Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cake: Prolonging the Magic (1998)


In retrospect, now that I've realized Motorcade of Generosity is not the giant I once thought, this is probably Cake's best record. At the very least, it's the one whose smugness has best survived the decade and a half since its release. All these years later, the band has won some reluctant praise for how devotedly they have stood by a single, rather limited idea -- right down to all of their album covers being nearly identical -- but in 1998, Prolonging the Magic was born out of a personnel shakeup and a slowly crumbling label that failed wholly to promote it.

Greg Brown, author of the band's biggest hit "The Distance," was out -- and more than ever the core of the band was proven to be John McCrea. To say the least, McCrea is a love-or-hate personality; at the time I wanted to think there was some preoccupied genius lurking inside him. And certainly, with no other creative personalities now in the group, this was the time to advance such a theory. But when I went searching for soul in McCrea's Tin Pin Alley populism -- drilling his output down to its bizarre but rudimentary basics -- I think what I was looking for would eventually be found in the Mountain Goats.

McCrea displays neither the kid-in-candy-store enthusiasm nor the articulate lyricism of the Goats' John Darnielle, but both of them love repetitive and catchy riffs; we've learned since that Darnielle isn't quite as fond of distorting them as is McCrea, but that was many years ahead in 1998. Don't listen carefully and either band's songs are hard to tell apart -- but there's a reason that the average Mountain Goats convert soon knows the words to approximately two hundred tunes and maybe more. And with McCrea, the problem is not that he's a poor songwriter. The problem is he has no clue how to deliver his own work. Everything that attracts an army of cultists to Darnielle's obviously kind spirit is absent in McCrea's snarl and bark. His vocals, heard now free of the ironic-detachment phase of popular music, are nearly intolerable.

But he can write a melody, and when he isn't infatuated with his own overburdened word count, his lyrics are hardly as terrible as they sound when presented by a voice that short-circuits any attempt at genuine feeling or insight they offer. The single "Never There" sounded tired even at the time with its rumbling, tired, third-hand relationship whining in which he doesn't even come across as slightly invested. He's only at home when all his songs demand of him is "Satan is the only one who seems to understand," or maybe "I've got brakes / I'm wide awake." But skip ahead and find a sad country song called "Mexico," a lovely, plaintive melody and adorable cowboy-cartoon arrangement; the lyrics are sub-Beck semi-sarcasm but all the song needs is a real voice and it could be a minor chestnut for the Last Picture Show set.

And I'm not sure what exactly it is, but there's something being danced around in the odd "Guitar"; its celebratory chorus and sense of escape seems too carefully constructed to simply be about what it claims to be about (see: title). Ditto the seemingly heartfelt verses on "Sheep Go to Heaven," notwithstanding the defiantly stupid chorus. With no covers this time, McCrea gives permission for the Anglo-pop "Hem of Your Garment" and Barry Manilow-like ballad "Where Would I Be?" in their wake, and these are further moments in which he works against himself more than usual. Is this the careerist taking over, or impulse? We never come to know him enough to tell.

Although Vince di Fiore's trumpet is buried this time as a sort of sonic-wallpaper embellishment, with the guitars of McCrea and others mostly center-stage, the commercial success of Fashion Nugget is acknowledged with the stark modern-ish rock (with a slight R&B influence) of "Cool Blue Reason," an ominous and empty nyah-nyah, and the abrasive "You Turn the Screws," a pure, mocking midtempo rock song that seems to be a very slightly veiled rant against cast-off band members and possibly Capricorn Records. A breakup song, in other words, but even here McCrea can't muster up the passion to convince us he actually cares about his subject matter.

That's why the underlying impression one has is that someone else needs to sing these songs. That's especially true when confronted with the minor hit "Let Me Go," lyrically a strong and feminist relationship song that proves McCrea understands the world enough to write about it but is remarkably good at pretending he doesn't -- like Lou Reed and Doug Yule in one package. And Prolonging also contains what is likely Cake's best song ever, the tight and despairing and beautiful "Walk on By" (no relation to the Dionne Warwick classic), a resigned and lovely lyric and melody that simply cannot be done service by this band. I never felt that Leonard Cohen needed to have his songs "interpreted" to make them acceptable, but maybe John McCrea needs his own Jennifer Warnes. A song like "Walk on By" deserves better than Cake can give it, and one's enjoyment of it and this album is a whole is tempered at those moments when you realize you might love it if someone who seemed to believe in it was on the microphone.

Motorcade of Generosity (1994)

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