Cake – The Band You Still Take For Granted
August 1, 2012
by Chuck Norton
I’ve been struggling with listening to music. I’ve been struggling with writing about music. I’ve been struggling with caring about either of those things. I’ve been in a slump.
What better way to try to break out of a slump, than to go back to something old and familiar? Something warm and welcoming? So, that’s what I’m doing.
I’m going back to 1996.
I’m going back to Cake.
The Sacramento-based band, led by John McCrea, released their debut album, Motorcade of Generosity, in 1994. That’s when I first heard the tracks “Ruby Sees All” and “Rock ‘N Roll Lifestyle” – the latter of which was a bit of an anthem for me at the time. I had just graduated from high school and was heading to college that Fall. I couldn’t stand privileged people and that song seemed to be the exact song I needed at that point in my life. Assholes! Also, horns!
Who the fuck put horns on their records in 1994?
In 1996, Cake released their second – and most successful album – Fashion Nugget. I was rolling through every non-popular subgenre of music I could find, when the it came out. Although The Smiths, The Cure and New Order were most heavily in my CD rotation at that time, this album was that out-of-left-field option that never seemed to leave my personal rotation.
When I started writing this review, I threw Fashion Nugget in my portable CD player from 1994. Although I am using different headphones, everything about this feels good. It feels right. It it my personal time machine to drinking and dancing around my college apartment with my roommate acting the fool and pissing off the downstairs neighbors. Good times. Real good times. – Me (An aside that I know you wanted to know.)
I’ve always been the type of asshole who doesn’t like what everyone else likes, just because everyone else likes it. So rather than be into Pavement, I was into Cake. Rather than be into Bright Eyes, I was, you know, not into Bright Eyes.
Anyway, back to Fashion Nugget. The cover of “I Will Survive” and the album’s big hit “The Distance” was everywhere. Every TV show on MTV, every radio station, every movie, everything seem to have one of those songs in it, whether it did or not. But you know what? “I Will Survive” was badass cover and “The Distance” was as unique of a track as the decade created, so it was justified.
The success of those two songs is also why plenty of people probably shunned the album, which is a shame, because it was a fabulous combination of funk, rock, honky-tonk and horns from top-to-bottom. (Horns!) It was like a spaghetti western got fucked up one night and had a threesome with a blaxploitation film and Jerry Reed. It was so wrong, but it felt – and sounded – so good.
McCrea and the band seemed to be so anti-the anti-establishment, that the band became the establishment, even if they never really did. They never really became the stars that similarly eclectic artists like Beck did.
The band had plenty of turnover but from ’94 through ’02, yet each of their four albums produced modern rock-friendly hits that maintained their distinctive flare. Their third album, Prolonging the Magic, had a couple of huge hits, “Never There” and “Let Me Go” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” was a big hit the next album, Comfort Eagle.
But for me, the height of the Cake love affair was Fashion Nugget.
It’s hard to pick out a favorite from the album, because there isn’t really a bad song on it. The band did a surprisingly wonderful job covering Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” as well as the classic “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” (which was probably best known from the Nat King Cole cover although everyone from The Skatalites to Samantha Fox has covered it).
The minor-chord driven “Open Book” is hidden gem and “Frank Sinatra” and “Daria” are delightful, but surpassed by the cutting “Friend Is A Four Letter Word”. The bi-polar nature of the album is one of the reasons it resonated with me, still.
On the up-tempo side, “Stickshits and Safetybelts” was a short-song shot of pure fun as was “Race Car Ya-Ya’s” the overtly sexual “Italian Leather Sofa” is just fabulous.
I wasn’t crazy about McCrea’s Beastie Boys and Beck-esque rapping in “Nugget”, but even on it, the groove is so good that as soon as he start singing, “shut the fuck up” it’s hard not to be doing the white-boy head-bob.
Over the years Cake has come up conversation with friends. I can’t recall anyone saying, “Oh, I love them!” but most everyone begins to talk about how good they were the more they think about them. Cake seems to fall in between a few lesser bands that even the most cooler-than-thou hipsters admit loving (I’m looking at you, Sponge) and the bands that the old-school, college-rock stables like Guided by Voices.
Cake’s career – in my eyes – is kind of like their music. It didn’t fit in anywhere which made it fit in at the time. If the song “She’ll Come Back To Me” was on Beck’s epic, best-of-his-career album Sea Change, it would have been up there with the best songs on the album. But it was lost on an album that sold a million copies instead.
Yes, Fashion Nugget went platnium.
How can a band that sold so many album become an after-thought, today but not be tainted by the cringe-factor of a dated, embarrassing sound? Maybe the secret was in McCrea’s bucket cap. Because who the hell could pull that off other than him and B-Real?
I doubt if anyone today is starting a band and saying, let’s sound like Cake. To me, that’s what makes Cake so interesting and unique. Some 16 years after coming out, they doesn’t sound dated, they just sound like Cake.
In 2011, they released their first new album in six years. I guess even Cake missed Cake.
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