So many people hate on Cake and it’s ridiculous. There are plenty of ’90s bands who exist solely as a product of their time; Smash Mouth, Len, Aqua…I could do this all day, but their inherent musical value seems to to be only as exercises in hilarious nostalgia rather than good songwriting (with apologies to people who truly believe in the restorative power of ‘Barbie Girl – I know you’re out there.’) Cake are different. Cake are different primarily because they exemplify what should be the ultimate party band throwback with no real longterm potential as they are hilarious and catchy. The problem with this definition is that in addition to being both hilarious and catchy, Cake are also fantastic songwriters, musicians and live performers. Even if you don’t think it’s cool to like them, seeing them on stage should cement how effortlessly they bring the art of showmanship to their alt-country-pop writing, and how well their songs hold up not for the gags, but the music. It is perhaps Cake’s greatest misfortune that they came into popular consciousness during an era when everything was very earnest; grunge, boy bands, indie girls with guitars yelling at their ex-boyfriends. They set themselves up for a fall that never should have happened, because today, the kind of artful irony they frequently practise both sonically and lyrically is practically everywhere. Like our 15 year old sister who was a fan of Ben Folds when she was still in Primary School, they were just too cool too early.
Passing appreciators or cultural historians will know Cake for one of two songs; their 1996 sort-of-subtle ode to prolonging sexual intercourse, ‘The Distance’ or the excellent shimmy-tune that everyone has heard at one point in their life, ‘Short Skirt Long Jacket‘. But Cake have written albums’ worth of gold that have been ignored by everyone but fans and people like me who picked up their greatest hits as an illegal CD-R in Thailand when I was seventeen and have cherished ever since. Among them, ‘Never There’, a low guitar riff-driven stomper about an absent woman that features more singing than the psuedo-rapping that has made singer John McRea a really popular dude. As it turns out, he’s got an excellent tone for both, and on this song he’s flanked on the harmonic third by either the guitarist or trumpeter in the band and it is sah-weet. Somehow Cake managed to carve themselves out a niche so weird that not even the other master appropriator of the era, Beck, could get in there. A fantastic blend of mariachi horns, western throwdowns, funk, country and hip-hop, McRea’s voice reacts so well to the accompaniment it’s like he wrote the entire thing in his sleep. It is beyond uncanny how well something that shouldn’t work for any number of reasons just does.
When you listen to Cake, you want to dance. Between the deadpan lead-ins of McRea ‘I need your arms around me I need to feel your touch..’ which set off his everpresent vibraslap (that is a percussion instrument. I played it a lot in highschool. ) and an entire bullpen of instruments through to the trumpet-barbed refrain of the chorus, it’s unapologetic about its intentions and that’s completely fine by me. As a piece of pop writing, as a smackdown of the telephone asa form of communication and as a song that hit #1 on the Modern Billboard Rock Charts in 1998 that features a man screaming ‘Yah’ like he’s about to whip a horse, it’s even better. The lyrics, for me at least, are the icing on an incredibly bizarre cake – pun intended. And they’re really not just revivalists – the band’s most recent album, over two decades after they started pumping out intelligent and strange alternative rock, went to Number One too, with no record label backing. Loveable underdogs and good guys all round, Cake will always occupy a special place in my heart. Come in and eat some.
Cake – ‘Never There’