There is a school of thought that thinks predictability is the same as creative impotence, that if you can't renew your sound every few years, then you have no place making music, or at least not making music that millions of people will hear. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Madonna -- these are the creative chameleons whose names and careers are synonymous with musical genius.
The same school of thought often derides predictable musicians for not thinking much, and changing much less. If the musical geniuses create genres and then move on when they've squeezed everything out of them, predictable musicians at best stick around to define genres, and at worst don't have the talent to get past a singular style. James Brown, The Ramones, Dr. Dre, Johnny Cash -- these are stalwarts who manage to both build something entirely new and to stick with that new thing and keep it sounding fresh even when there's no mistaking it hasn't been fresh for ages. They're predictable, but they're certainly not boring. Much of what dominates Top 40 at any given time, on the other hand, is nothing if not boring and predictable.
For the past seven years or so, Cake have made names for themselves by being both set-your-watch-by-'em reliable and, conversely, the peanut gallery criticizing such prima facie conformity. On one hand, they are almost defiantly predictable. The simple packaging on each of the band's four full-length releases is nearly identical and every album title is a juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated words. Hardly any of their songs are over four minutes long and all come close to a simple verse-chorus-verse structure. Most of those songs make you want to sing along and, despite the overriding social critiques, many of them are, at their core, about cars and girls.
On the other hand, it's what Cake does with these standards that sets them apart. Coming out of the same early '90s indie boom that hatched such ironic genre-benders as Beck and Pavement (and coming from Sacramento, just up Interstate 5 from Pavement's hometown of Stockton), Cake have no problem mixing their musical metaphors. Strands of country are intertwined with synthesizer and theremin bits nicked from west coast rap (which in turn was nicked from cinematic strands of '70s soul and funk), heavy guitar riffs provide the backbone when breezy strumming isn't, and the trumpet is a permanent fixture. All of it is filtered through John McRea's droll sing-rapping, which paints a picture of modern culture as it might be seen from the interstates, neighborhood bars and La-Z-Boys of America.
The music Cake makes is populist Americana: modern-day folk traditions, which for better or worse have borrowed much from pop music traditions, are stitched together like a patchwork quilt of pride and cynicism for a nation whose greatest strengths are its contradictions. Cake's music, like the title of its latest CD, is a Comfort Eagle.
In turn, the title track is an aural photo album of fractured American traditions: religious imagery is merged with automobiles like they were on Prolonging the Magic's "Satan Is My Motor"; commercialism is given the same treatment it was on Motorcade of Generosity's "Rock'N'Roll Lifestyle"; we're told of double-wide trailers and jet vapor trails and guys who call us "dude" with the same ambiguous derision that we got on Fashion Nugget's "Race Car Ya-Yas"; and we get this musical jambalaya that sees nothing wrong with combining a metal riff with a Middle-Eastern tempo that owes much to Timbaland and Missy Elliott. "Comfort Eagle" may be the ultimate Cake song. Then again, all Cake songs may be the ultimate Cake song.
In other words, anyone who expected McRea to change his tune this time around hasn't been listening to Cake very closely. Lest you think that "different" is synonymous with "ever-changing", Cake have managed to consistently sound like nobody else on the pop music landscape while sounding very much like themselves over and over again.
The similarities are both concrete and fleeting. The music on "Long Line of Cars" is almost identical to Fashion Nugget's "You Turn the Screws", and the metaphors for a waning relationship are pretty close, too. The jumpy guitar and rah-rah chorus of the first single, "Short Skirt/Long Jacket", could have been drawn from the same riff as "Never There", the first single from Prolonging the Magic, but the dream woman McRea is describing is obviously the same one he laments on that album's "Let Me Go". Comfort Eagle is hardly a giant leap forward in Cake's evolution, but it does have that constant touch of familiarity and simplicity that you'd find listening to an early punk, country or hip-hop album.
That's not to say that there's no discerning Comfort Eagle from Cake's other three albums. There's much less twang this time around and much more of the synthesizers and rattles that drew Cake apart from the flood of alt.country acts in the first place. It also sounds a touch more polished, but we're talking fractions here -- this isn't a big, overproduced major label album, even if they have switched from the comparatively low-key Capricorn imprint to Columbia Records.
And though he hardly announces it, McRea seems to have cheered up some since Prolonging the Magicl. "Meanwhile, Rick James". manages to be both melancholy and catchy, while "Shadow Stabbing" is as cryptic and inexplicably uplifting as anything Cake has done. Opening track "I Am an Opera Singer" and "Commissioning a Symphony in C" see McRea returning to funny populist messages that were all over the first two albums. With Comfort Eagle mainly serving as a variation on the same themes that Cake keeps covering, it's tough to say for sure whether it's a better or worse album than anything else by the band. It works a lot better to think of it in terms of moods: Comfort Eagle, like Motorcade of Generosity is for those cynical good times, as opposed to the cynical bad times. It's not going to set the world ablaze with its sheer originality, but if you're looking for something to you can sing along with that still makes you think, it's bound provide you with the comfort you seek.