Not long into Cake’s third album, Prolonging the Magic, John McCrea ponders tossing his guitar out a window. Given the singer’s penchant for oblique lyrics and his archly sardonic vocal style, it’s an unusually obvious metaphor.
Apparently, McCrea considered quitting the music business, or at least breaking up his band, after the recent departure of Cake bassist Victor Damiani and guitarist Greg Brown. Not only that, he’d been hospitalized for exhaustion last year after a grueling international concert tour. At one point, Cake looked like it might become yet another modern-rock band sacrificed on the altar of the pop-music machine.
In “Guitar,” McCrea plainly spells out the questions he asked himself when trying to figure out whether he should continue with a sliced-up Cake. He tried to imagine the future: Would he feel better giving up the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle he once parodied? Or would he be sorry that he quit just as he’d gained an international following? “Would I start to regret it,” he asks in a chorus, “or would I smile and watch it slowly fall?”
His answer can be found on Prolonging the Magic, the title of which spells out McCrea’s intentions in characteristically smart-ass terms. He reactivated the band, yet the bitter trials of the band’s last year lace his new songs.
This time out, Cake is more somber and, though it hardly seems possible, more caustic. But every so often, the band’s aggressive cynicism melts away to reveal a human heart. Though uneven, Prolonging the Magic occasionally finds McCrea taking off the mask of intellectual indifference that he has hidden behind on previous albums. Though he doesn’t exactly break characterhis voice remains droll and coolly controlled at all timeshe does offer a few conventional songs ripe with barbed, sharply honed emotion. For the first time, he actually dislodges his tongue from his cheek.
McCrea came out of all the lineup changes as the undisputed leader of Cake, but he also had to figure out how to reconstruct the group. Replacing Damiani, who left after being burned out by the exhausting tour schedule, wasn’t so hard. The bassist had joined the band right before the recording of Cake’s second album, the million-selling Fashion Nugget, replacing original bassist Gabe Nelson. As it turned out, Nelson was more than happy to rejoin the band; he had come to regret his departure, especially after the group scored enormous radio hits with “The Distance” and a novelty cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
But guitarist Brown’s exit was more troublesome. A founding member, he had written “The Distance,” the band’s most successful single. As recording began for Prolonging the Magic, Brown and McCrea disagreed on musical direction and especially on song choices. Brown wanted to contribute more songs; McCrea preferred those he’d written.
It’s obvious who won the argument. But that doesn’t keep McCrea from lashing out at his former partner in “You Turn the Screws.” Judging from his lyrics, the battle between the two turned ugly, with both men accusing the other of being greedy. Obviously, McCrea is the one who gets to tell the story his way: “You twist the knife, then go home and kiss your wife,” he sings, adding pointedly, “a bigger slice is what you’d like.”
Finally, McCrea is being open and direct in one of his songs. It’s not that he has stopped being one of alternative rock’s high-minded witssongs like “Satan Is My Motor” and “Sheep Go to Heaven” provide plenty of brainy non sequiturs for those who enjoy his acerbic aloofness.
But this time, there are actually a few straightforward, well-crafted original songs in which McCrea carefully enunciates his words above Cake’s stripped-down lounge funkwhich is where the quintet’s true musical ingenuity exists. Using real instruments where fellow wise-guy rockers like Soul Coughing turn to samples and loops, Cake at their best create self-conscious, spare pop music that blends a mariachi trumpet with soul rhythms and prickly guitar figures.
Thanks largely to versatile drummer Todd Roperthe band’s true secret weaponCake dishes out tasty, unadorned tunes that snap with jaunty coolness, offsetting the excessively Anglo tone of McCrea’s vocals. From pure prairie country to south-of-the-border cheesiness to percolating modern pop, Cake continually finds new ways to shape its distinct tunes. Even when McCrea stumbles into a vapid or undeveloped idea, as on “Alpha Beta Parking Lot” or “Hem of Your Garment,” the band still comes up with something worth hearing.
For the most part, it’s Vincent DiFiore’s trumpet that gives the band its unique flavor. But there are other oddities mixed into the band’s musical style. “Guitar” features the best use of a musical saw since the Flatlanders, while “You Turn the Screws” employs a Moog synthesizer to create mock horror-movie effects behind McCrea’s acrid words. Also, McCrea, who produced the collection, apparently has become enamored with the vibraslap, a percussion instrument that emits a brittle rattlesnake hiss. The sound punctuates many of the album’s dramatic moments, providing the perfect sonic counterpoint to his poison pen.
The album utilizes several guitarists, including former Green on Red member Chuck Prophet and the band’s newest road member, Xan McCurdy. But on the album, the most intriguing string work comes from Tyler Pope and Jim Campilongo, who continually insert bright, rhythmic guitar lines into the stiff framework of McCrea’s songs.
In the end, though, the most startling moments on the album come in somber, straightforward songs like “Mexico,” “Never There,” “Walk on By,” and the creepily atmospheric “Where Would I Be?” All are tightly crafted, well-written pop tunes that make heartfelt statements that ache with loneliness and desperation.
On the group’s last album, when McCrea wanted to sing a serious song, he hid behind the carefully crafted words of Willie Nelson on the beautiful “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” This time, he’s writing the sad songs himself. It not only makes him more human; it makes his band that much better.
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