December 4, 2023

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Cake: Fashion Nugget Album Review

In the fall of 1996, as Cake’s offbeat single “The Distance” climbed the charts and became the most-requested song on alternative radio stations nationwide, frontman John McCrea compared his band’s ascent to being at the top of a toboggan run. “There’s an out-of-control feeling,” McCrea told a reporter for his local paper, “but there’s also a typical feeling. Because the toboggan ride is a set course that many people have gone down, you feel like you’re part of this grand rock cliche.” Had you never heard the band Cake, or laid eyes upon its white-bread mouthpiece, you might imagine these words coasting on a curl of cigarette smoke, the speaker obscured by dirty hair and sunglasses. But with his goatee and penchant for casual hats—trucker, bucket—this was not McCrea.

Amid the heavy-hitting, guitar-forward noise of the mid-1990s, which McCrea frequently referred to as, “that Viking alternative rock,” Cake were pragmatists, constructing wry but earnest pop music in the machismo era of post-grunge and nu metal. They could find artistry in a strip mall, or rush hour congestion on the I-5. Surely, they were being ironic.

Cake formed in the early ’90s under unremarkable circumstances, in an unremarkable place. McCrea, a few years older than his bandmates, had tried his hand at the L.A. songwriter circuit. But his eccentricities did not package well within prevailing butt-rock. So he returned to his home of Sacramento, and like any shrewd musician, poached players from other groups in town. Guitarist Greg Brown, bassist Victor Damiani, and drummer Todd Roper were regulars on the Sacramento bar-band scene. Trumpeter Vincent DiFiore was playing in a local jazz outfit.

Like all of their subsequent records, Cake self-produced their 1994 debut, Motorcade of Generosity. The album was “lo-fi” by necessity. Its songs were warm and close, and listening to it can feel like trailing notes down a stairwell into some subterranean tavern, where a cantina band plays over clinking pints. For all of its quotations from honky tonk and ranchera music, not to mention the slow-scorching “Jolene,” it was the snide “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle” that primed Cake for college radio takeover. Its lyrics skewered rich rockers who were more interested in merch than the actual music. The song quickly became a fan favorite, perhaps because it allowed listeners to feel superior to their peers. It also cursed McCrea as the detached commentator—or worse, a self-righteous ass. In the opening verses of “Rock ‘n’ roll Lifestyle,” he sings:

Well your CD collection
Looks shiny and costly
How much did you pay for your bad Moto Guzzi
And how much did you spend
On your black leather jacket
Is it you or your parents in this income tax bracket?

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