselves to the fact that this band would never change, that was always part of their appeal. You always know what you're going to get with a Cake album - a short, nonsensical title, a bunch of horns and shouty background vocals, and some genuine un-emoting from the stonefaced McCrea. Here we are, seven years (!) after their last album, and still everything's the same, although we are reaching the point where it's a valid question whether or not "Weird Al" Yankovic could write a better Cake album than Cake themselves could. You get the same things you get with every Cake album - gritty rock riffs and obnoxious lyrics about political issues ("Federal Funding"), blatant copping of 60's standards ("Got to Move", a dead ringer for "Groovy Kind of Love"), a decent country tune ("Bound Away"), a half-baked, left-field idea (lifeless closer "Italian Guy", with strings in lieu of any rock instrumentation whatsoever), and the catchy single. This time it's "Sick of You", and though the opening chords are an attention grabber, it soon becomes clear that this is going to be the THIRD leadoff single in a row that draws entirely off their prior work. It's not as focused as "Short Skirt" nor does it have a single reference point the way "No Phone" does, but every element of it can be traced directly to a prior Cake single, going all the way back to the spoken bridge of "Rock n' Roll Lifestyle". This time, the lyrics are almost worse - "Every shiny toy (hey!)/that at first brings you joy (hey!)/will always start to cloy, and annoy (hey!)/Every camera, every phone (hey!)/all the music that you own (hey!)/won't change the fact you're all alone (all alone!)". That on its own wouldn't be so bad, but it's only one of a few songs that make an impression on the first listen, and for a Cake album, that's bad news. Not to say this album is without its charms - the Sinatra cover "What's Now is Now" is a great song (with mellotron!) that would have fit in with their better albums, and "Long Time" is a good upbeat jam (despite the unsettling keyboard parts). As far as the overall sound of the album, all I can say is that the production is similar to Motorcade, which means they've inexplicably gone several steps backwards. I mean, it's better than that album, but it sounds like they wanted to give it a more organic, lo-fi style of production, but just wound up making the album sound bad. There's a big range of synth noises, though at times they're baffling - the synths in "Winter" sound like the background music for Commander Keen, and "Easy to Crash" is underscored by a bunch of blippy noises. Both of these songs could have been a lot better than they turned out. Most of these songs are decent by themselves, but almost everything is undercut by prior Cake material – "Moustache Man (Wasted)" is an unnecessary second-rate rewrite of the first-rate "Comfort Eagle", and the opener "Federal Funding" recalls almost all of their prior openers (particularly "Wheels", which was just one album ago). I've never really been bothered by all this cannibalism in the past, but unlike the album they released ten years ago, it all seems so creatively exhausted, made decent only by a dwindling pile of riffs and hooks. I don't like to encourage the bands I like to hang it up, but what can they possibly have to give at this point? Do we wait until 2018 for the next one, when the entire band is in their 50's?