PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Cake: Comfort Eagle

Shan Fowler


Comfort Eagle

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2001-07-24

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.