Sunday, January 23, 2011

More CAKE, Please

Listening to and enjoying CAKE's new album Showroom of Compassion has made me want to go back and revisit their older stuff, which I haven't done in a while. I had friends who liked CAKE back in the day, and was aware of their "I Will Survive" cover, but my first album was Comfort Eagle, which I listened to over and over again when it came out. Their new album does not have as many sparkly songs as some of their more well-known classics, but "Mustache Man" and "Sick of You" remind the listener of the glory days of Fashion Nugget and Comfort Eagle. Meanwhile, the rest of the album is filled with thoughtful, subtly layered tracks that show artistic movement and maturity.

My initial thought was to go backwards in time, starting with Pressure Chief. It was a real pleasure to listen to again, and I noted layering and complexity similar to their current album, in contrast to a more straightforward style (guitar, bass, drums, trumpet) from their earlier work. I was also reminded of my favorite CAKE cover (no, not "I Will Survive," though that is a great cover): "The Guitar Man." That song makes me happy every time I listen to it.The weakest track on the album is probably "She'll Hang the Baskets," but I'd argue that it's really the only weak track, and it's really not so bad. Being an occasional fan of electronica, and more so a fan of rock/folk/electronica fusion, I appreciate the synthesized elements that, in CAKE's discography, are perhaps most prominent on Pressure Chief. It's an excellent album overall, and one of my favorites. Besides "The Guitar Man," some of my other favorites include "Carbon Monoxide," "End of the Movie," and "Tougher Than It Is."

Because I only had one other CAKE album on my iPod when I finished listening to Pressure Chief, my idea of listening backwards kind of went out the window right at the start. Of course, if I had to pick one other album to be on there besides their latest, it would be Fashion Nugget, arguably one of the best albums of the nineties, at the very least. With Fashion Nugget, CAKE established their trademark sound and a unique place in rock music. The meaty, melodic, funky guitars and prominent bass lines combined with a single trumpet and occasional country and western sensibilities make it hard to categorize their sound accurately. Add to that  lyrics that are sometimes snappy and pointed and other times sentimental, and you've got a nice mix that fits a variety of moods.

It's hard to find any fault with Fashion Nugget. I'll confess that I'm a sucker for a good hook, and there are lots of great singalong songs here--almost all of them, really. And it doesn't get tired or boring. Fashion Nugget also features the most cover songs on an album, with "I Will Survive," Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," and "Sad Songs and Waltzes." CAKE have a wonderful way of making a cover song their own while still effectively paying homage to the original. I was reading in a couple of places that "I Will Survive" was perceived as making fun of the original, which surprised me because I'd never gotten that impression. The attitude of the song seemed to be consistent with the attitude of the album and the attitude of McCrea himself--at least as much of himself that's reflected in his lyrics. Sardonic, cynical, yes, but ultimately idealistic. It's a shame that some reviewers can't look past the cynicism to see a band that is hopeful for a better world and trying to do something to change it (their current album was recorded entirely on solar power, apparently). My favorite songs on the album (while I like them all) are probably "Friend is a Four-Letter Word," "It's Coming Down," and "Italian Leather Sofa."

I went home that night and put the rest of CAKE's albums on my iPod, and worked out a plan for listening to the rest of them. Prolonging the Magic would be next, followed by Comfort Eagle. Only then would I go back and listen to their first album, Motorcade of Generosity, followed again by their new one. On longer trips, I have been known to listen to the discography of a band; it's something I love doing, but I find it hard to convince my fellow passengers to partake willingly, at least by the strict parameters that I like to set (listening straight through, without breaks). So, with some compromises, I've been able to  do it with later-era Beatles (Help! and beyond), Weezer (through the red album), and They Might Be Giants (through The Else, and not including ABCs or 123s). I attempted The Byrds on our family cross-country trip a year ago, but only got through Younger Than Yesterday. I like how a band's work is laid out in front of you and you notice things you don't when you listen in the more usual scattered way.

All that's to say that I am pleased for various reasons that the order I am listening to CAKE's albums is not my usual approach, because it allows for some interesting conjunctions that wouldn't have happened otherwise: Pressure Chief with Fashion Nugget, Comfort Eagle with Motorcade of Generosity, and Motorcade with Showroom.

Prolonging the Magic is probably CAKE's weakest album overall. Considering their habits of late, 3 albums in 6 years (1994, 1996, 1998) is a frenetic pace. "Satan is My Motor" is somewhat of a soft opening, but "Mexico," ironically picks up the pace a bit, even though it's a slower song. The next three "Never There," "Guitar," and "You Turn the Screws" are a solid mix of styles and moods. But aside from "Hem of Your Garment," the next 5 songs--too similar in tempo and punch--all kind of run together. I found myself getting impatient as I was listening. It's not that the songs are bad; they just remind me of nineties alt-rock a little more than I'd like them to. "Sheep Go to Heaven" is fun lyrically, but doesn't distinguish itself musically enough to stand out like "Never There" and "Let Me Go." The album picks up nicely, thank goodness, with "Let Me Go" and ends well with the melancholy two-fer "Cool Blue Reason" and "Where Would I Be?" Prolonging the Magic is cover-free, something the band would continue through Comfort Eagle.

It's tough to be objective about music that identifies a specific period in your life. Comfort Eagle was a staple during that oh-so-tough transition between graduating from Houghton and finally moving away from home to seek my fortune, so to speak. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do. I was beginning to resign myself to a career in education, but only because I couldn't think of anything else. Thank goodness for my former roommate and (current) friend who became a children's librarian himself and gave me a glimpse of what I could be doing with my life. Nevertheless, the confidence and certainty of Comfort Eagle was something of an escape from my own lack of direction. Songs from the album appeared on almost every mix CD I made during that time (and I made a lot). Listening to it all the way for the first time in years hasn't diminished the love I have for the album, despite being in completely different circumstances now. So when I rave about it over the course of the next paragraph, know that I believe every word I'm saying, but there's no way I can be even remotely objective about the album.

Comfort Eagle starts off with one of McCrea's quirky character profiles "Opera Singer." It's in a similar vein to "Italian Leather Sofa" and "Mustache Man," but less overtly judgmental. "Meanwhile, Rick James" is my least favorite song on the album, but it's mostly because I don't really get it. Musically, it's well constructed and pleasant to listen to. Conversely, "Shadow Stabbing" was for a long time my favorite. It's possible that we are getting a glimpse into McCrea's writing process: "I'm so nervous, I'm so tense, My heart can't forget about this self defense" could be a little insight into how frustrating it must be to have your art misunderstood so frequently. Certainly, CAKE has plenty of fans, but reviewers are reluctant to really give them their due. Frequent criticisms have to do with the sarcasm, McCrea's non-sequitir lyrical style, and what is perceived to be a deadpan voice. For as much as I love this band--a love that was developed in a much more musically discerning adulthood, by the way--I am puzzled by why people don't seem to get them. I'm not professing to understand what every song is about, but I get the depth of the music. It refers back to that cynical idealism, I think. People get put off by surface lyrics and aren't often willing to dig deeper when something puts them off. But the dedicated listener is rewarded with a message of underlying passion for the human condition. The anger comes because McCrea thinks we should know better and that we should be doing so much more for the environment and for each other. Instead, we're distracted by money and jockeying for position because we have no real sense of self worth. It's sad, and it's infuriating. McCrea's lyrics have an edge to them sometimes, but he softens that edge with dry humor and oddball imagery. After "Shadow Stabbing," Comfort Eagle doesn't let up for pretty much the rest of the album. "Arco Arena" is one of the best modern rock instrumentals I've heard, which may or may not be a compliment, since instrumentals in rock music are practically nonexistent. More kudos  to CAKE for marching to their own drumbeat. It's altogether too short at a minute and a half, however. The title track is perhaps one of the most pointed, sarcastic, powerful, and chilling indictments of our consumerist, capitalistic culture in rock music. Its ire is aimed at the music industry, but there's no questioning that McCrea is insinuating more far-reaching implcations. "Comfort Eagle" has grown on me, and may be my favorite CAKE song now. I had to listen to it 4 or 5 times for the sake of this particular project. The entire album benefits from listening to it all the way through. It's like a story, building to a climax with "Comfort Eagle" and wrapping things up with the resolve of "World of Two." It's too bad that Di Fiore's lovely trumpet is less noticeable throughout the album, but it is not absent at all, and its appearance in a song almost takes the listener by surprise--which is nice, because it's not something you ever want to take for granted, even as a longtime fan. one glaring difference that sets Comfort Eagle apart from its companions is the almost complete absence of McCrea's trademark "Ooooh, yeah" and "Aaaall right." The album is well-produced and clean-sounding as well, but certainly not to its detriment.

I was curious to see how CAKE's first studio album, Motorcade of Generosity would hold up--not only to all of their albums, but also to the fact that is it the one I am least familiar with. Turns out it's a solid album, particularly for a debut. I'd read a couple of instances where CAKE was compared to Soul Coughing, and this is the only album that I found it to be true, if only for a few songs: "Jolene" and "Mr. Mastodon Farm" were most distinct in their similarities. The Tex-Mex influence is strongest here, especially in the first few songs, betraying McCrea's California roots. There are a few tracks that wouldn't be out of place on a current CAKE album, like "Ruby Sees All" and "Haze of Love," which makes for an interesting observation about the band: their sound hasn't changed all that much. And yet, each album has a distinct flavor. There is a discussion about a band's "growth" and "maturity" and what all that means in here, but I've gone on for long enough that maybe someone else will bring it up so I can wrap this up before too much longer.

On a side note, you don't see too many references to faith or religion in CAKE's lyrics, but "Jesus Wrote a Blank Check" makes me wonder about McCrea's spiritual background and perspective. I've been perusing interviews online, but there's not much about it there.

So back to Showroom of Compassion. It's definitely mellower on the whole than their other stuff, but not necessarily less dynamic, which is what impresses me about the album. There's a lot to pay attention to musically, and lyrically there's a wistfulness that's not as prominent on CAKE's other albums. "The Winter" is perhaps the most depressing Christmas song I've ever heard. But it's honest and heartbreaking and one of the highlights of the album.

I realize that I haven't included B-Sides and Rarities in this discussion. There are a lot of good tracks on the album, but it lacks the cohesiveness of their studio releases. It's got two notable cover songs: "Mahna Mahna" and "Strangers in the Night." Definitely worth a listen.

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