The commonly perceived knock against Cake has always been that they’re ironic and distant, and that it’s hard to tell if they’re really invested in their songs. Having a hit like the sardonic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle” will have that effect. Then again, that same song concludes, “Excess ain’t rebellion / You’re drinking what they’re selling / Your self-destruction doesn’t hurt them / Your chaos won’t convert them”, and there’s not much irony to be found there.
Still, the band’s own sound and presentation don’t help. Often, John McCrea doesn’t so much sing as much as he adopts a cadence appropriate to the song, and the band’s dry guitar tone rarely, if ever, conveys much emotion. It’s the sound of a band that’s keeping the material at arm’s length (even if they’re actually not—a debate that won’t be settled here). However, when you take a look at their website, full of links to various news items and grassroots movements, its hard to believe that a band this socially conscious isn’t making a comment of some sort in its music, especially when covering someone else’s material.
A large portion of B-Sides and Rarities consists of covers. And it’s safe to say that Cake abandons irony in their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”; they think enough of it to include it twice, after all, as a studio version and as a live recording (featuring the Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd). It’s a little disappointing that Cake didn’t take more chances with the song, though. Apart from a burbling bass line and the band’s trademark horns (which assert their presence too late, since they really could have added an interesting angle to the song), Cake play it pretty straight—and playing it straight with “War Pigs” guarantees you’ll never match the original’s power.
But you don’t get the sense that Cake are trying to reinvent the wheel with any of the covers on B-Sides and Rarities. So if their take on “Strangers in the Night” seems a little slight, or if their version of Piero Umiliani’s “Mahna Mahna” seems like little more than an excuse to inject random things like birdsong and 8-bit bleeps and bloops, it’s not that big of a deal. In the same vein, you could argue that Cake just slap their patented distance on Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up”, but they show that it can fit that template pretty well.
B-Sides and Rarities also underscores the band’s affection for classic country music, something that’s been clear since “Pentagram” and “Jesus Wrote a Blank Check” tinkered with twang on 1994’s Motorcade of Generosity. The band’s style—especially the guitar tone, which is tailor-made for a countryish, chicken-pickin’ style—lends itself to covers of country songs. Here, we get Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”, Buck Owens and Harlan Howard’s “Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got a Heartache”, and Kathy Dee’s “Subtract One Love (Multiply the Heartaches)” (made popular by George Jones).
Of the smattering of Cake originals, live radio broadcast versions of “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” and “It’s Coming Down” are well chosen, since they’re two of Cake’s better songs. They’re pretty close to the album versions, but their live energy definitely help close the disc with a bang. B-Sides and Rarities might not be the best introduction for someone new to Cake, but for those who enjoy the band’s style—and their way with other artists’ songs—the disc offers a fine diversion.