Cake is for everyone!
by Richard A. Martin
Few bands rankle rock's intelligentsia as much as Cake. Maybe it's that the Sacramento band's mastermind, John McCrea, is rarely seen without a geeky golf hat, or that he doesn't so much sing as talk in a snide, overly casual tone, or that his semi-sensical lyrical constructs only approach coherence when he's rhapsodizing about cars or girls. All that aside, the cabal of Cake critics solidified their hatred after having their sensibilities sideswiped by the band's first bona fide hit, "The Distance," an over-the-top tale of one man's battle for redemption on the raceway tarmac.
But McCrea didn't write "The Distance," and the guy responsible for its blustery, laughably shallow message is gone. Cake's third and most recent album, Prolonging the Magic, avoids bombastic choruses while it streamlines the band's trumpet-enhanced, rhythmically minimalist sound. OK, so it doesn't have the obtuse appeal of Pavement or the post-ironic musical referencing of Beck, and McCrea may very well hatch his insidiously catchy melodies with a devious intent to lure in the backwards-cap-wearing masses; the first radio-ready single, "Never There," certainly succeeded. But he's also a shrewd culture commando, musically alluding to the Rocky soundtrack ("You Turn the Screws"), coyly dissing SoCal "emptiness" ("Sheep Go to Heaven"), and mimicking a generic disco beat in a song whose title hints at a gospel foundation that's not at all there ("Hem of Your Garment").
Beyond such cultural claptrap, Cake's genius—yes, genius—stems from its elusive depth. McCrea's much-maligned monotonous drawl is actually quite nuanced, whether he's expressing grief over a lost love in "Walk on By" or confessing his frailty, as he does in "Mexico," a pedal-steel-accented song that's a stylistic cousin to Camper Van Beethoven's later work.
No, Cake won't receive credit for such accomplishments. While Fluevog-shoed youths pump their fists in unison to McCrea's mandated live renditions of "The Distance," and while critics fling Cake to the proverbial floor like bratty children in their high chairs, I'll stand in the corner and soak in the Magic of every noodling trumpet line, every wryly sung word, and every memorable melody. I will have my Cake, dammit, even if I have to eat by myself.
Just say no to cake!
by Jackie McCarthy
I have no problem with one-hit wonders. I fell sway to the jaunty strains of Smashmouth's remake of "Walking on the Sun" and the insidious hook of Marcy Playground's "Sex and Candy"; once I even caught myself singing along to a Semisonic song. So I can't help wondering why these bands don't just stop while they're ahead.
Cake, for example. Back in 1996, I wasn't averse to hearing Cake's single "The Distance" on the radio. Then it turned out that the band had already released a debut album, and this novelty-esque song was from its second record. This group actually thought it deserved (shudder) a career.
So now we've got Prolonging the Magic, Cake's third helping of vocals that would get booed off the stage at a third-rate poetry slam, and melodies that could generously be described as innocuous.
I would have been content to let Cake enjoy its illusions of artistic relevance in peace, but then I discovered that, like over-earnest chanteuse Lisa Loeb (another Richard A. Martin favorite), the band recently appeared in a mail-order clothing catalog. (A helpful hint to any rock musician: Even if you want to exploit to the fullest that one smash that radio stations can't stop playing, do not appear in mail-order catalogs, clothing or otherwise. In fact, avoid doing anything even remotely resembling a "fashion spread," including that embarrassing MTV show, unless you want to be judged mainly by your appearance—in which case you'd better be sure that you look damn good.)
Here are two highlights from the Cake Q&A in the American Eagle Outfitters catalog:
1. Singer John McCrea has a reputation for being "a bit of a control freak." This isn't really his fault, though. It's just the way he's made.
2. Although Cake is famous for espousing an ironic point of view, the band's new album is "not a matter of irony per se, it's a matter of the really supersubtle kind of irony."
Prolonging the magic, indeed.
Cake's recent short appearance at the End's Deck the Hall Ball revealed that it's veering in a country/jam-band direction. More power to it, and I hope those new cowboy hats pay off. Still, if I had a knife at my throat, I'd be hard put to decide between Phish and Cake. Unless I also had a fork in my hand—then I'd definitely take Phish.