Tag Archives: Cake

The Case for Cake

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.

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RIGID RUMORS drops today.


Gabe Durham – Rigid Rumors (2009) – download the zip file here

A new album of previously uncollected remixes, 2.5 years in the making.

1. Fan in the Stands
2. Yeah Yeah Uh Uh Oo Oo Ooh
3. No Planes
4. Yoko in Idaho
5. First You Reel Me Out…
6. …Then You Cut the String
7. Ends to my Friends
8. No Beatbox in Baseball
9. Salty and Sweet Like
10. Woke Me Up
11. Prison for Jerks

http://www.mediafire.com/?wzy5znvzjl5 (192 kbps / 39 mins)

If you want to try before you buy, the whole thing is currently streaming on MySpace.

Featuring the Music of (roughly in order of descending importance): Bjork, Biggie Smalls, Radiohead, Andrew Bird, Outkast, M.I.A., Josh Ritter, the Swell Season, Madonna, Glen Phillips, The National, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, Damien Rice, The Beatles, Blind Melon, Animal Collective, Beyonce, The Proclaimers, John Lennon, The Traveling Wilburys, Kanye West, Spoon, Pavarti Khan, of Montreal, Daft Punk, David Garza, Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, Cake, The Mountain Goats, Rilo Kiley, They Might Be Giants, Wednesday Night Worship, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Sufjan Stevens, Biodome 5, Simon and Garfunkel, The Arcade Fire, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Folds, David Gray, Wilco, Goldspot, Klaxons, The Wrens, The Decemberists, Beck, The Waifs.

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Uncollected Remixes, For Your Convenience

I like the life that web content can take on. Occasionally people get a hold of one of my remixes through various searches or words-of-mouth or links and love/hate them in equal measure. Most recently in remix news, Tom’s friend included one of my songs in a fashion show. I like thinking of sexy people on runways being sexy to my songs.

I haven’t done any remixes since my old laptop broke in early 2008. My new laptop is a Mac and isn’t compatible with the software. (I am unwilling to try and make the best of it with GarageBand.) My old laptop could be fixed or we could get a new computer, but until then, no new songs.

However, before it broke, I did five new songs and posted them on this site. I like them all about as much as I like anything on my last album, and decided to re-post them, all together, along with their component tracks. Three are easy downloads, two require a quick stop at MySpace, all are free, all are personally endorsed by Barack Obama, Abe Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.

Gabe Durham – Playground

Bjork – The Triumph of a Heart
Madonna – This Used to Be My Playground
Spoon – I Turn My Camera On
Parvati Khan – Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja
M.I.A. – Jimmy
Of Montreal – Jimmy
One Measure Featuring Some Obscure Daft Punk Song

Gabe Durham – Spirit of Shackleton

Glen Phillips – The Spirit of Shackleton
David Garza – Say Baby
Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos – A Sea Shanty of Sorts
Cake – I Bombed Korea
The Mountain Goats – Song For Lonely Giants
Rilo Kiley – Silver Lining
TV on the Radio – I Was A Lover
They Might Be Giants – She’s An Angel
Wednesday Night Worship – Holy is the Lord

Gabe DurhamMind’s Made Up / Morning Bell / 15 Step

Radiohead – 15 Step, Morning Bell (Kid A), Morning Bell (Amnesiac), MK 1
Once Soundtrack – When Your Mind’s Made Up
The Frames – When Your Mind’s Made Up
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out (live)
Sufjan Stevens – All Good Naysayers, Year of Our Lord, Come On! Feel the Illinoise!
Simon and Garfunkel – Cloudy
Biodome 5 – Voice Like a Shotgun

Gabe DurhamYoko in Idaho (this one redirects to MySpace)

Josh Ritter – Idaho
Beatles – Sun King
John Lennon – Oh Yoko
Ella Fitzgerald – I Get A Kick Out of You
Ben Folds – Golden Slumbers
Traveling Wilburys – Margarita
Arcade Fire – Neighborhood #2
Sufjan Stevens – You Are the Rake

Gabe Durham – Fan in the Stands (also redirects to MySpace)

Outkast – Morris Brown
David Gray – Lead Me Upstairs
The Proclaimers – I Met You
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife 2, The Crane Wife 3
Goldspot – It’s Getting Old
Klaxons – Gravity’s Rainbow
Bruce Springsteen – Perfect Disguise
The Wrens – Happy
Beck – Think I’m In Love
The Waifs – The Waitress
+ a Wilco drum roll

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New Remix: The Spirit of Shackleton


When longtime GRC favorite Glen Phillips offered up the best song off his new EP for the mixing, I knew I had to take him up on it.

Gabe Durham – Shackleton Remix

This track is composed of:

Glen Phillips – The Spirit of Shackleton
David Garza – Say Baby
Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos – A Sea Shanty of Sorts
Cake – I Bombed Korea
The Mountain Goats – Song For Lonely Giants
Rilo Kiley – Silver Lining
TV on the Radio – I Was A Lover
They Might Be Giants – She’s An Angel
Wednesday Night Worship – Holy is the Lord

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