Is This Band Good: Cake
A new feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good
Welcome to “Is This Band Good?”, a new-semi regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANT: CAKE
“Reluctantly crouched at the starting line...”
You know the rest. Drop that line in any conversation, and someone will finish it. They may not remember the artist, or how the rest of the song goes, but they’ll remember the lyric—delivered awkwardly, breathlessly, and maybe a little reverently: “engines pumping, and thumping in time.”
Cake’s “The Distance” is as ubiquitous as a song can get. Despite seeing moderate success a few years prior with “Rock and Roll Lifestyle,” “The Distance” launched Cake into the stratosphere. Fashion Nugget—their 1996 album on which “The Distance” appeared—went on to sell millions, and secured the single’s placement in many car scenes in movies for years to come.
Cake quickly became a mainstay of post-grunge alternative radio. Their next album Prolonging the Magic did just as well, if not better, earning the band another platinum record (to put that in perspective, Cake has two more platinum records than Arcade Fire).
The band’s sound was instantly recognizable: retro guitars, trumpet, and singer John McCrea’s deadpan vocals that sounded like your 25-year-old, stay-at-home brother explaining art to you. There were hints of hip-hop, country and Mariachi in Cake’s music, which isn’t really that different from Beck’s smorgasbord style, but Cake’s was notably and charmingly more analog.
But does uniqueness equal quality? It’s a question that popped into my head a few months back when “The Distance” came on during a ‘90s Spotify listening sesh (luv 2 let the algorithm lull my brain into submission). I found myself turning up the volume, but also feeling a little dirty about it, like I didn’t want anyone to know.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in nostalgia, but is Cake actually good, or are they simply a novelty from an era of alternative music that was going through an identity crisis?
Ryan Bradford: The extremely handsome writer of AWKSD, and big-time music fan. You could even say that I’m a music-head. I grew up listening to music and I still listen to music.
Scott Wasilewski: Hi. Hello. Scott Wasilewski here. I am a San Diago fan, engineer by education, musician by choice , and all-around OK dancer. I live in Salt Lake City and of all the musicians in Utah, I’m one of them. I’ve played in countless bands, mostly on cello and keys, but my real passion is talking shit.
Ryan Bradford: I liked “Rock ‘n’ Roll” lifestyle when I first heard it on the radio, but little me wasn’t yet equipped to handle irony and self-aware lyrics, and I was still too obsessed with grunge’s heaviness to really appreciate Cake. But two years later—a lifetime when you’re a preteen—my musical tastes had matured and I was all about “The Distance.”
Pretty sure I got Fashion Nugget through BMG’s CD-by-mail subscription. My family was already knee-deep in Columbia House, but somehow my brother and I convinced our parents that we also needed BMG.
Fashion Nugget was an obvious pick for me. Like I said, I loved “The Distance” every time I heard it on the radio, but there was no way my parents would buy me an album with an explicit content sticker. The only way I could get away with acquiring such contraband is if I could sneak it in as part of a larger order (this is also how I originally got Sublime’s self-titled CD).
It’s difficult to explain to a younger generation the trepidation that came with every CD purchase, but it was essentially like gambling with $15. Often, you bought a record based on the single they were playing on the radio, and many times you ended up with an album full of duds and one good single. So it was incredibly rewarding when you found an album that was solid all the way through.
Fashion Nugget proved to be one those albums for me, even if I had to run across my room to turn down the volume when the song “Nugget”—with its repeated chorus of “SHUT THE FUCK UP”—came on. This was also the case with “Race Car Ya-Yas” which mentioned fuzzy dice that hung “proudly like testicles from rear view mirrors,” which, in retrospect, is a very strange song for a 12-year-old (i.e. me) to sing softly under his breath while walking down the halls of middle school.
Scott Wasilewski: The first time I heard Cake I was in the basement of my friend’s house. This was the ‘90s, and I wanted some new music other than my parents’ to help me forge my own musical identity. Not that any kid would actually have that kind of self-awareness. Really, I was probably just thinking about how disappointing Moon Shoes actually were.
Anyway, my friend had these CDs that he borrowed from his sister and he put a song on. It was Cake’s cover of a song I already knew: “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. Later, I would learn that a singer didn’t always write their own songs like I was led to believe, and it was actually written by this guy Freddie Perren who seems to have written every other disco song I know. Either way Gloria Gaynor’s version is still the most iconic and I’d argue (actually no, I won’t be entertaining arguments on this) the best rendition. [Editor note: Gaynor has said Cake’s version is her least favorite because of the added f-word].
Back to Cake. So I heard this song and at that point, in my 12-year-old world, I was pretty sure playing someone else’s song was something only Weird Al was allowed to do. I was into it though. My friend went on to play a few other tracks. Some were good; some I didn’t feel at all. I was very much a singles listener back then. Now, being a musician I would like to extend an apology to every artist from my past whose catalog I shortchanged with my childish attention span, especially the Gin Blossoms (but definitely not Sugar Ray).
But something about Cake’s songs—delivered in a monotone, almost disinterested manner—made my ears perk up. As I’m writing this, I’m also checking my last.fm page to see how often I've put them on, and it looks like I listened to eight songs by them, all in 2021. All today.
If I had to give you a 43-word answer on my relationship with Cake it would be: I like their songs when they come on, for example, in a movie or on the radio but I’m not seeking it out. I’m not a Cake historian by any means, and none of this should be misconstrued as legal or medical advice.
Ryan Bradford: Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.
As we move farther away from Cake’s heyday, it becomes increasingly difficult to listen to them. Given their distinct sound, any extended amount of time listening to them quickly feels repetitive, and a journey through their discography often becomes grating.
I’m glad to say that McCrea’s lyrics are still as playful as I remember, but the limitations of his voice don’t help the saminess of their sound (I’ve also convinced myself that McCrea vocal delivery has the same rhythm and cadence as Christopher Walken’s speaking voice—listen to it and tell me I’m wrong!)
But, like, who was this music made for? Many bands from the ‘90s are marked by their singularity, but none as much as Cake. They’re an island. Their music doesn’t provide any jump-off points or entryways into deeper music discovery. Cake makes music for people who like Cake. I imagine that this is the reason they played so many of those big radio festivals in the ‘90s, whose attendees generally aren’t discerning music listeners.
Their videos are full of stupid hats and gross goatees, but I can’t really fault them for that. It was the ‘90s after all.
And what’s the deal with band and cars? It’s stupid subject for a song and Cake has too many of them! Plus, the band has ruined the vibraslap for me (you know, that rattlesnake-sounding percussion instrument [I even had to google “cake rattlesnake sound” to remember the name of it]).
But despite all of that, Fashion Nugget still rules. Even if it is a musical island, it’s an island I like to be on. “The Distance” is particularly astounding, and deserves all the fame. It’s anthemic, yes, but it’s also haunting thanks to Chronic-era synths and lyrics that boil down to a racecar driver endlessly circling an empty stadium.
Speaking of loneliness, there’s an underlying darkness to Fashion Nugget that I failed to notice when I was younger. You can’t tell me that opener “Frank Sinatra” doesn’t sound like a proto Interpol song. “Daria” (which soundtracked the end credits on the MTV show of the same name) brims with emotional anxiety—almost to the point of being menacing. But whenever Cake veers too close to darkness, they’re abIe to pull it back to radio-friendly territory, which speaks to McCrea’s talent as a songwriter.
Cake’s mastery is not limited to Fashion Nugget. Their follow-up Prolonging the Magic contains my favorite song of theirs, “Mexico”—a ballad that proves their music can be beautiful (I’m also a sucker for lap steel).
I also like their later single “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”, despite its silliness. It’s a fun game to replace “jacket” with something of your choosing (“I want a girl with a short skirt and a looooooong rat tail”).
Cake songs are also great karaoke picks for those of us who are less vocally inclined, and for that reason I have to bow down.
Scott Wasilewski: Okay, analysis aside for a moment: I don’t want to drag anyone who’s doing anything they love, unless their kink is hoarding billions of dollars. And I don’t think a song needs to be recorded well, or complicated, or performed perfectly to be something that people will love. If someone loves it, is it a bad song? I’m also not sure what makes a good band. Is it the one with the highest ratio of good to bad songs? Is it the band with the most variety? Is it a group of nine to twelve musicians from Montreal, active between 1994 and 2003, then again between 2010 and the present? There’s absolutely no way to tell.
This is just an impartial analysis of Cake’s work with a very limited scope. They have six full-length albums over 17 years, with numerous writers credited and I can’t possibly interrupt my nightcore listening regimen long enough to delve into all their material. From 10,000 feet away, they look, dress, play, and sound like one of the world’s best party/bar bands. These aren’t folks who are burning to say “appoggiatura” in an interview, but they probably know what it means. Onward.
Looking at their songs on Spotify I see their most popular song (What does that mean? Most popular this week? Month? Year?) is the one about a long jacket, a short skirt and the girl who resides in them. The song is called “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” but the girl is omitted from the title, assumedly for artistic reasons.
The track starts out with this absolutely baller of an F# on the trumpet. My dogs profoundly hate it, but I think it’s a great way to start a song. The F# is pretty ambiguous in the key of D-major, which—we’re about to find—is the key of the song when the bass kicks in.
Wait, is it in D-major? We immediately lose the F# when the signing comes in. Is the singing flat?
Maybe they just thought it was cool to start the song up a major third and then drop into D-dorian to defy listener expectations! Or maybe they wrote this song on guitar and putting together three major chords D, A and G in root position sounded cool and was fun to play, but then this totally rad bassline and flat singing came into the picture and sounded cool as hell. I’m guessing the latter. Anyone who thinks of the former while writing music probably churns out some pretty horrific stuff.
Speaking of the bassline—it’s pretty funky. I don’t have a funky bone in my body. Had to get funk implants at a young age. That’s the only reason I’m able to talk about this. It’s big on the first beat, and dances with the drums. It’s hitting a C-natural, adding to that D-dorian sound.
Or is it?
That F# on the trumpet is really messing with us.
Intentional or not, this borrowed minor dominant chord as well as the persistent C-natural give this track a bit more variety for listeners to take in. Color me surprised! It’s definitely more interesting than I thought the most popular song by Cake was going to be. I think that makes me kind of a judgemental dick.
Okay, enough of that song. I’d be remiss if I didn’t turn my gaze to “The Distance.” According to Spotify, this is their most played song, with over 111,000,000 listens. Which means that more than 111,000,000 people listened to it once, or there’s one superfan out there who listened to it on repeat for like 650 years [Editor’s note: it’s me]. It was written, not by John McCrae, but Greg Brown. Another guitar player who coincidentally played in Cake.
Did someone say bass? Again this song is propelled by a ripping bassline. According to the really colorful graph on Wikipedia, I’m seeing that they’ve actually had a few different bassists, but since I’m now diving into my second Cake song, I can absolutely 100% say with total confidence that all of their songs are probably successful because of good bass talent. The bassline is pretty simple, but again employs a bit of chromatacism to keep it spicy.
It moves up by minor seconds before leaping an octave down and pausing on a low E. Like in the last song, there’s lots of sonic space. That’s potentially the best part about Cake. It’s hard to be patient and leave space in a song when you’re in a band. Literally no one—particularly me—wants to stand around on stage with an instrument, and not be playing it (makes you look like a creep). Yet somehow these guys pull it off.
So, I could go on about the bassist, but I won’t. The rest of the song warrants a decent look. What are we gonna find?
Again, it’s pretty interesting, or at least more interesting than anticipated. The bassline really hammers on the E, and the guitar fills in the rest of an E-minor chord, but there’s so much open space in the arrangement that it keeps you interested despite how sparse the main instrumentation is.
Then there’s this synth line that alternates up and down using seconds, thirds and fourths. It ends on this hanging A-sharp that, in a different context, would feel like it should be leading somewhere, but here you don’t feel the pull. It just hangs there. True neutral, or perhaps chaotic neutral, but definitely not good or bad. Notes, themselves, can’t be bad.
(Though I should point out that music theory is bad. It’s the language of artistic oppression and if anyone wants to correct anything I’ve gotten wrong here, just know that you’re being pedantic and oppressive over a Cake song).
So, there we have it. Two songs that we can use to make broad sweeping generalizations about the rest of their catalog. I’m actually leaning a bit further into the Cake-is-a-good-band territory than I expected. They have a knack for writing riffs that intertwine in a way that keeps the listener guessing. There aren’t any big surprises, but they’re able to keep your interest with their open mixes and the gradual instrumentation. In most cases, it’s a trumpet doing large stepwise ascensions or decensions (or trills) but the flavor is there. That, coupled with their skillful execution turns a few simple ideas into something you could listen to for at least two minutes.
A few months back, I tweeted something along the lines of “Is Cake good?” One response came from Julia DeLois—a very funny writer/actor/comedian and co-host of the world-famous Air Sex show—who pushed me down the road of wondering what other famous bands are good. For that reason (thank you, Julia), we will end with her thoughts on Cake:
I was a pretty big Cake fan from approximately 1998 to 2006. I was too young for Motorcade of Generosity when it first came out, but upon discovering the band at the recommendation of a Cool Older Girl™, I caught up quickly and really came to stand fearlessly in the space of my own Cake fandom. By this I mean, I trekked into Boston from my suburban hometown twice to see them live, used the cover of Pressure Chief as a gridwork project in art class, and put “Love You Madly” lyrics in my AIM profile for my high school boyfriend, Corey...and then “World of Two” lyrics when he dumped me.
Since then, Cake has become something like its namesake food for me: a fun novelty that I gorge myself on occasionally, but that doesn't offer enough sustenance to allow into my life on a regular basis. Good? Bad? It's hard to say. I think they're probably bad, but the best evidence I have of that is everything I liked when I was 16 was terrible (sorry, Corey), so it's hard for me to imagine that I could have gotten something so right. All I know is, if “Rock and Roll Lifestyle”came on in a bar or something, I would be aggressively scream-singing "AS LONG AS THEIR SODA CANS ARE RED, WHITE, AND BLUE ONES" and anyone else who was doing so would be my instant best friend. If I trust that liking something is true north, the only relevant metric for whether something is good or bad, then...Cake is good. Cake is really good.
Cake is good, and great in small doses.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Listen to this
The world has been real evil for too long, and we’re in desperate need for some cool evil. That’s why I’m so stoked about the new song by my favorite San Diego deathrock/goth/metal/glam band, New Skeletal Faces. These guys always bring the dark goods, and their new song “Nacht Zen” continues their nasty legacy. The first half is a bluesy-metal creeper that’s a little reminiscent of Danzig, but halfway through, all hell breaks loose (literally, it sounds like they broke hell open to record this thing).
I’m in love with this interview that skateboard magazine Jenkem did with Werner Herzog. After you get over the initial shock that this interview exists, it becomes a nice and warm experience. Seeing Herzog watch and apply his philosophies to skateboard clips is like a colonic for the soul. And the young guy interviewing him is awesome. I’d be nervous to the point of tears if I got to interview Herzog.
Buy tix for this
My friend Jay Wertzler is the managing director for the best comedy festival in the nation, Sketchfest, and he’s assured me that their virtual fundraiser Festpocalypse this Saturday is going to be bonkers. But, I mean, you’d know that just looking at the lineup. Kids in the Hall?? Upright Citizen’s Brigade?? Triumph the Insult Comic Dog??? Count me in. (Jay also told me he was very nervous to interview Triumph, as anyone should be).
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