On road trips when I was a kid, my family had a lineup of road tunes in the CD changer including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits and Paul Simon's Graceland. Around the time I started middle school, though, my sister — the host of a college radio station — sneaked in something that was new and dangerous-sounding: Cake's fourth album, Comfort Eagle.
It was unlike anything I'd heard before. Like the rest of Cake's catalogue, Comfort Eagle mixes gritty, overdriven guitar riffs; mariachi-inspired trumpet melodies; a less-is-more, borderline-folk aesthetic; and the spoken-word weirdness of John McCrea's monotone vocal style. Even then, I recognized McCrea was casually disguising sharp social criticisms as toe-tapping jingles and purposefully dropping shocking lyrics into innocuous-sounding songs. Maybe that's why my parents found Cake indigestible. But I'd discovered what would become one of my favorite bands.
Ahead of Cake's set at SunFest this Sunday, May 6, in West Palm Beach, I'm taking a moment to get nostalgic and wax poetic about the music of my youth and also recognize that the Sacramento five-piece is, quite simply, one of the least heralded but most important bands of the mid-1990s/early 2000s. Not only does Cake's sound capture the vibe of the times, but McCrea's general disillusionment also bridged the gap between Gen-X slacker musicians and millennial hipsters who still don't think it's cool to like anything.
Maybe you don't know Cake outside of the 1996 single "The Distance" or the 1998 hit "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," but the band's repertoire is worth exploring in-depth. They debuted in 1994 with Motorcade of Generosity, but their artistic and commercial peak came with a trio of successful albums — Fashion Nugget (1996), Prolonging the Magic (1998), and Comfort Eagle (2001) — all while avoiding any major misfires along the way. (Their most egregious misstep was the abrasive Nugget track "Race Car Ya-Yas," on which McCrea adopts his driest, most sarcastic monotone and delivers this lyrical nugget: "The land where large fuzzy dice still hang proudly/Like testicles from rear-view mirrors." Sure, dude.)
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When I listen now, I hear how Cake is a thoroughly '90s band, rubbing sonic shoulders with Eels, Ben Folds Five, and early Beck. And the band still represents a musical anomaly, with its bizarre mix of alternative rock, awkward white-boy rapping, and country music. But the vivid imagery of McCrea's lyrics steals the show. Have you listened to "Frank Sinatra" lately? The first verse begins like this: "We know of an ancient radiation/That haunts dismembered constellations/A faintly glimmering radio station." Just like that, he has subtly evoked a radio signal shooting off into space, probably never to be heard again by either human or alien ears. It's a lonely thought that leaves "Frank Sinatra" feeling like high art.
For better or worse, Cake has never really evolved. As the world of electronic music opened wider than ever, Cake was doubling down on its straightforward melodies and sonically minimal productions. (In interviews, McCrea has turned his scathing criticism on bands using expensive microphones, reverb effects, and electric plug-ins.) Indeed, the band's most recent album, Showroom of Compassion (2011), proved that a scrappy, DIY project recorded on a tight budget can still hit the charts and that the power of Cake's music is in shifting dynamics and subtle changes in instrumentation, not studio magic.
Back in the car with my family, there was an obvious generational gap — my sister and I thought Cake was rad, and my parents did not. (I suspect they were turned off by the awkward white-boy rapping.) But as we took more road trips and my sister persistently put on Comfort Eagle, the folks eventually warmed up to songs such as "A Long Line of Cars" and the title track, one of my favorites. Now, almost 20 years later, they've grown to like the band just fine. It turns out Cake is an acquired taste.
Cake at SunFest 2018. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5, on the JetBlue Stage, on Flagler Drive between Banyan Boulevard and Lakeview Drive, West Palm Beach; sunfest.com. Tickets cost $43 to $81 via completeticketsolutions.com.