Let Them Eat Cake 

John McCrea's band is the most underrated of the alt-rock era.

Cake (John McCrea, center) perfectly balances the tragedy and the comedy, the smirk and the smile, the devout and the secular.
  • Cake (John McCrea, center) perfectly balances the tragedy and the comedy, the smirk and the smile, the devout and the secular.
I watched in horror as Cake frontman John McCrea's face fell -- and my own black heart sank -- immediately after I doofishly declared Cake "the most underrated band of the alt-rock era."


"That's a backhanded compliment that's actually a really nice compliment," he allowed diplomatically.

Somebody kick me in the taco, please.

It undoubtedly didn't help matters that this exchange transpired on Live 105, during the San Francisco rock station's Wednesday afternoon Fast Forward program, on which label flacks, bemused rock stars, and boneheaded journalists mingle, banter awkwardly, and unload a few semi-obscure pick-to-click rock tunes. John and Vincent (the trumpet player) effused on Rilo Kiley and the Decemberists while I sat there, unsuccessfully attempting to separate my Badass Detached Rock Critic exterior from the fact that I freaking adore this band.

Repeat: Cake is the most underrated entity of the alt-rock era. This compliment is entirely forehanded. The Sacramento quintet remains known mainly for its mid-'90s emergence with "The Distance," a truly bizarre radio hit in any era, but particularly in one so oversaturated with melodramatic Pearl Jam whininess. Bouncy bass line, peppy trumpet, goofy shouted background vocals, and crassly literate lyrics ("Bowel-shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse!") delivered in McCrea's deadpan half-sung, half-spoken, half-rapped, half-smirked baritone. Inconceivable, inscrutable, delightful. And as an encore, a straight-faced, downtempo cover of "I Will Survive."

In a Cobainified grunge era when rock stars took themselves entirely too seriously, we needed a band that took not taking itself too seriously very seriously indeed. Cake was and is that band, and these dudes were, and remain, totally rad.

Unheeding, Super Cool Guys nationwide declared their disdain, denouncing Cake as a jokey Weird Al or They Might Be Giants permutation of crapitude. Wrong-o, suckas. A steady string of sleeper hits -- "Never There," "Sheep Go to Heaven," "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" -- slowly built the band's case for worldwide supremacy, and the SCGs finally relented when the early oughts saw Cake commandeer the Unlimited Sunshine tour, a minifestival whose debut run included De La Soul, a pre-ascendent Modest Mouse, and a just-ascending Flaming Lips. Cred grudgingly -- and belatedly -- given.

Time to reconsider this band musically, too. Slap on a pair of headphones and "Never There." A light, sardonic tune, sure. But marvel at the military precision of that sardonica: another sublime white-funk bass line. (For bassist dudes in garage bands whose bandmates insist they "play too busy," Cake remains a beacon, black as a steer's tuchis on a moonless prairie night.) The grab-bag percussive touches. The Cars keyboards. The backing vocalists' collective "Hey!" Bands like Calexico are deified by the Pitchfork set for their Americana/Tejano pop flourishes, while five absurdly consistent records in, Cake has that sound locked, crafting Pet Sounds symphonies for crass grad-student goofballs who wear flannel shirts and, occasionally, cowboy hats.

The band's latest record, Pressure Chief, will disappoint no one. Another tightly wound earworm of a single ("No Phone"), a speed-fingerpicked weirdo lament ("End of the Movie"), a truly fabulous Bread cover ("Guitar Man"), a peppy anti-SUV rant ("Carbon Monoxide"), and seven other tracks of focused, polished, vibrant corniness. Promoting said corniness was Cake's obvious motive for donning Live 105's headphones and enduring my dumb blathering ass -- that and the band's already-sold-out gig that night at SF's Great American Music Hall, recorded for posterity by a crew of ninja-lookin' black-clad cameramen from some TV show.

A live show's success ultimately boils down to the quality of the phrases the crowd is made to sing along with or provide as call-and-response: "Sheep go to heaven! Goats go to hell!" "Na-na na-na na-na, na-na na-na naaah, nah!" "Shut the fuck! Up!" "Duuuuuuude!"

All in perfect time, perfect pitch, perfect unison. McCrea commands a crowd completely, a marvel, since his demeanor vacillates between disorientation, disinterest, and disdain. His idea of fist-pumpin' stage banter is to inquire whether the club has an air-conditioning unit (alas), to admonish a crowd member for illegal videotaping (before realizing he was talking to one of the ninjas), or to note grimly that only 35 percent of the Earth's population has running water (he also used that factoid to give away tickets to the show on Live 105; a giggling girl who said she owned a shop called Felicity's Fetiche won). No matter. McCrea's grumpiness, theatrical or actual, has woven itself into Cake's appeal.

Look. Despising cheap jokiness and deadpan irony is a noble and understandable crusade. But tear off that Saran Wrap and let the bombastic band beneath breathe. Too tight and precise to devolve into Phishy wankiness, but too fluid and playful to lapse into alt-rock lockstep, Cake perfectly balances the tragedy and the comedy, the smirk and the smile, the devout and the secular. Poppier tunes like "Daria" and "Italian Leather Sofa" placated the primarily big-ass-fan crowd, but Cake's sneakier tunes -- "Stickshifts and Safetybelts," "Haze of Love," the surprise Buck Owens cover "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)" -- all betray a classic, genuine, C&W woe-is-me delight that billions of alt-country boneheads will never convincingly fake.

Bumbling compliments and bloodless, heartless, soulless haters aside, this band will outlast us all. The subsequent cockroach anthems and Cher duets will be masterful.


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