I was a Cake fan at twelve. It was “The Distance” that roped me in. It was loud and intense and vaguely funny—it reminded me of “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. The whole album, Fashion Nugget, was wry like that—moody and scornful country rock with lyrics that ranged from playful (“I won’t be soothed over like smoothed over like milk”) to straightforward (“Shut the fuck up,” the title track repeats) to intimate (an extended bridge in “Italian Leather Sofa” about a golddigging housewife cutting some untold late-night snack with a serrated edge, then putting what she doesn’t want in a ziplock freezer bag—I didn’t know what serrated meant until this song.)
So defined is the sound of Fashion Nugget that Cake gobbles up Willie Nelson, a 1947 Cuban mega-hit, and, most notably, Gloria Gaynor—three covers—and they all come out sounding like nothing but Cake. To me then and now, Fashion Nugget is a cool album, playful and mysterious and surprising, with its own lyrical obsessions and musical tics.
One of those tics is singer John McCrae’s tendency to shout similar interjections at a song’s climax. I have a tradition with two friends who have never met each other (Matt H, meet Christy C) of peppering conversation with Cakeisms such as “awnah!” and “awyeah!” and “awright!” and “huh!”
Another tic was an unheard-of and maybe unhealthy passion for the vibraslap, the percussion instrument where you hit it once and it sounds like a rattlesnake.
But the tic they became best known for was McCrae’s talking/shouting voice. John McCrae is the rare singer who got famous for talking. If you played Cake for a non-fan, they probably couldn’t identify the band until you hit a song where he started talking. Whereas talk-singers like Stephen Malkmus will switch from chatting to note-hitting and back to chatting in a single line, McCrae is a compartmentalizer. He mostly sings until it’s time for one of his talky songs, usually only two per album. And it just so happens that in every original song on which Cake made its name (“The Distance,” “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” “Never There,” and “Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle”), only “Never There” features any singing at all, and the singing is relegated to a one-line afterthought of a chorus.
I didn’t mind. I got pulled in by the talk-shout like everybody else. Their little-heard but very good first album, Motorcade of Generosity, features two talk-shout songs, one of which, “Mr. Mastodon Farm,” is about a man who must obsessively watch swooping mastodons to make sure they fly off before smacking into the ground “like small loaves of bread.” The lyrics are exciting for how little Cake is interested in helping the listener know what to make of them. “Heyyy-ooo,” go the backing vocals, and as the song fades out, McCrae allows a little meta-commentary, “And the band gets quieter, and the people get louder.” It’s an unassuming climax to a low-key record that is, like all the others, mostly full of sung songs. Motorcade is almost as good as its successor, lower on atmosphere but as high on song craft.
But then the tics turned to gimmicks. On the heels of two great records, guitarist Greg Brown (who wrote “The Distance”) and bass player Victor Damiani left, and Cake forever stopped sounding like a band that played in the same room together and began, with Prolonging the Magic, to sound like ProTools Himself, recording instruments one at a time in complete silence, every note just so. Gone was spontaneity, gone was a singular sound. Without much of what had made Cake sound like Cake, McCrae leaned too hard on the cards still in his deck: the trumpet solos, the awyeahs, the quirky lyrics, and the vibraslap. But these elements, now void of gritty guitar, atmosphere, or a lick of mystery, now felt pandering and calculated. I persisted in liking them, and not completely unfoundedly: “Sheep Go to Heaven” was a fun song, so was “Satan is My Motor,” and “Guitar” featured the line, “The way you treat me like the only slightly brings me down a lot,” so that was something.
Then came Comfort Eagle, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
The first track, “Opera Singer,” opens to a blipping electronic beat, bright guitar, and Cake’s trademark trumpet, and then McCrea begins to sing, “I am an opera singer,” which he proceeds to remind us a couple times each verse and chorus. On the surface, the song is a character study about a famous opera singer with a golden voice who has sung “for kings in Europe and emperors in Japan,” but whose “talent feeds [his] darker side” and turns him into a megalomaniac. But there’s no subtext here, just a series of candid self-assessments (pretty aware for a hyperdiva) punctuated always by the line, “I am an opera singer.” The opera singer is not a character inhabited, but a list of attributes (“stands on painted tape,” check, “rehearsals last for hours,” check) told in the first person. All that redeems the song are (1) there aren’t many pop songs told from the perspective of opera singers and (2) it’s pretty catchy.
The same could be said of the next three songs on Eagle, the best of which is the talky single, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” which again employs the first person list, but this time to better effect in an idiosyncratic “What I Want in a Woman” litany. “At Citybank, we will meet accidentally,” McCrae says, and then the band immediately shouts “meet accidentally!” The magic of backing vocals is that they can highlight the absurdity of a line just by repeating it. But like Prolonging’s “Never There,” this single also feels calculated and perfunctory. It was never not going to be the single. And the fact that it’s the album’s best song speaks to how Cake’s cool detachment had now detached a step further: the songs and their singer were checked out. After “Short Skirt,” though, the album completely falls to toothless anti-consumer crunch (“Comfort Eagle”), a forgot-the-vocals instrumental (“Arco Arena”), and headachey grocery-rock (“Love You Madly”).
Comfort Eagle completed Cake’s transformation from rabid-quirky country-tinged rockers to makers of quirky-quirky Pro Tools pop. And the less said about album #5, Pressure Chief, the better. It’s awful. One of those where on first spin, you realize you’d been hanging on to a band that no longer exists. I gave up. A b-sides comp arrived a couple years later and it was no struggle to resist.
It’s for 1998 to present that Cake’s critical reputation is nonexistent, but if you go back and give those first two albums a shot, I’m vouching: They hold up. So here’s what we do: Let’s rope off Cake’s first two albums and admit that Fashion Nugget, in particular, is a classic. Let’s give them the Weezer treatment, loving the good and ignoring the rest, occasionally checking in on whatever else arrives just on the off-chance that Cake remembers what a band sounds like. Awyeah.