Wednesday, March 16, 2005

No Pun Good Enough for CAKE.

I've programmed an auto playlist into my media player which I've labelled "True Believers," which is the collected works of the twenty bands that have most affected and anchored my listening habits in my life. It began at 10 bands, but the "I couldn't possibly leave out 'X'" factor quickly doubled the number.
Some of the bands are by now rather embarrassing - Queen and Van Halen. Some seem almost too easy - U2 and R.E.M. A few border on self-righteously obscure - Soul Coughing and Juluka.
And then there is Cake...
I love Cake. Everyone I know who likes Cake, loves Cake. Anyone else it seems hates Cake. I had no idea.
John McCrea's ironic wit and the genre-bending musicality of the band is, in my world, hot sex for the ear. But aparently, it's not good sex for everyone. It seems that it's kinky sex.
Just look at the reviews on All-Music dot com. Both the band as a whole and the albums in general fall victim to the the inexplicable snobbery of a "you think you're so hip that it's not cool" elitism. Now how bizarre is that? I do think that Cake puts up a bit of attitude - especially having seen them in concert... which I admit was a somewhat tepid experience. But I think that even that attitude is part of the joke.
The scope of Cake's musical prowress mixed with their defiantly limited instrumentation, make for a sound that both knows no boundaries as far as what it can embrace stylistically, but also is instantly recognizable - the distinctive cheap acoustic guitar sound, the near-ubiquitous trumpet and the unique vocals of J.M. ought to - in my mind - make for an easily digestible aural meal for almost anyone. There MUST be a song in the Cake catalogue for practically everyone, no?
Aparently not. Aparently the smug irony gives Cake an air of 'being above everyone.'
But I don't see it. I really don't. I think everyone is invited along.
In my world, Cake made a world where it is safe for small town straight boys who have only mostly got over their nurtured homophobia to sing "I Will Survive." But aparently I'm wrong, and it's one of the most egregious examples of an empty cover-tune. It's "belittling" and "off-putting." I beg to differ. I never recognized the anger in the song until I heard Cake play it. Andre Mayer bemoans the failure of most covers to find something new in the songs they are covering - and generally I agree - but to include Cake's take on Gloria Gaynor in that list is strained. The original celebrates in it's defiance, Cake simmers... almost sinisterly. While the Gaynor version bears an attitude of "I'm over you so much it's a party" that at it's roots speaks of "the lady doth protest too much"; the Cake version takes a seething air that hints that the subject of the song's wrath ought make a point of only meeting the song's protagonist in public places. And musically, the two could not have instrumentation that is much more different. There is no disco in the Cake reading.
All Music's ranking of the five Cake albums makes little sense to me either.
Motorcade... - 2 stars
Fashion Nugget - 3 stars
...Magic - 2.5 stars
Comfort Eagle - 3 stars
Pressure Chief - 3.5 stars
I agree. Motorcade of Generosity is the weak-link.
Prolonging the Magic is certainly second, but by a matter of 10% of the scale? (Five stars.) I'd give it at least twice that leap.
I can buy Fashion Nugget and Comfort Eagle being tied... I might put Comfort Eagle ahead of Nugget though, and again I would widen the distance by an additional 1/2 star... at least.
Pressure Chief as the stand-out? That's where I really have to think that the reviews could not possibly have been done by anyone with a real appreciation for the band. While I think Pressure Chief is a fine album, it just doesn't reach the level of Fashion Nugget, let alone surpass Comfort Eagle.
The weirdest part of the entire rating comes when one reads the written portion of the reviews. Comfort Eagle is said to "come{s} dangerously close to simply remaking its previous release, Prolonging the Magic." So... if it's that unoriginal, why does it get a better rating?
I just don't get why there is such a hate-on for what I think to be one of the more original and quirkily-interesting bands of the past decade...

If I were rating the albums, it would probably look more like this:
Motorcade... - 2 stars
Fashion Nugget - 4 stars
...Magic - 3 stars
Comfort Eagle - 4.5 stars
Pressure Chief - 3.5 stars

Before I continue with the "let them eat Cake" fest...
I should turn back to my previous comment that the Cake concert I attended in November was rather tepid.
Yep. As great as I think they are. The concert was a bit of a let-down. I could blame one of their two opening acts...
The first, Heiruspecs - a hip-hop/rap act from Minneapolis - was a delight. I'm not a fan, generally, of the genre. And the moment they hit the stage, my reaction was... "uh, oh." But they were so tight and so fresh and original that by the end of the first song I was giving them a chance... and by the end of the second song I was fully won over. The live rhythm section was a big selling feature, and the main rapper (Is that an M.C.? I'm SO un-hip to hip-hop.) was both affable, and witty and the messages the group was putting forth in their music was far more positive than I have come to expect from the archetypes of rap. But that wasn't all... The second M.C. was - for lack of a better way of putting it - the Eddie VanHalen of rap. He mostly contributed a classic record-scratch type sound - that was totally vocal, but he also imitated other instruments and when he rapped he took off like a formula one. His lines were coming off with a remarkable clarity combined with a speed that seemed almost inhuman. How is it possible for someone to talk that fast and yet be perfectly understandishable? That night Heiruspecs opened a door in my music library and stuck their foot in the jam.
Up next was The Walkmen. Excellent name. But yeesh! They deserve a big Vancouver 'Fuck You.'
Aparently they were on Letterman the night before. A fact that became unavoidable as they mentioned it about 19 times in their 30 minute-too-long, three quarter of an hour set. I assume that being on Letterman the night before meant that we were obligated to like them. That they were the next Beatles. That fortune favoured tham and thus, so must we. They were the chosen ones. It seems that no one happened to mention to them that Vancouver audiences are notorious for not giving a shit. And that EVERYONE has to earn our respect - in person. Furthermore, being mad at us for not liking you the moment you cop an attitude is just going to garner more attitude back.
Admittedly, it was clear that they were less than happy with their sound. They were literally yelling into the wings about it. In the front row, the noise was next to unbearable. I would be willing to give them the benefit of doubt about that, but it occurs to me that the two bands they were sandwiched between sounded fine. So either... their own sound guy sucked ass; or they copped attitude to the local guys during sound-check (because they were on Letterman the night before) and they local IATSE guys decided that they were going to be the proud recipients of crap-assed performance sound. Either way... whose at fault?
The sound was so bad, that two of the folks I came with decided that they were going for drinks on about song number three of the set. As I mentioned, we were front row - the Walkmen could not but have noticed.
I've been at concerts where the artists cop an attitude before. I recall in 1990 when The SoupDragons (Remember them? I barely do.) opened for INXS. Their cover of "I'm Free" was at the top of the charts and they too thought they were deserving of our unfettered adulation. My god they were lame. Zero personality. And THEN the lead singer had the temerity to declare "Usually when we play people dahnce. I guess they haven't invented dahncing in Vahncouvah." It's quite a sound when 25000 people simultaneously shout "FUCK YOU! You weak Manchester knob! You didn't even write your only hit!" That effectively killed that concert. Even Michael Hutchence was barely able to lift it to a level of 'worth the price of admission.'
While the Walkmen didn't quite go so far as directly insulting the crowd, they were clearly so pissed off at how 'well' the concert was going, and taking it out on us that they might as well have. It was OUR fault that we didn't like them, and their sarcasm was nearly hilarious in it's short-sightedness.
I am a performer myself. I've travelled the continent in a comedy troupe. I know how hard it can be when a show just goes wrong. And I know that the LAST thing you can afford to do is make it the audience's fault. If a show is is going poorly. You just have to do your best to do your best, and have fun in spite of all adversity. Doing anything less is the biggest insult to the people who ARE PAYING TO SEE YOU. It's practically a crime to give up on them. Stay the course. Perhaps they'll 'get it' eventually and things will turn around. Perhaps they won't - but at least then you've done the right thing regardless. That is the higher road.
But that was beyond the Walkmen. I was so pissed off at thier attitude that I decided to fuck with them. Because I could.
There I was, front row. All of 15 feet from the lead singer. He could not but help see me. So I sat there and gave him absolutely nothing for a reaction except an air of "c'mon impress me - I bet you aren't up to the task." Which was exactly how I felt, so it wasn't much os a challenge to exude it. I sat, front and centre with my arms folded across my chest, slumped in my seat, with a look of complete disinterest and stared down the lead singer for the rest of the set. Actually, it was pretty damned entertaining for me in the end. The challenge of not cracking - not moving a muscle in my face except for what it took to keep my eyes fixated on him and his frustrated posturing - was in the end as entertaining as Heiruspecs had been. Mr. "We were on Letterman last night, now love us or else" stood on stage trying not too look at me, getting visibly more irritated as the set wore on. I suppose I was being an asshole, but if you ask me, they had it coming.
Finally, Cake took the stage. I suppose I was expecting magic. But the magic was forever prolonged. Don't get me wrong, I was happy as a clam to see one of my favourite bands of all time. But their stage act just didn't achieve the same level of excellence as their albums. Too much of the same stage gimmicks over and over. Hey, John... the audience can only handle so much singing back up for you. And when you threaten to not end the song until we satify your artistic needs, we get bored even faster. During the opening song - "Sheep Go to Heaven" it was fun and felt spontaneous... but by the encore (about 12 songs of audience sing-along later) I couldn't possibly have had any interest in joining the rest of the men in the building in trying to sing "No Phone" louder than the ladies.
I was happy to see Cake, and I wasn't going to cheat myself out of one second of their stage time, but it will never make a 'best concert I've ever seen list' unless it's a particularly long list. (I felt the same way about The Who Quadrophenia tour in 1997.) And on top of it all they played almost every song I wish they'd sing... I would have liked to have heard 'Italian Leather Sofa' though.

And before I call 'er quits for this long,rambling, largely pointless, post... here's a few thoughts on quintessential Cake:

From "Motorcade of Generosity"
Comanche - hard not to get it stuck in your head at some point
Jesus Wrote a Blank Check - A harbinger of Cake wit to come
Rock & Roll Lifestyle - the hit that started it all

From "Fashion Nugget"
The Distance - one of the songs non-Cake fans usually know
I will Survive - I've written enough about this one today
Stickshifts and Safetybelts - insanely catchy - one of my absolute faves
Italian Leather Sofa - near epic and all awesome - the final line of the chorus became a euphemism for "I can't hear you" between me and my ex-fiancee... a story longer than it's value, I assure you.

From "Prolonging the Magic"
Never There - another Cake song for non-Cake fans
Guitar - I gained a greater appreciation for this song at the concert
Sheep go to Heaven - not chanting the chorus is nigh impossible
Alpha Beta Parking Lot - I've had many of these days myself

From "Comfort Eagle"
Opera Singer - hysterical... and having a best firned who is an Opera director, I have some insight to it's truths
Shadow Stabbing - so lyrically clever that I couldn't leave it off... even if I didn't think it had a killer hook
Short Skirt/Long Jacket - another Cake for the non-Cake... one of the best videos ever
Commissioning a Symphony in C - the epitome of the Cake quirk - how can you hear this song and feel like you're being excluded from the joke?
Comfort Eagle - Another nominee for the best Cake song ever
Love You Madly - this album just keeps on giving... I'm having to deliberately leave songs off the list

From "Pressure Chief"
Wheels - one of their better lead tracks on any of their albums
No Phone - another single, than needs to be cited -though possibly their weakest
Dime - again with the clever lyrics
Carbon Monoxide - "Car after truck after car after bus after this my lungs will be so fucked up" - one of their best ear-worms ever
End of the Movie - Largely on this list because it's the best example of the lighter end of their musical spectrum... almost unique int he Cake canon

And that, is all I have to say about that.

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