erasing clouds

Have Your Cake, and Listen to It, Too

essay by matthew webber

Anybody who knows me well knows I take just about everything too seriously: my schoolwork, most jokes, my writing, my songwriting and, especially, my tastes in popular music. To like something frivolous, I often have to try. Liking pop-punk bands, for example, does not come naturally to me. Admitting to still liking Green Day's Dookie when I'm 23 years old requires even more effort.

Several years ago, when I first heard a song as unabashedly kitschy (and catchy) as Cake's first big hit, "The Distance," I neither liked it nor claimed to until I was about to burst. I mean, come on, it was about racing cars! It had this weird, spy effect! It was kind of funny! Saying I liked it was kind of like saying "I love you" for the first time: It was something I wanted to save until I was absolutely, positively sure I meant it.

At first, I didn't think I'd ever think I liked that song. Then, I thought I thought it, but I wasn't sure I meant it. After much soul searching (hey, you can't just have flings with bands; you're supposed to form lasting, committed relationships), there came that one day when I knew my love was truth and speaking the words was a mere technicality.

But, I'm, like, sooo over that now. Me and that band are longtime buds.

Remember: I take everything too seriously, so most under-four-minute pop songs are as amusing to me as a Mark Trail comic strip. In other words, the chances of me chuckling at one is more minute than those of Screech's being Kelly Kapowski's soulmate, or of Jesse's not getting chortles as a serious post-Showgirls actress. Or of anybody outside of a six-years-in-either-direction age bracket's understanding my Saved by the Bell references. Or of me finishing this essay in fewer than 600 words after writing paragraphs like this.

But Cake songs consistently crack me up.

In a totally intellectually stimulating way, of course.

Because I'm such a dourpuss, once I admit to being a fan of a band, I can't even allow myself to remain a fan without critiquing their every subsequent single, video, record, interview, and worthy social cause. With Cake, I tend to justify my fandom in terms of their eclectic musicality, their non-conforming sound, and John McCrea's talking/singing voice. It isn't like they're Weird Al or anything (whom I honestly respect; he's consistently parodied every new pop music genre and fad since the early '80s), because Cake can be serious, too: "Friend is a Four Letter Word" remains one of my All Time Favorite Breakup Songs; and it isn't like they're just farting around on their instruments like some high school band singing songs about living in the ghetto (they're white) and eating canary soup (see Matthew Webber's high school band, Special Guest, and their hit song about that "soup of kings," "Canary Soup"). These guys are wicked talented.

As one of my less critical friends once said (bless his heart), "Cake's a kick ass band." So, if I want to use and abuse the above qualifiers, I can. (I can even justify my justifications!) Few mainstream, non-ska bands use non-traditional instruments like trumpets in such a "kick ass" way as Cake: as background, as a riff, as a soloing instrument. The bass lines rival anything by Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre's bassist of choice) in funking up a room. And the lyrics, even when not inducing my suppressed (and repressed) giggles are clever. From the aforementioned "Friend is a Four Letter Word": "To me, coming from you, friend is a four letter word. 'End' is the only part of the word that I heard. Friend is a four letter word." (F-R-I-end. Neato!)

As superb as all these reasons are, I still must admit why I'm such a fan of this band: I smile at more Cake songs than at those of any other band. Why must this be so problematic for me?

"Short Skirt, Long Jacket," the band's first single from their 2001 release Comfort Eagle, was perfect. Singer and songwriter John McCrea runs through his list of everything he is looking for in a woman, including "smooth liquidations," her "using a machete to cut through red tape," and her "changing her name from Kittie to Karen" and "trading her MG (?) for a white Chrysler LeBaron." Or something like that. And when he sings the word "long," he sings it like "looooooooong," which maybe is a pun or maybe just sounded cool when he wrote it. His dream girl sounds both ridiculous and sexy as hell, which resembles the whole concept of a dream girl, I suppose. And the trumpet kicks ass, and the bass funks it up, and McCrea speaks/sings like always, and hilarity cannot help but ensue. And ensue it did, as the Old Dourpuss, me, actually laughed out loud the first few times he heard it. Needless to say, such an occurrence is rare.

The video disappointed me in that it never showed an image of McCrea's short-skirted and looooooooong-jacketed hottie, but perhaps such images are sexier and more ridiculous when confined to your own imagination. And when the result of such an omission is a hilarious, man-on-the-street commentary (McCrea directed the clip, which features people listening to the song on headphone and voicing their reactions), the post-modernity (the word I really wanted to use was "coolness") of the concept more than compensates.

If I weren't so grave, I think what I'd say about Cake is, "They're cool," because that's what I think they are. I don't think they're cool in a hip, trendy, of-the-moment sense; or cool like impervious; or cool like the girls who wear Abercrombie and Fitch. They're cool to me, simply, because I really, really, really like them. They're cool like your zany high school friend who has since dyed his hair green and gotten his penis pierced and you wonder how he ever enjoyed your mundane nights together of bowling, hanging out at Steak & Shake, or people-watching at St. Louis' international airport. They're cool because they used to be this zany high school friend of yours' favorite band, and every time you hear their songs you wonder what he's doing. (Working at a Springfield, Mo. Papa John's, maybe graduating from Southeast Missouri State University in another two years.) Cake is unique; but maybe they also know everything about you. You can't escape your teenage years and all the things that make you reminisce; there are some things from which you wouldn't want to run away, like the boy you used to be and those quirky songs you've memorized. Yes, you like the kitsch. Yes, you like the trumpet. You even enjoy smiling once in awhile (and you're told you look cuter when smiling than when frowning). They're cool.

Their titles might be their coolest trait. What other band would have albums called Motorcade of Generosity and Comfort Eagle? Can you name a band with songs like "Sheep Go to Heaven, Goats Go to Hell," "Meanwhile, Rick James...," and "Commissioning a Symphony in C"?

Is it their retro clip art album covers that make them so smooth? Their goofy name? Their band bio, about which you know nothing but for which you've devised your own scenario? (What I like to think is that the members of Cake were a bunch of nerdy music majors who met each other in college, had all been in crappy high school rock bands such as Matthew Webber's Special Guest, jammed with each other for a semester before they realized they were in the type of band in which they always wanted to be, and played frat parties for free beer and chips before being discovered by some frat boy's music exec daddy who happened to be looking for something "a little different.")

Do you love their sad and simple breakup songs, like this album's "World of Two"? ("In your world of two, there's only room for you.") Do you love their additional songs about racing cars, which somehow aren't dorky, or at least are as cool/dorky as you like to think you are?

Do you like even like Cake at all?

I'll admit I love them, and I'll admit this willingly. It's something I take very seriously.

{Email me your comments, thoughts, questions, etc. at}

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