In our endless appetite for the consumption of culture, to loudly have disdain for something is worth as much as earnest appreciation for the form. When you’re young it’s often especially important to find communion amongst others that share the same contempt for things you detest. Hating something easily becomes a personality, it’s important to like and dislike the right things, lest our tastes stray us too far from the most populated path.
No band tested this theory for me like CAKE.
I discovered the Sacramento-based band while working in a grocery store. A song came on the radio sometime after 8 pm, just before closing. This was when we would clean our departments, but more importantly, it was our chance to let loose a bit. We’d party a little and do our best to maintain our spirits as the end of a long shift segued into the endless night. As the number of customers dwindled, it became someone’s job to crank the in-store radio progressively louder and louder. We preferred to drown our thoughts in the waves of modern pop radio. It was the Yukon and most stores only had AM radio, but our boss generously dropped a few thousand dollars on a high-end satellite system, as if being able to stream CFOX FM from Vancouver on weekends somehow gave us an edge the other stores lacked.
The song that came on that night was “Never There,” the lead single from CAKE’s third album, Prolonging The Magic, which was released in fall 1998.
The opening seconds are the now-archaic sound of a phone left off the hook, a tone that will forever be tied to when we used our phones to make calls. Or worse, it recalls the pain that stings your heart when you simply can’t get anyone to take your call. When it blared over the in-store speakers, my initial thought was that someone was playing a prank on us, taking the store phone off the hook so no one could call and ask if we were still open. Then vocalist John McCrae steps into the song and it becomes all the more confounding.
McCrae is gifted with a vocal style that vacillates between spoken word and slam poetry, never quite making a full run at singing but often flirting with the idea. “I need your arms around me, I need to feel your touch,” he intones, before the full force of CAKE sets in on you. Guitars that are at times honky tonk and at others funk. Chunky bass. Vibraslap. Horns. Melodicas. CAKE songs can often sound like a second-hand music store falling down the stairs that somehow sticks the landing.
Sweeping the fading remnants of bread crumbs and half-eaten free cookies into a withered old gray garbage can, I wondered aloud what we were listening to using my best neutral tone. The only person within earshot was my co-worker, a tall self-assured woman who was endlessly charming and beloved by everyone. She was only two years older than me and cooler in all measurable arenas. She plainly and confidently told me that it was CAKE, that they sucked and were trying too hard.
I didn’t want to admit I liked it to my co-worker, eager for her to see me as an equal, in that way we do when we’re reading the people around us as somehow better and more confident versions of ourselves. I just awkwardly chuckled that little laugh we do when we hope the subject changes rapidly and you don’t have to voice an honest opinion.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself making a career change. I moved from the grocery store to work in fashion retail. Now, my job was to be a tastemaker. We were expected to dress to impress, to not only be presentable to the public, but enticing. Your job was to look cool, act confident and bring people in to impulse buy Levi’s 501s and Hanes beefy Ts.
Part of the plan to allow our individual personalities to thrive in this environment was providing a stereo for staff to bring their own music to play in the store. My boss went across to Radio Shack and picked up a little Sanyo CD/cassette stereo, with a body made of pinewood with silver and chrome finishing details. It barely picked up a radio signal, so we were beset with bringing our own CDs and tapes to work to curate a vibe that screams we sell Dockers, but we’re also cool.
I would always pretend I had busy work I couldn’t tear myself away from in order to not be the person close to the stereo when the CD needed to be changed.
One scorching summer day, my co-worker confidently announced that they knew just the CD to turn things around, bring spirits up. They said it was the perfect record for summer with the feeling of hitting the road with nowhere to go or be. That CD? CAKE’s 1998 album Prolonging The Magic.
The album opens with “Satan Is My Motor,” a song that is so far removed from “Never There” it’s a wonder that the same band has written both songs. The breezy guitar traces a line through “Mexico,” a song that leans heavily on a shuffle beat and lap steel, sounding more country and western than radio-friendly dance song. When the horn section lights up midway through the song, the aesthetics of CAKE come into focus, more an earnest sum of their parts than a cliched hit, designed to grab 15 minutes and get out.
I was CAKE pilled.
It’s surprising my intro to CAKE wasn’t “The Distance,” the standout hit from their previous record Fashion Nugget. Somehow that one had eluded me, but hearing it as an extension of the band I knew from Prolonging The Magic the energy it exudes comes into focus more clearly. “The Distance,” by all accounts, should be a one-hit-wonder. An incredibly catchy track that turned CAKE into one of those bands that become synonymous with a single song. Somehow CAKE eschewed that, their songs playing on rock radio from 1996 to the early 2000s. Hits like “Never There,” “No Phone” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” to name a few.
I bought all three CAKE albums on CD that afternoon, hiding them in my car from my punk rock friends who would mock the band for being too ironic, or self-satisfied with how clever they think they are. Somehow, punk bands who made t-shirts ripping off the Snickers logo were impervious to this same criticism.
CAKE is a band built on the strength of its radio-friendly singles, every album you were guaranteed a banger that stood in stark contrast to the rest of the record, but it’s the songs that never became singles that really stood out as indicative of just how strong of a band CAKE is.
Take “Commissioning a Symphony In C” from 2001’s Comfort Eagle, a track that is almost too clever for their own good. Hiding under smirking layers of irony (notably the song itself is not in C, but F) is a solid lo-fi pop hit. Or Prolonging The Magic, which ends with the ballad “Where Would I Be,” where McCrae croons “where would I be, without your love” as horn player Vince DiFiore plays a mournful, muted trumpet.
In 2001, I left the Yukon to attend trade school in Alberta, driving the 20 hours to Edmonton in my old rusted-out 1988 Chevrolet S10. As the sun soaked through the windows, I fed my Prolonging The Magic CD into the stereo and watched the rolling hills along the edges of endless Canadian highways as CAKE soundtracked my escape.
My appreciation for CAKE never faded, whenever they had a moment in the sun you could revel along with them as others appreciated what they offered. Even in 2001, when “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” was a hit, being a CAKE fan became de rigueur for a hot minute. It was a post-9/11 world and we wanted to dance and forget, we yearned to sing loudly along with our friends at karaoke when the “gets up early/stays up late” part of the song came up. People loved the hits, the good times, but once the good times were over they were forgotten like so many people we used to love.
CAKE was able to coast along in the waters of mainstream music, writing hits so catchy that they remain earworms and karaoke staples today. But they also created records that contain genuine pathos: crafting beautiful and mournful ballads alongside sun-soaked day-trippers or bangers about writing symphonies for an Austrian nobleman.
Like so many, I discounted them in part because I wanted to dislike them the same way that everyone else hated popular bands who existed outside the trappings of formulaic music. Forging our bonds in the fires of negativity and crafting our personalities around the right kind of disdain. CAKE brought me back from that pit, taught me to leave myself open to the possibility of earnest appreciation. Not everything needs to be a statement about who you are, sometimes things just bring us unadulterated joy. We want a band that will get us there.