MGF Reviews Cake – B-Sides and Rarities

Cake – B-Sides and Rarities
Upbeat Records (6/19/07)
Rock / Alternative

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California band Cake (or CAKE, as the kids say) have been producing their unique blend of alt-country-rock with undertones of 1940s jazz-pop since 1995. Through six albums, they have carved out a niche almost exclusive to themselves and have attracted a loyal, if not large, fanbase. This album is for that base.

Any collection of B-sides and rarities is made for the fans first. If the tracks were thought to have widespread appeal they would have been A-sides, or at least grabbed a spot on an album. Still, what a band chooses to record when the spotlight isn’t shining is always interesting to look at, especially with such an eccentric band as Cake.

They start off the collection with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”. It’s a classic song, and lends itself well to lead singer John McCrea’s vocal stylings (that is, syncopated delivery without singing so much as speaking lyrics in a sing-song voice). It’s a pretty straight-up cover of the original, which is fine for a live performance, but Cake really doesn’t make it its own until the last thirty seconds of the song, when their signature trumpet sound (courtesy of Vince DeFiore) comes in to escort the song to the fade out. Still, it’s a powerful opening, and stands in contrast to most of the rest of the album. I say most of the album for a specific reason, which will be detailed later.

The second track is one of several country songs on the album. It stands out somewhat as it tells the tale of a crippled, dying veteran who’s begging his wife not to cheat on him again. It speaks of the anger and frustration of veterans, and the reason it’s on here is pretty clear in today’s climate. It ends with the main character of the song, the veteran, murderously yelling for his lady to get back in the house. Powerful stuff, even with Joel McCrea’s normally passionless voice.

The next track is a cover of the Muppet classic “Mahna Mahna”, lately seen in Diet Dr. Pepper commercials. This is a song that the Muppets sang, and is therefore great. The fact that Cake covers this pretty much perfectly explains why I like this band. Well, that and they have a song called “Mr. Mastodon Farm”.

Some more country songs and some instrumental pieces help fill out the album, but the next song of note is a cover again (there’s only three original songs on a 12-track album, but they usually, “War Pigs” aside, do a good job of making a song their own, so one doesn’t really mind). It’s the standard “Strangers in the Night”, which is as much a Frank Sinatra song as any. Now while it’s fair to say that Frank Sinatra would have not only disliked this band, but would have likely threatened to punch Joel McCrea in the face if he heard this version of the song, The Chairman of the Board was an angry man, and I’m not so quick to judge. This cover is not only good, but it actually does justice and pays homage to the more classic renditions of the song. McCrea also shows off his vocal chops a bit here, and shows that he really could sing, he just chooses not to—which you have to admit, is a daring decision for a front man.

Now we cover what originally made me excited to get this album, Cake’s cover of “Never Never Gonna Give You Up” by Barry White. Unfortunately, nothing will ever match up to their incredible cover of “I Will Survive”, and the comparisons here are inevitable, as both originals are late ’70s R&B-disco hits. That being said, when the chorus kicks in, the whole band hits a really good groove and the sense of fun that you’re looking for the whole track really comes in. However the chorus doesn’t come in until halfway through the song, and until then the track kind of flounders a bit. It’s worth noting that it sounds much more natural for McCrea to say “quitting just ain’t my shtick” then it does when Barry White says it.

They close out the album with two live tracks, original compositions both. “It’s Coming Down” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”. “It’s Coming Down” is actually the better live track, having a driving rhythm section to push it forward. However, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” is just one of the best songs written in the first half of the decade. And I sing it every time I can at karaoke, much to the chagrin of people of who have never heard the song. Actually, I feel bad for anyone who hears me sing karaoke, but never mind that now.

There is a hidden track on this song, and let me take this opportunity to say that I love this practice. Hidden tracks are great, and make me feel like (a) I have a secret with the artist and (b) I have gotten more for my money. Now this is exactly what they may want me to feel, but whatever. It works. The hidden track in this case is a third live song, and that song is a second rendition of “War Pigs” which is just much better, with a little bit harder edge, and a little bit more of a flavor of the band in it.

All in all the album is a fun listen. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has a good variety of songs. It won’t be gaining any new fans, but then again, that really wasn’t the intent.

One last note. The album is advertised as having a scratch-and-sniff cover, and I was happy to find out that this is not a joke. I don’t think the smell really matches the car and flowers that appear on the cover, nor does it smell like a cake, but you scratch it and it smells like something other than paper, which is more than most albums can say.