When Cake's single "Going the Distance" broke big in 1996, American modern-rock radio was still heavy with third-echelon grungemeisters. "Going the Distance," with its lean trumpet hook, deadpan vocals and a vibe that seemed overwhelmingly snide, sat uneasily amid the walls of processed guitars and carefully postured angst. But somehow the tune became a runaway hit, propelling the band's sophomore release, Fashion Nugget, past sales of a million and a half. Responding to that success at least as much as to their snarky sound, critics everywhere quickly categorized the group as a clowning one-hit wonder, and simply waited for Cake to go away.
Yet Cake didn't. Instead, while I Mother Earth and Seven Mary Three went back to whatever the hell their jobs were before Lollapalooza, the Sacramento quintet went on to release a string of hit singles. Now it's six years later, and the carefully postured angst has largely turned to inarticulate anger. Cake, however, find themselves once again sitting uneasily amid the walls of processed guitars with a new hit, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket."
"When I hear us played on the radio, it seems really out of place. Between two really heroic rock guitar songs, there's a Cake song. It seems wrong," muses songwriter/vocalist John McCrea, adding, "I shouldn't say that, though. They might stop playing us if I keep repeating that."
McCrea himself marvels at Cake's continued success, given both the industry's fickle nature and its tastemakers' less-than-glowing opinions regarding the outfit.
"All of the bands we started out with, in the mid-'90s, three years after we released our first album they didn't exist anymore. All the really serious music turned out to be the novelty, and the novelty music is well, it's probably still novelty music to a lot of Rolling Stone writers," he says with a laugh. "There's something about us that seems cheap to someone who came of age during the '60s, with that surging, heroic idea of music." The critics' aversion to Cake's music is likely due to the band's near-tangible irreverence toward rock 'n' roll dogma and pop culture in general. If commercial rock were a Creative Writing class, Cake would sit in the back of the room, entertaining all within earshot by coolly and quietly eviscerating those eager to stand up front and spew their cliched, overwrought passions. This disregard for FM convention has endeared the band to an army of pundits sick of radio's homogeneity but distrustful of indie-rock's hipsterism. It's also been a part of Cake's modus operandi since day one, when the ubiquity of big-guitar bands inspired them to present a true alternative. "By default, we knew we didn't want to have loud guitars," says McCrea. "There's nothing wrong with loud guitars, but those big, fat-ass guitars — we thought it was just like a great big Ford Excursion, or whatever. For us, it just didn't seem right. It's not a "might makes right' musical aesthetic; it's more of a "less is more' thing. And that right there is subversive to almost the entirety of American culture."
While Cake's fourth album, Comfort Eagle, contains plenty of the group's trademarked taut, groovy tuneage and casually revelatory attitude, there are more guitars afoot than on previous outings. McCrea attributes the current disc's more rocking moments to the realization that some songs just call for "this chunk-chunk-chunk, chugging guitar sound." He's quick to stress, however, that the album never approaches "wide-load," an adjective the songwriter constantly uses to describe everything from radio's current sounds to our nation's insatiable appetite for more, and more stimulating, input.
"It's funny how the different facets of our culture mirror each other," McCrea says. "Music sounds like really, really huge SUVs barreling down the road right now. Everybody wants to turn it up, wants more, wants their life to be a wide-load experience. It's almost like we're all sort of jaded, and we have to keep turning the volume up, louder and louder. Or the hot sauce has to be spicier and spicier.
"I don't think this album sounds like big dumb rock," he asserts. "There are just a couple of songs on there that have this early-'80s Cars-sounding guitar, or whatever. There were a lot of bands that were doing that stuff, and amazingly enough," he laughs, "there are even more bands who are doing it right now."