Cake is a joke. A joke, at least, to some who take the Sacramento band’s off-kilter songs at surface worth, branding them cheeky pop ditties with no more scrutiny than is necessary to divine the color of one’s own shirt. To critics and fans, however, Cake is a multi-layered musical marvel: clever and peerless in their pursuit of the perfect pop nugget. They just happen to dress their intellect in wacky metaphor.
“We’ve always been a joke band to some people,” says singer-guitarist-songwriter John McRea. “But I can say that my lyrics ... I’m dead serious. If we seem jokey next to a Creed song, or a Staind song, I can understand. We’re being sort of juxtaposed into a very different aesthetic environment, so we just seem like this emasculated court jester coming in to tell the king a couple of bawdy jokes before the guards haul us off. I know that’s what we seem like, but we’re dead serious.”
One might speculate that the band (McRea, drummer Todd Roper, bassist Gabriel Nelson and guitarist Xan McCurdy) might actually be gelded goofballs, given the collapse of their former label, Capricorn Records. The truth, however, is Cake signed with Columbia Records before the Capricorn flipped its “Sorry, we’re closed” sign, and Comfort Eagle, their Columbia debut, was in the can before the ink had dried.
The disc is vintage Cake—original and eclectic, but cohesive. It’s almost surprising, given that most bands use label shifts as an opportunity to reinvent or retool. Instead, writing and recording were business as usual, no altered mindset or methods. “I set out to take it on a song-by-song basis. I take issue with the idea that anything, aesthetically, should be taken on a more general basis. Each song has its own particular set of demands and requirements. Some songs need to sound authentic and earthy, and some songs need to sound ethereal and artificial.”
All four adjectives apply, alone and in concert. Comfort Eagle is certainly authentic—who else sounds like Cake?—as well as earthy, ethereal and artificial, while deftly ducking pretense. “Opera Singer,” “Long Line of Cars” and the first single, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” are textbook Cake, replete with DiFiore’s tasteful trumpet, McRea’s high irony, and plenty of laid-back licks. “Shadow Stabbing” and “Commissioning A Symphony in C” incorporate new-wavy, School of Ocasek elements and a down-home gospel bluegrass refrain with nary a seam. The instrumental “Arco Arena” is a neo-progressive rock antecedent to “Comfort Eagle,” which finds Cake flirting with—no, satirizing—angsty radio metal.
Another wonder is how Comfort Eagle contains zero percent vitriol! At least, no barbed lyrics directed at the band’s former label, Capricorn Records. In fact, McRea calls the split amicable, quelling any speculation as the meaning of the lyric, “sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell” (see “Sheep Go to Heaven,” from Cake’s final Capricorn release, Prolonging the Magic). He dismisses it as an interesting coincidence, asserting he bears no ill will toward the label. “They’re a Music Distribution Entity, but I don’t personalize Music Distribution Entities and I don’t romanticize them, so I have no disappointment with them. They are sort of a force that is neither good nor evil to me, as is Columbia. It’s just a matter of which truck can more dependably deliver our music to people’s homes, or to the record stores.”
Columbia is undoubtedly elated to have the platinum-selling band, likely more so since they didn’t have to pony up for the “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” video. Not only that, but the concept (a man-on-the-street poll reaping reactions to the single) had a byproduct: free market research. Says McRea, “Some people hated it, some people loved it, but it was always interesting. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, this is great, but they need a new vocalist,’ or ‘I don’t think they’ll go places.’ It was funny. It was more interesting than a video with four white guys lip-synching in an urban decay setting.”
The video muscled up to heavy rotation on Canada’s MuchMusic (ditto the clip for “Love You Madly”) and has been a featured stream on Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, and was added at MTV2 last summer. McRea enjoys the exposure, but is wary of excess. “For some reason, we just aren’t household name, which is probably good, because I think the United States is sort of suspicious of things that the United States likes. It’s sort of a misanthropic feeling—if everybody likes it, there must be something wrong with it. And I don’t know that we really like ourselves, so if this band ever becomes really popular, I’m sure that we’ll have to be flushed down the toilet.”