Your Gateway to Music and More from a Christian Perspective
Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Label: Capital Records
Length: 11 songs, running time: 36:38
I was among the first to be exposed to the first song ("Short Skirt/Long Jacket") slated for release from a then-untitled forthcoming Cake album. Due to a long story (of which I shall graciously spare you), along with a fortuitous strike of good fortune, my brief, impromptu psychological commentary on the song ended up on a top ten MTV/VH1 music video. The worldwide exposure this appearance afforded me only left me hungry not for more fame (well, maybe just a little), but for an opportunity to elaborate on my statement. It looks like this is that opportunity, so I'll try to make the best of it. Hearing this song--a song I applauded for containing "therapeutic value," whet my appetite for more Cake. So when the album came out, I was among the first in line to partake of the new Cake. The album was entitled Comfort Eagle, though the prophetic significance of that title was not to be known until September 11 of that same year.
In retrospect, the months and weeks preceding September 11 were like an eerie calm before the storm. When the storm hit, the flight of Cake's Comfort Eagle was abruptly interrupted. Suddenly the girl with the short skirt and the long jacket had to grow up into what would become a wounded, but proud and resolute lady in red, white, and blue. Cake felt terror's tumult as it gripped the nation. As Cake announced the cancellation of their worldwide tour, the title song from their new CD was added to the Please-do-not-air-in light-of-recent-events list that went out to radio stations throughout the nation following 9/11. Yes, Comfort Eagle suffered from a wounded wing, but like the nation's grounded airplanes, Cake's Comfort Eagle would take flight once again. But just where would it go?
Johnny Cash once proclaimed in a song, "I've Been Everywhere!" And he had!-- musically speaking that is. The Sacramento-based band Cake, like Cash, refuses to accept the categories and labels others would have them own. More than eclectic, they are brilliantly innovative. Cake, like Cash, see no borders dividing up the vast musical terrain that earnestly beckons them from their ever-expanding horizon. Consider how Cash turned up the heat on an otherwise simple country tune when he incorporated Brazilian horns into Ring of Fire. Well, if you think that move was something to get fired up about, then you will be able to appreciate the similarly tasteful touches on Cake's Comfort Eagle.
Let's begin our tour of this wacky, witty band by taking Cake at face value. While you can't always judge a book by its cover, or a CD for that matter, the conspicuously unvarnished, homespun, retro design featured on the cover of Comfort Eagle, speaks volumes. It is one of the trademarks that reflect the band's tendency to eschew rapid but vapid advancement, crass commercialism, and all of the gratuitous accouterments of fame. If you go back to their previous releases, you'll find that this is a band trademark that Cake has painstakingly preserved, despite the inordinately high turnover rate among band members.
To understand its relevance, one must consider the release of Comfort Eagle in the context of what was happening in America in the spring and summer of 2001. Before September 11, The United States, often represented by an eagle, was basking in an artificial sense of comfort and a false sense of security. American citizens were looking for comfort in all the wrong places, rapaciously gobbling up all that Wall Street and the consumer marketplace had to offer. The album was uncanny as it openly confronted us on this very issue with a dauntingly prophetic ring and an unparalleled sense of urgency. September 11 brought us back to our core values. Cake embraced some of these core values long before September 11.
The title song echoes the figurative style that is characteristically Cake. The song, "Comfort Eagle," reminds me of an unorthodox, sarcastically paraphrased version of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. In actuality however, it is more like Christ's furious response to the greedy, godless money-changers at the temple in Jerusalem. In this anthem of the American dream gone awry, McCrea speaks sardonically of "building a religion." Ostensibly, he is referring to the vapid kingdom of the commercial music industry, made up of greedy opportunists with an unquenchable lust for power, in search of would-be disciples. The lead character in this theatrical rendering offers a music biz neophyte a plan of salvation in the form of glitter, glamour, and an abundance of material wealth. He is like the false prophets Jesus and his disciples refer to in the New Testament.
While one gets the sense that Cake frontman John McCrea is speaking from personal experience, one also gets the sense that he is inviting the listener to transcend beyond the music business in order to gain an appreciation for the superficiality and emptiness of consumerism at its worst. The title song is clearly the best song on the album. The pulsating, hypnotic rhythm and commanding nature of McCrea's vocals vividly capture the grandiosity of the recording industry guru he is attempting to portray as they work the listener into such a hypnotic frenzy. In the midst of that frenzy, one almost cringes in anticipation of it all crashing down.
While Cake's lyrics set the band apart from others outside their league, opening the door to John McCrae's innovatively clever, if idiosyncratic mind, "Arco Arena" demonstrates that Cake music can stand alone, and make a lasting impression. "Opera Singer" carries the all-the-world's-a-stage concept in an all new direction. "Shadow Stabbing" (featured in the movie, Orange County) tells a tale of incarceration from the perspective of an inmate. While I found therapeutic value in the playful bursts of bottled up energy in "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," a group of parolees who are my patients, found "Shadow Stabbing" conspicuously bereft of both energy and believability. It didn't sound to them that the writer of this song had done any time at all. (Of course you may wonder about the believability of a bunch of parolees.) Whether right or wrong, one cannot deny that the percussion sounds emulating a typewriter were a nice touch, much like the car-horn-sounding horn sounds on "Line of Cars." Apparently, this "nice touch" wasn't enough to transport the listener to the prison cell or the imprisoned mind of the character in this song.
Overall, Cake conveys some pretty serious underlying messages, many of which reflect the core spiritual values espoused by Jesus. Yet their solemn, social-consciousness side is brightly balanced with a delightfully playful side. While frontman John McCrea, like a modern-day Shakespeare, plays in his proverbial verbal garden, juxtaposing clever words and relishing every moment of it, it is ultimately the music that transports the listener to the midst of that very garden. Bassist Gabe Nelson, drummer Pete McNeal, keyboardist/trumpeter Vince Di Fior and guitarist Xan McCurdy deftly echo the sentiments of McCrea as he 'plays', providing a more-than-suitable container or sandbox for his playful spirit.
Don't put it past McCrae and his quirky crew to throw everything imaginable (and the kitchen sink) in that sandbox -- funk, ska, jazz, rock, country, and folk, it's all music that, in Cake's world, knows no boundaries. It's a complex recipe for a simple, minimalist approach to music. What the listener is left with are infectious grooves that can be served up like tasty cupcakes, brimming with flavor, iced with satirical, sarcastically expressed and sprinkled with social consciousness and social conscience. To turn a long jacket into a short skirt, or rather, to make a long story short, Cake's Comfort Eagle is a generous serving of musical food for thought that's bound to whet your appetite for more.
Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D., a.k.a. Dr. B. L. T., The Rock Doc/Song Shrink