Classic doesn’t have to mean pre-color TV, people. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin will get their time. To me, classic simply means that it is old enough to have escaped the feeble mind’s ability to retain anything that didn’t come at us in the last few days, months, or even years…
Cake – Fashion Nugget (1996)
John McCrea and crew emerged from Sacramento in the early 90s with their unique bend on the tried and true genre of slacker alt-rock, perfected by countless others in the same vein. While their first album, Motorcade of Generosity, featured the MTV hit “Rock n Roll Lifestyle” and helped them gain a decent following, nothing could have prepared them for the success their follow-up would bring. Eventually providing five singles, this album is best known for the second radio release, “The Distance”. In the fall of 1996, this one could not be avoided. Your mom knows (and likes, by the way) this song. Your mailman knows this song. Your dentist likes this song. You see where I am going here…
While everyone loved that song, and an edited version of their Gloria Gaynor cover “I Will Survive” was a radio hit, it is the balance of the record that goes unappreciated by any who were not nerdy enough to obsess. I my friends, was plenty nerdy in 1996. Plenty nerdy, indeed. Before I get going here, the point I am getting across is that this record is well worth your 48 minutes. If you know it, then you know it is worth another listen. And if you don’t, and all you know of Cake is their subsequent (and still pretty good) less-worthy work, holy f*&kballs you are in for a treat. This is irreverent genius at play, this record is Cake (and mid-90s “indie” rock) at their best. As this is one of those records that always, and I mean always, makes me happy when I hear it, spoiler alert: this may be a long (even for me) review…
“Frank Sinatra” starts us off with its keyboard riff and casual, almost lazy lyrical delivery (a recurring theme here, to great effect) about an old man who collects things in hopes that it will bring riches and also mentions spiders and flies getting along after all – or something like that. The combination of Greg Brown’s guitar playing and Vince DiFiore’s trombone work here is pure ecstasy. After we get through “the Distance”, a fine song but about the 8th best on the album, we are treated to the note-by-note riff of “Friend is a Four Letter Word”.
“To me, coming from you, friend is a four letter word, end is the only part of the word that I heard, call me morbid or absurd”. Truer words have seldom been spoken, when the subject in question is one who you truly love. “When I go fishing, for the words, I am wishing you would say to me, I’m really only praying that the words you’ll soon be saying might betray the way you feel about me”. Oh, and the guitar on this song is absolutely bonkers in its beautiful simplicity, once again paired with just the right amount of trombone. This music is such simple perfection that they haven’t and frankly can’t ever capture it again, folks.
A couple tracks later we are hit with the 90 second marvel that is “Race Car Ya Yas”, a one-riff and three note trombone interlude that is ostensibly about dice hanging from a racecar. Again, unadulterated genius. It leads perfectly into the guitar and wordplay that is their cover of Mrs. Gaynor’s disco smash, “I Will Survive”, in which John makes the song all his own. When I hear the original, I only hear John singing about that “stupid fucking lock”, what can I say? Oh, and that guitar solo that closes out the song? Gloria aint got NOTHIN on that shit.
I would digress on a criminal level if I talked about every track so we skip forward to “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”, a well-crafted trombone and drum-led heartbreak song in which John laments his love and her inability to reciprocate, singing that “You won’t admit you love me, and so, how am I ever to know? You only tell me, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps”. The album closes out with a truer than you may expect cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, and leaves you wanting more. While they have had a great career, they have not and will not release anything that lives up to this epic and truly classic album.
Key Tracks: “Friend is a Four Letter Word”, “I Will Survive”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”
Eels – Shootenanny! (2003)
Mark Oliver Everett, aka the Eels, is a musical hero of mine. He is as comfortable rocking the hell out (see several of the tracks on this record) as he is writing songs that make you want to cry your heart out (see “True Original” or “I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart”, a personal favorite). He and his drummer friend Butch have been making amazing music for over two decades, and if that bastard ever comes to Boise, I will be right up front. C’mon Mark!
Shootenany! was one of those instant classics, I knew it the first time I heard it. The minimal and brooding guitar riff of opener “All In A Day’s Work” – along with its vivid lyrics about a life led as an outsider – just caught me and didn’t let go. “When I was born the doctor said, there is something wrong inside that baby’s head; when I was a boy, Sunday school, I told them all they were fools; all in a day’s work,, to live and breathe, a sight to see, and so it goes”. Followed up with (over aggressive and pounding drumming) “I went into the fortune teller’s, she wouldn’t read my horoscope; I go into the laundromat, the people all buy extra soap”. Ah, yes, this is my kind of stuff. Good action!
“Saturday Morning”, one of the few uplifting tracks on the record, preaches the gospel of seizing the day – especially the weekend – while “The Good Old Days” laments how we tend to forget as we get caught up in the past that the very times we are living in could be our finest hours, if only we stopped and cared enough to view them as such. “Love of the Loveless” tells the tale of a man who has no time for people and their demands, a common theme for Mark. It’s drum machine beat and mellow keyboard riff make for a unique sonic template for the record, but it works wonders, including this classic ‘’I know how to get through, and when push comes to shove; I got something that you need, I got the love, the love of the loveless”.
On “Dirty Girl”, Mark tells us that he only trusts women who have dirty mouths, and how he spends his time wondering about one of them who got away. On this track he even provides some optimism, albeit brief: “Once in a while, man, life gets so good, worth all the trouble of the past; that was the case but I think I always knew, good things don’t ever last”. “Agony”, a standout “total bummer” as Mark would say, is epic and daunting in its heavy and depressing take on life. This is a man truly heartbroken and done, having completely given up on the world he lives in. “Am I going to see the sun come up, or am I just going down? Cuz every day I am here, all I feel is sheer agony. Friends telling me that maybe I need some psychiatric help… all that’s left to sow, for the seeds that didn’t grow, is agony.” Heavy indeed, but still catchy as hell, and very well written.
Before this post gets away from me, one more track to talk about: the quiet, introspective, but still menacing “Restraining Order Blues”. A peaceful yarn about a man in love, who is just misunderstood. Well, that is what he would have you believe, but the judge believed otherwise. Great song, both musically and lyrically. Fitting for an album that is worthy of the same praise for almost all of its 13 tracks.
Key Tracks: “All In A Day’s Work”, “Agony”, “Numbered Days”