Cake – Prolonging the Magic (1998)

Prolonging_the_Magic_Cake_albumJust looking at the tracklist brings the memories back.  In 1998 I was in 7th grade, which was a tough time for me.  Not just because of the events detailed here, but also because a month prior to that, I got busted for shoplifting at a convenience store.  Only I didn’t steal anything; on camera it appeared a candy bar went up the arm of my jacket sleeve, and I got slapped with a $350 fine.  I begged and pleaded, saying probably the same things every petty criminal did in middle school, but they had some evidence – apparently their inventory was off by exactly one candy bar, though they wouldn’t tell me which one.  They offered me a choice; either pay the fine or enroll in a “Second Chance” program for only 45 bucks, where I’d learn why shoplifting is not at all the victimless crime I apparently thought it was.  Oh, and I had to call the owner of the Kwik Trip and apologize to him directly for taking a 59 cent candy bar.  The condition was that they were only gonna offer me that sweet deal if I agreed not to fight the charge, and thus, admit to my family that I was a thief, and a liar to boot.  At no point did it occur to me that the police department might not have done their due diligence on this one, or that maybe the inventory thing was a standard line they use to get kids to admit they stole things.  Seems like such small potatoes today but back then it felt like the end of the world.  You never forget the disappointed look on your parents faces at that age.

But that was me at 13, a kid who kept finding ways to get himself into trouble, though not brave enough to actually get out of line.  Not much of an identity, with the misfortune of having most of his elementary school friends go to the other middle school, and a stigma over his head that kept him from making new ones.  And so I spent a lot of time alone, taking solace in things like music and computer games.  For me, Cake were the right band at the right time.  I loved how flippant they sounded, how out of time they seemed, and how great and catchy all those guitar riffs were.  I loved John McCrea, a frontman who sung everything with the enthusiasm of a teenager at a church service, who added a bunch of ad libbed nonsense and let the background vocals speak louder than the lead.  And that trumpet, so punchy and direct – they were everything that I thought a pop band could not be, so likeable yet terminally un-hip, as pop radio had not gone through the full-on irony phase that it would a decade later.  They were like a suburban rock n’ roll band that accidentally hired a Mariachi.  I watched MTV News one day and they had a story about how Cake had played some kid’s Bar Mitzvah simply because he wrote the band and asked them to, requesting only that they played some deep album track called “Race Car Ya-Yas”, about as half-assed a tune as Cake would ever do (and all the better for it).  To me this was about the coolest thing any band could do, something I hoped the megastar version of myself that lives in an alternate universe would take the time out to do.

Cake weren’t built for stardom, but they found it anyway.  Fashion Nugget was one of the big alt-rock albums of ’96, a fun listen but also an arbiter of absurdity.  There was a completely straight (?) cover of “I Will Survive”, some nonsensical free-association rhymes, a rockabilly tune, some overbearing Latin influences, and a song that shoehorned in F-bombs for no reason whatsoever.  You really didn’t know if they were brilliant or if they were just throwing shit at the wall.  Most importantly there was the rap-rock hybrid “The Distance”, which became the ubiquitous hit every band in their position so desperately needed.  This was what was selling in ’96 – Beck, Soul Coughing, Pavement, hell even They Might be Giants all covered this sort of territory.  “The Distance” is not a particularly good song; one could argue that it paved the way for “All Star” and “One Week”, though it gains points for at least being a bona fide rock song, in some sense.  It sticks out even in Cake’s own discography, and if you look at the songwriting credits, you can find out why – it is one of two songs in the band’s catalogue written solely by guitarist Greg Brown (the other, “Mr. Mastodon Farm”, is even more of an oddball).  This would be like Andy Summers writing The Police’s greatest hit – though the acrimony that caused Brown to split soon after never was made public, it’s been strongly suggested that Brown writing the band’s biggest hit rather than the frontman McCrea had a lot to do with it.

Prolonging the Magic was their third album; a perfect album title from the band whose first single was the droll, sarcastic “Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle”.  For “prolonging” is all this band really does; once Cake figured out their signature sound, they made damn sure to stick to it, and in a sense you could copy and paste the same review for every single album they did.  Since the success of “The Distance”, Cake began to force their lead singles a bit – “Never There” is certainly written like one, with its snappy, echoed-out bass line, call-and-response sections, ultra-simple chorus, and telephone noise gimmick; all there to distract you from the fact that there’s not much of a song there.  But it catches the ear, and sometimes I feel that’s all Cake is trying to do.  I mean these chord progressions are straight from the 50’s R&R playbook; the only real modern element here is that constant left-of-centerness that Cake strive for.  Prolonging is more straight-faced than their first two albums, but there is still some strangeness here – sleigh bells, an air raid siren, little piano flourishes, lyrics that teeter between cliché and complete nonsense.  Then you’ve got the three central tenants of the Cake sound: 1) shouty background vocals, 2) trumpets, and 3) “ahhh yeah, alright, ohhh no, nawww, hey!!”  The first two make every song sound festive; even downtrodden ballads like “Mexico” and “When You Sleep”.  The third, perhaps a way for McCrea to make himself seem more invested and excited than he sounds on record; otherwise, he’s about as detached a singer as you’ll find.

Granted, none of this really stood out when I first started listening to them; this album is 17 years old now, which means I’ve had it for over half my life, and when I had it in heavy rotation I didn’t have a whole lot of reference points.  I can’t be objective about it now; I played this album and Fashion Nugget probably once a week while I did my paper route, and every note of both is etched into my memory.  In fact, it was so familiar to me that when I re-bought the CD (because keeping CDs unprotected in my winter coat eventually ruined nearly all of them), I had to buy another copy because I’d somehow wound up with one that had a few odd edits on it, including an alternate version of “Hem of Your Garment” that sounded totally wrong to me. Luckily there were plenty of used copies around; some of which had Parental Advisory stickers even though there isn’t a single swear word on it (a makeup call for “Nugget”?)  Eventually I found other bands, but they released Comfort Eagle just as I was entering high school, causing me to go back and pick up Motorcade of Generosity as well, and suddenly they became my favorite band again.  It didn’t hurt that most of the girls I knew were into them too; it gave me something to talk to them about.  When I bought my first car, Comfort Eagle was the first CD I put in the stereo, and there was something about it that seemed right.  These were my guys.

Somehow I imagine there are a lot of people out there with a similar story.  Even today, they sell out decent sized venues, and their last album even hit #1 on the Billboard 200, if only for a week.  I doubt it’s their new music that’s doing it – they’ve only done two albums since Comfort Eagle, neither of which are all that good, and I haven’t heard their new singles get any airplay at all.  But nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially for a band as esoteric as this one – Cake just seem to exist in their own zone, not really belonging to any era.  Can’t say I’ve wanted to listen to them much now, but I can still wring some enjoyment out of this disc; even the minor tunes like “Guitar” and “Alpha Beta Parking Lot” sound good, not to mention the big hooky ones like “Hem Of Your Garment” and “Let Me Go” (on contrast, the singles “Never There” and “Sheep Go To Heaven” feel played out).  Again, tough to be objective here; even back then I never had the idea that this was some great, timeless band, just one that I liked a whole lot.

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