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Indulge in Cake’s Brand of Humor and Funk

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Among the greatest mysteries in life includes the following: why isn’t Cake bigger than they are?

For 20 years, the band has forged a truly unique sound, mixing rock, funk, a touch of rap, a little Mariachi music, and a healthy dose of humor. Yet their numerous releases, beginning with Motorcade of Generosity in 1994, haven’t made a dramatic impact on the charts. Still, lead vocalist John McCrea–along with trumpet player Vince DiFiore, bassist Gabe Nelson, drummer Paulo Baldi, and guitarist Xan McCurdy–have consistently produced some of the funkiest and funniest tracks in current music.

Formed in 1991, McCrea and the band first entered the mainstream with their second release, Fashion Nugget, which contained the popular single “The Distance.” The half-rapped track, along with a pounding beat, popping bass, an aggressive guitar riff, and seemingly-out-of-nowhere trumpet, stood out in the 1996 modern rock scene. However, their genre-bending sound, quirky lyrics, and McCrea’s smug delivery may have cost them massive success. Yet their growing catalog demonstrates how the group contains first-class musicians, and the funny lyrics, along with McCrea’s refusal to take himself seriously, lend Cake a timeless appeal. To delve into the often eccentric world of Cake, try the following essential cuts:

  • “The Distance” – Still their biggest hit to date, the song chugs along, sonically Cakeimitating a car race. McCrea’s almost spoken word delivery emphasizes the emotions evoked in the lyrics: “Churning and burning, they yearn for the cup/ They deftly maneuver and muscle for rank/ Fuel burning fast on an empty tank,” he chants. He rhythmically punctuates the chorus, this time describing a jockey: “Because he’s racing and pacing and plotting the course/ He’s fighting and biting and riding on his horse.” While not as humorous as later singles, the track still contains essential Cake elements: a driving beat, R&B-influenced bass, and McCrea’s dry voice. From 1996’s Fashion Nugget.
  • “I Will Survive” – Probably Gloria Gaynor never envisioned a profanity-laced, rock cover of her disco classic. But Cake maintains the song’s anger and cry for independence, and the constant funky bass lines also recall its dance roots. McCrea sings the words without apparent irony, increasing the words’ defiant tone: “Did you think I’d crumble?/ Did you think I’d lay down and die?/ Oh not I,” he sings. Interestingly he departs from the original version in that he distinctly separates the line “oh not I” from the next line, “I will survive,” sounding even more determined than Gaynor’s dance-friendly delivery. From Fashion Nugget.
  • “Never There” – Few tracks illustrate Cake’s genre-spanning sound than “Never There,” which prominently features DiFiore’s Mariachi-flavored trumpet. McCrea alternates between rapping and singing, expanding on the anger he expressed in “I Will Survive.” “I need your arms around me/ I need to feel your touch/ I need your understanding, I need your love/ So much,” he flatly states. Clearly his girlfriend does not provide any of these things: “When first you say you’re too busy/ I wonder if you even miss me,” he snarls. The unusual, slightly off-kilter rhythm underscores the offbeat notion of this dysfunctional relationship. From 1998’s Prolonging the Magic.
  • “Comfort Eagle” – Featured in the 2001 comedy Shallow Hal, this song represents Cake’s eccentric humor. Similar to “The Distance,” the galloping beat and relentless guitar riff drives the song to its lyrical climax: “He is handling the money/ He’s serving the food/ He knows about your party/ He is calling you ‘Dude!'” Is the track a commentary on religion becoming too commercial? Did it foretell today’s Occupy Wall Street movement with lyrics like “Take a bite of this apple, Mr. Corporate Events/ Take a walk through the jungle of cardboard shanties and tents,” with McCrea proclaiming that “The wacky morning DJ/ Says democracy’s a joke”? What exactly is a “comfort eagle”? Cake slyly gives away little, but the opacity of “Comfort Eagle” just adds to its appeal. From 2001’s Comfort Eagle.
  • “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” – Perhaps the best-known Cake song besides “The Distance,” it is a humorous, funky romp that features some of Neal’s best bass work. Listen to the song on headphones or superior quality speakers to fully experience the complicated bass lines. The drop-kick drumbeat works perfectly with the song, stressing its soulful roots. However, the real standout is McCrea’s absurd imagery: “I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity/ Who used a machete to cut through red tape/ With fingernails that shine like justice,” he raps. Obviously criticizing materialism, comparing love with commercialism, he states his rather unusual turnons: “I want a girl with a smooth liquidation/ I want a girl with good dividends.” What really seals the deal is the McCrea-directed video, a hilariously uncensored clip that chronicles everyday people’s reactions upon first hearing the song. From Comfort Eagle.

Cake recently released their latest album, Showroom of Compassion, and continues producing their own brand of funk-rock. Start with these aforementioned songs, and delve further into the underappreciated band’s constantly developing, boundary-expanding music.

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About Kit O'Toole