First steps are inspiring, but more than one newborn band has learned that many things are possible with those steps, and that some of them--like smashing your forehead on the edge of a coffee table--are not very pleasant. It is with great relief that Cake's sophomore album, Fashion Nugget, avoids the pitfalls, pratfalls, and sharp corners that usually dog bands that have a decade to prepare their first album and 10 months for their second.
The gimlet eye and sardonic humor of 1994's Motorcade of Generosity is intact, but Fashion Nugget is aptly named; it updates Motorcade with beatboxy soul and hip-hop rhythms, the kind often associated with popular assimilationists like Beck. Like Beck, Cake sits at that intersection of funk and folk that conjures up an image of Neil Young--acoustic guitar on his back and a backpack full of James Brown tapes at his feet--trying to hitchhike to Needles.
Old patterns are still there, but the update is complete. The sound is harder, more pointed--lo-fi electric guitar crunch and John McCrea sing-singsong-rapping his way through numbers like "The Distance," in which a stock-car driver, still "haunted by something he cannot define," refuses to acknowledge the end of a race and roars around the track far into the night.
The trumpet-playing of Vincent Di Fiora can still flow with the mellifluous blare of a mariachi band, but he often opts for sharp, challenging accents, making his parts seem almost sampled at times. The downward inflection of McCrea's delivery speaks for an entire generation that's tired and more than a little cynical; on "I Will Survive" (previously a live fave), McCrea keeps the affirmation of Gloria Gaynor's disco hit, but there's a fatigue behind the kiss-off anthem that recalls painful experience. The change from "Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle" ("how can you afford your...") to "Nugget" ("shut the fuck up...learn to buck up") involves real exasperation. The differing tones are emblematic of the changes in Cake's two albums.
The members of Cake, however, aren't just a bunch of snots mocking fin de siecle American culture ("Italian Leather Sofa" notwithstanding). Country-fried numbers like "Stickshifts and Safetybelts"--an ode to the intimate possibilities of bench seats in cars--sound true, a devotion they underline with the self-delusional, steel guitar-frosted "She'll Come Back to Me" and Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes." Like the stock-car racers at the beginning of "The Distance," Cake reveals itself as a band whose "prowess is potent/and secretly stern."