Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11: Cake, "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle"

Artist: Cake
Song: "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle"
Album: Motorcade Of Generosity
Year: 1994

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More than nearly any other period in musical history, the first half of the 1990's provided an environment where quite literally, there were no rules as to what constituted a pop hit.  From the bouncing bass of gangsta rap to the soft tones of singer-songwriters to the renamed punk of Seattle, it seemed that anything with a good hook and a solid authenticity would be appreciated by the collective public.  Taking this thought even further, this time period and odd set of circumstances allowed many acts to get national airplay that wouldn't have in nearly any other era.  Among the many bands that benefited from this reality was a quirky quintet from Sacramento, California who had clearly listened to quite a bit of DEVO and They Might Be Giants over the years.  While they are in no way copycats, one can hear the influence of these other bands within the unique sound that is the band Cake.  Taking the idea of "musical irony" to levels never before imagined, Cake stands as one of the distinctive bands of the decade, and one cannot mistake their sound for any other group.  Though they would find moderate success with a handful of singles on their later albums, it is the very first single that the band released that captures everything there is to love about Cake.  Filled with a brilliant musical arrangement, the vocal style that would become the bands' trademark, and some of the greatest lyrics in history, few songs can compare to Cake's 1994 single, "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle."

From the moment "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" begins, it is clearly unlike anything else that came from the musical era, as it is sparse and almost jazzy from the onset.  The lone, simple guitar from Greg Brown that plays behind what sounds like someone lighting a cigarette immediately gives the song a strange type of "cool" feeling that cannot be found anywhere else in music history.  This unique tone is kept intact by the fact that as the verse begins, drummer Tood Roper enters the frey with only a shaker, and combined with the lyrical style, "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" takes on an almost beat-poetry sound.  While this strange swing remains for the entire song, there are a number of moments where the band breaks from the sound, and it is in these spots that one quickly realizes the exceptional level of talent within each player.  Brown rips a few brief guitar solos, and the contrast of his two playing styles is nothing short of stunning.  The thump from bassist Victor Damiani plays an ideal counter to the drumming, and it is clear that the members of Cake were far more talented than a majority of their musical peers.  Making their sound even more unique, the presence and playing of trumpeter Vince Di Fiore is absolutely perfect, and it reinforces the jazz mood, yet there is a tone to his playing that gives it an edgy, modern feel.  Making a new genre all their own, Cake use "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" to show that jazz and blues can be fused together in an entirely new fashion, and it is much the reason that the song found moderate commercial success.

If there is one aspect of the music of Cake that makes them completely unique, it is the vocal stylings of band founder, John McCrea.  One can easily make the case that he has perfected the "ironic singer" approach over the years, and even on their first single, his talent is abundantly clear.  Rarely pushing his voice beyond anything more than speaking, the idea of the beat-poetry style is further enforced, and it is also within this aspect that McCrea and push the brilliantly sardonic style that he excels in far beyond any of his peers.  Working all over the rhythm, McCrea shows his amazing talents as he often drops the lyrics with an alost Walken-like cadence, and it is his ability to find the odd down-beats that make "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" such a fantastic song.  Though there are not many, "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" stands high atop the songs that turn their pen on music fanatics, and though many of the shots are deep, they are all accurate in one way or another.  The song follows a character that might even be seen as a music snob over the decades, and McCrea's brutally honest depiction of such a person never gets old.  When he speaks, "...and how much did you pay for your rock'n'roll t-shirt, that proves you were there, that you heard of them first?" nearly every listener can picture the person being described, and it is cutting observations like this, and the manner with which McCrea delivers the lyrics that makes "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" nothing short of a classic song.

However, while many are quick to write-off Cake as an almost silly, perhaps novelty act, along with the superior musical performance, there are lines within the song that show depth beyond that of nearly all of the bands' peers.  Though it is often overlooked, one would be hard pressed to find a deeper, more accurate take on the capitalist approach of music companies than when McCrea sings, "...excess ain't rebellion..."  In many ways, this perfectly captures the mindset and style of the early 1990's, as everyone from the neo-hippies to the goths to the Doc Marten-sporting "indie kids" were dropping tons of money on styles so that they could feel as if they were "fighting the man."  The statement also reflects the then-aging hippie population who were clearly enjoying the great economic times, and the lyric can certainly be seen as an attack on their own ideals versus their new realities.  Regardless of which way one chooses to read the line, it is not alone in the song insofar as deep thoughts are concerned, and the fact that Cake can place them so perfectly alongside more humorous lines is a testament to the greatness and high talent level of the band members.  From the almost dual guitar styles to the brilliant lyrics and delivery of McCrea to the perfectly utilized trumpet playing, due to its sheer uniqueness and stellar content, there are few songs that are even remotely similar to Cake's 1994 debut single, the amusingly unforgettable "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle."

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