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By Tom Murphy
"Being a musician at our level is pretty much like indentured servitude," reveals Cake singer/guitarist John McCrea. "You're in debt to the Man pretty much, so it's not this glorious, independent lifestyle that people think about when they think about music."
That may change soon. Now that Fashion Nugget, the second CD by this Sacramento-based quintet, has hit stores, McCrea and his mates--guitarist/organist Greg Brown, bassist Victor Damiani, trumpeter/percussionist Vince Di Fiore and drummer Todd Roper--are at least a few steps closer to buying their proverbial freedom.
A dislike for the constrictions of musical formula brought the players together five years ago. McCrea, who'd grown tired of Sacramento's coffeehouse circuit, liberated Di Fiore from a punk band and the rest of the players from a wide variety of musical projects. Despite their disparate influences, however, the performers discovered that they had a great deal in common. "When we thought of the elements we'd like to include in a band," McCrea recalls, "we all agreed on the sort of sound we'd like."
What exactly is the Cake recipe? No one's yet been able to codify it. The act blends garage rock, roots music, country and Di Fiore's mariachi-style trumpet to come up with a confection whose every layer is delicious.
But Cake's biggest distinction is McCrea--specifically, his lyrics and a singing style that's half spoken word, half off-key chant. "I'd say that it's not a good voice," he allows. "But I don't try to have a good voice. I try more to go with what the song demands. I don't really like good voices that much unless it's somebody like Ella Fitzgerald. I quite frankly just don't like rock dudes that have good voices. Can you think of any good band where the rock guy has a really good voice?"
McCrea makes up for any vocal deficiencies with droll words that make listeners sit up and take notice. The group's first hit, "Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle" (from its debut disc, Motorcade of Generosity), is a prime example of the singer's sardonic wit and deadpan delivery. The track alternately ridicules and satirizes wealthy music fans, providing scorching commentary and a damned fine tune in the process.
"We're not setting out to make social statements, really," McCrea claims. "It's just whatever happens to be on my mind. That song maybe comes off for some people as being a little more angry than it is. For me, it's just sort of drop-jawed. If there was anything I was saying that was critical, it was that maybe it's possible that prosperity isn't rebellious, or the expression of prosperity isn't really rebellious. It's just sort of like a luxurious foaming-over."
As this quote demonstrates, McCrea's concerns are deeper than those exhibited by the average alterna-group--though the songwriter is loath to admit it. "I think anybody that thinks that they're not writing about girls is kidding themselves," he jokes. "Even if they're writing about politics, they're probably writing about girls. I think Rage Against the Machine is actually writing about girls."
After some heavy prodding, McCrea elaborates on this point. "The rarefied concerns of alternative music strike me as just that. It strikes me as awesome that this country can have an entire cultural assertion--alternative music--that is running away from the tastes of the people. In other words, when the groundlings discover something, it has to be immediately sort of denied. It's a very elitist assertion. There's nothing rebellious or assertive about elitism."
Of course, the marketing of music that's supposed to be out of the mainstream directly to the mainstream is just the kind of irony that led the members of Cake to name their new disc Fashion Nugget. "It's amazing that leather-jacket styles can be changing so mercurially, for instance," McCrea notes. "Just as soon as you're breaking in a new product--it could be a jacket or it could be a record--the style changes and you have to throw it away. So I don't think of youth rebellion--I think of a landfill and waste instead. But that's not what I want all of our songs to be about."
They're not: In fact, Nugget spans a broader range of topics than did Motorcade, with similarly appealing results. Moreover, the music on the latest CD, while typically unpeggable, boasts a definite groove that was lacking last time around. Songs such as "Frank Sinatra," which puts Di Fiore's trumpet to good use, revel in something like sentiment, while "The Distance" finds McCrea telling the story of a delusional race-car driver in his trademark conversational tone. The disc also includes three decidedly unusual covers: "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," a chestnut associated with Nat "King" Cole, among others; Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes"; and a surprisingly mournful version of the Gloria Gaynor disco smash "I Will Survive."
"We're not interested in any kind of Seventies kitsch bullshit," McCrea asserts when asked about the last ditty. "It's just a good song. And if there's any ulterior motive for 'Sad Songs and Waltzes,' it's so maybe someday I can meet Willie Nelson."
Cake delivers these tracks in a quirky manner, but McCrea insists that he and his fellows are trying hard not to engage in any musical snobbery of their own. "We're just musicians who are here to serve the public," he states. "The fickle giant consumer could grow tired of us very fast and discard us. What we try to do is to make music that isn't rooted so much in fashion, trend or fad, but more in good quality. When you buy a hammer, you want it to last. We're going for the same thing with our records."