Sacramento, California’s Cake were unlikely candidates to wind up with platinum album plaques on their walls, but they did. Singer John McCrea doesn’t have a great voice; half the time he sounds so detached from what he’s singing that his own irony isn’t ironic enough for him. And since when has a band with trumpet (played by multi- instrumentalist/backing vocalist Vince di Fiore) as a lead instrument ruled the radio airwaves? But somehow Cake made these apparent weaknesses strengths, and along with a truly inventive guitar sound, scored two of the biggest modern rock hits of the late ’90s.
The key to Cake’s sound is the extreme difference in the guitar playing of McCrea and Greg Brown. McCrea uses an antique acoustic practice guitar plucked straight from ’30s be-bop, while Brown plays chunky, country-influenced thick- toned guitar licks that propel the music along. That’s just one of the features of Cake’s musical blueprint on display on the group’s self-produced debut, Motorcade of Generosity. The album has massed backing vocals (usually shouting one word — “push” and “pull” in “Jolene,” which is not a cover of the Dolly Parton classic). It has McCrea’s left-of-center lyrics — he either comes off as the king of pompous irony (“Mr. Mastodon Farm”) or like someone who just woke up and wrote down stream-of-consciousness gibberish (“I Bombed Korea”). Some songs are a bit too cute for their own good, such as the not-smarter-than-their-titles “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check” and “Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle,” but Motorcade is nonetheless a noteworthy debut.
Fashion Nugget doesn’t drift too far from the debut’s designs. McCrea and Brown’s guitar work meshes even better, while di Fiore’s trumpet finds the exact gaps to fill in each song. All of these elements come together on “The Distance,” which ruled the airwaves in the summer of 1996. A bizarre half-spoken tale about an athlete running a race (or so it seems), “The Distance” became a sports anthem for the ages, played at arena and stadiums all around the United States. The rest of the album finds McCrea putting on different musical disguises. With a plodding pace and muscular guitar lick, “Friend Is a Four Letter Word” could be his attempt to pen a Neil Young and Crazy Horse classic. Cake’s country impulse comes to the fore on the hoedown “Stickshifts and Safetybelts” and a surprisingly good cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” The only misstep is a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Surivive,” in which McCrea reverts to his king-of-all- irony vocal pose.
The success of “The Distance” fractured the group, as guitarist Greg Brown quit in 1997 and went on to form the new-wave inspired power popsters Deathray. Brown had written “The Distance,” so he was especially hard to replace. As a matter of fact, five guitarists took his place on Prolonging the Magic. Rather than distract McCrea, however, the rotating cast of players drove him to deliver his best work yet. “Mexico” is a country song, with McCrea’s most passionate and honest vocal. “Never There” became the band’s second big hit, using a sample of a dial tone as the basis of its funky rhythm. “Saatan Is My Motor” and “Sheep Go to Heaven” are genuinely original topics for genuinely funny songs.
Guitarist Xan McCurdy (who plays on one track on Prolonging the Magic) joined Cake full-time just before they hit the road, but that hasn’t done much to inspire the leader. Comfort Eagle opens promisingly enough with the funky drum-machine-propelled “Opera Singer.” But the album basically sounds like a Cake tribute band. McCurdy’s playing and tone don’t come close to touching Brown’s talent and McCrea sounds like he could care less about what he’s singing. Only the instrumental tribute to a hometown venue “Arco Arena” and the single “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” succeed on an otherwise disappointing dud.