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Comfort Eagle is the fourth studio album by CAKE, released on July 24, 2001. I personally consider it one of their best, along with their third, Prolonging the Magic. Like most of their albums (except the aforementioned PtM) it's named after a pairing of abstract and concrete nouns (Motorcade of Generosity, Fashion Nugget, Pressure Chief). It was the band's first release on Columbia Records (they had previously been signed to Capricorn Records). The album release was preceded by an EP, Comfort Eagle Sampler, released the same year and consisting of tracks 3, 4, 5, 9, and 7 (in that order).

Album Credits

As far as I can infer from the bewildering number of lineup changes in the band's history, CAKE at this time consisted of:
John McCrea - lead vocals/acoustic guitar/electric guitar/percussion/bass/keyboards/drum programming and composition of all tracks (except where noted)
Vince DiFiore - trumpet/keyboards/backing vocals
Xan McCurdy - electric guitar/percussion/backing vocals/design/mixing/drum programming
Gabe Nelson - bass/keyboards/backing vocals
Todd Roper - drums/percussion/backing vocals/Moog synthesiser

(Roper left after the album was finished to concentrate on parenthood, eventually joining Deathray, a band formed by ex-CAKE members Greg Brown and Victor Damiani. His departure may explain the interest in programmed drums.)

The album was mixed by Kirt Shearer, David Cole, Greg Long and Gabriel Shepard, and mastered by Don C. Taylor.

Track by track (italics denote single releases):

1. Opera Singer - 4:06

The trumpet-driven opener is lyrically fairly straightforward. It's about an opera singer (evidently at some point in the past when opera was popular, as it refers to 'kings in Europe') with an enormous ego ("my talent feeds my darker side/yet no one will complain"). I would imagine it's intended to apply to prima donnas in other creative fields as well. It was composed by McCrea and someone called M. Kornweibel, whoever that may be.  Mark Kornweibel, who directed the videos for Sheep Go To Heaven (from Prolonging the Magic), Jolene and Rock'n'Roll Lifestyle (both from Motorcade of Generosity).

2. Meanwhile, Rick James... - 3:57

An odd one, this. It's been interpreted as referring to the titular singer's arrest and drug addiction, but was written well before any of that happened. In an interview with LiveDaily in 2001, McCrea described his feeling that the song, which makes reference to sex, guns and drug use, predicted James' fate to some degree (James was arrested several times in the 90s and eventually died in 2004 of a drug overdose) and that its meaning was altered by those events. Originally, though:

"It was about something in a very general sense. There was a guy in Berkeley named Rick James, and Rick James' music always frightened me as a 10-year-old because of its overt sexuality. Kids got freaked out by the '70s and '80s, so I think that's what it's about in a general sense. It's not the kind of song where I'm trying to tell a story. But the weird thing about it <is that> it ended up telling a story."


3. Shadow Stabbing - 3:07

This was originally written by McCrea and someone called G. Kane in the 1980s, when McCrea was frontman of another band - John McCrea and the Roughhousers - about which the internet seems to know little to nothing. It seems to be about an isolated writer, or a muckraking journalist ("adjectives on a typewriter/he moves his words like a prize-fighter/the frenzied pace of the mind inside the cell"). Really, there's not much point my speculating too much, but it's an interesting song with a catchy, jangly guitar riff and an unusually non-ironic delivery from McCrea.

Usage elsewhere: the film Orange County.

4. Short Skirt/Long Jacket - 3:24

Probably the most conventional song on the album (DiFiore's trumpet playing only a minor role), and the first single from it. It was also the most successful, climbing to #7 on US Modern Rock Tracks.

The lyrics, set to an excellent funk-influenced bassline, are McCrea's description of a fantasy woman, wearing the titular attire. In a short piece for Rolling Stone, McCrea described it as being about "directly oppositional forces housed within the same mechanism or personage. I saw this woman as trying to arrive at balance -- the skirt going up and the jacket going down."

This chimes with the description of the character as being caught between her dynamic professional side and her more frivolous, stereotypically feminine one: "She is fast and thorough/and sharp as a tack./She is playing with her jewellery/she's putting up her hair/she is touring the facility/and picking up slack." The lyrics also use descriptions that range from relatively mundane detail ("she is trading her MG for a white Chrysler LeBaron") to over-the-top poetic simile ("with fingernails that shine like justice").

The video for this one, somewhat like that for the later single No Phone (from Pressure Chief) features ordinary people listening to the song on headphones, and giving their opinion on the song, in short vox pop segments. Unusually, the video (which you can watch here) includes both positive and negative reactions. McCrea/LiveDaily again:

"Mainly, the video was a desperate attempt on my part to not have to make a music video. I didn't want to have five white guys lip-syncing and pretending to play instruments in an urban-decay setting. So I just figured maybe we should try turning the camera around."

Usage elsewhere: An instrumental version of the song was adopted in 2007 as the theme music for the TV series Chuck, and the original featured in the film Waitress.

5. Commissioning a Symphony in C - 2:59

Seems intended as a companion piece for Opera Singer, and it too links this specific period of musical history to a more general condition of the creative process. It portrays someone as an Austrian nobleman commissioning this symphony as a romantic gesture, 'with money <he> squeezed from the peasants'. But the symphony, not its patron, is what garners attention, and the 'nobleman' is forgotten in the excitement of the performance. It's perhaps relevant that symphonies in this key are musically unusual - Beethoven's 1st Symphony was controversial for this reason.

6. Arco Arena - 1:31

The album version of this is a short instrumental linking the two tracks on either side, with a mood that moves from the introspection of Commissioning a Symphony in C to the driving rock sound of the title track. A single version - longer and with lyrics - was also released, but is very rare. There's also a vocal version on the Short Skirt/Long Jacket single.

Usage elsewhere: It was sampled by Jay-Z and Lenny Kravitz for the song Guns and Roses.

7. Comfort Eagle - 3:40

Comfort Eagle (the song, that is) is like an ironic rallying cry to modern consumerism - "we are building a religion/we are building it bigger/we are widening the corridors/and adding more lanes." The lyrics - all but shouted over a driving Eastern-influenced guitar track - lampoon a shallow, superficial record industry executive ("Now his hat is on backwards/he can show you his tattoos/he is in the music business/he is calling you 'DUDE!'").

This album, CAKE's first on a major label, was tipped for a while to become a major hit, and there seems to be a degree of disillusionment present in all three of the songs here which refer to music. Comfort Eagle would have been the second single from this album, but after September 11, 2001 the references to aircraft, stepping off ledges and democracy being a joke led to its single release being cancelled and Love You Madly being released instead.

Usage elsewhere: This song was recently used in a YouTube video, entitled Building a Religion, which juxtaposed the lyrics and music of the song with images from Obama's presidential campaign to make some sort of 'point' about the popularity of the campaign, and to liken Obama to the character in the song. Of course, it avoids the issue of CAKE's support for Obama (yeah, 'cause an alternative rock band from Sacramento are really going to vote Republican). It also featured in the film Shallow Hal.

8. Long Line of Cars - 3:24

One of the more downbeat tracks on Comfort Eagle. From the driving bassline builds a guitar riff and then a fantastic trumpet part which, for a few moments in the middle of the song, is the only instrument accompanying McCrea. The lyrics suggest a stalled relationship, played out in the traffic jams of urban America.

9. Love You Madly - 3:58

The album's second single, like Shadow Stabbing, was written when McCrea was with the Roughhousers. Like the other single, its lyrics are comparatively straightforward, addressed to someone with whom the singer would rather have an intense and passionate relationship than a stable and mundane one. As with SS/LJ, there's quite a lot of funk influence here, which is certainly no bad thing: the trumpet, synth, guitar, bass and bongos (I think?) all play off each other very well. The car ignition noise at the very end suggests a link back to the previous track.

The video is, if anything, even more unusual than the first one. It's made up of clips from the October 21, 2001 episode of The Frugal Gourmet. CAKE drummer Pete McNeal (he joined after the album was recorded) is pitted against DiFiore.

McNeal makes pan-fried Pacific salmon, steamed asparagus with toasted sesame seeds, mashed pumpkin and grilled Portobello mushroom with garlic slices, with a pudding of seared pears with caramel sauce. DiFiore makes Gruyère stuffed pumpkin, crustless quiche with mushrooms and green onion, pumpkin bisque, fresh snap beans and a pudding of pumpkin bread. The celebrity judges - Rick James (of course!), Phyllis Diller and host Jeff Smith - award McNeal 29.5 points and DiFiore 27, making McNeal the winner. Well, look at that! You came expecting an album review and you get an episode of some Yank cooking programme! You can watch the video here (after the preceding mandatory advert).

Usage elsewhere: the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

10. Pretty Pink Ribbon - 3:08

Written a little like a conventional love song, but with lyrics that list various criteria by which women are judged, with the pink ribbon seeming to represent femininity as a whole. The implication is that these social judgments may bring apparent superficial advantage but are in fact highly restrictive ("without the pretty pink ribbon/you'd say just what you pleased/without the sticky little kitten/your ticket could never be free"). There's also a reference to Virginia Woolf ("the room that you live in"), which lends further credence to a feminist interpretation.

11. World of Two - 3:41

The final track is fairly slow-paced, describing a relationship with someone who's so absorbed in the conflict within themselves they don't have space for anyone else (possibly a flipside to the personality conflict described in Short Skirt/Long Jacket). The singer can no longer orbit this 'world of two' The album ends with DiFiore's gentle synthesiser riff slowly fading out.

So what have we learned? Apart from not to node while you're waiting for pasta to cook, as you get distracted and end up with a soft overcooked mess of penne. Well, we've learned that Comfort Eagle is a fantastic album, arguably their best, and more than we probably needed to know about the tracks on it. Clocking in at only 36:55, Comfort Eagle doesn't outstay its welcome. It's cohesive and, in my opinion, quite thematically consistent (with the music industry and the position of women being recurring themes, along with the usual broken-relationship songs). The one major criticism that reviewers have pointed to CAKE's failure to break new ground here, sticking to their usual distinctive style of ironic funk-/country-influenced rock, particularly as Comfort Eagle sounds fairly similar to Prolonging the Magic.

Bottom line: If you like CAKE you probably have this already (what with it being 8 years old and only just being noded), but if you aren't a fan I think it's the best introduction to them, and with a new album slated for some time this year now may be a good time to get into them. However, if you hated their earlier albums (and, as with Douglas Coupland, the constant knowing irony can get a little wearing), this one isn't going to convert you.

Links and sources

CAKE official website
Rolling Stone piece on SS/LJ
LiveDaily interview with John McCrea
Building a Religion site
Comfort Eagle at The Other Place
News Review interview with Vince DiFiore
Blender review
AllMusic review
CAKE at SongMeanings

Thanks to Jack for alerting me to a zeugma-related mistake.

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