Despite the crowd (and McCrea's deep-rooted sense of irony), Cake always put on a show worth spilled beer and the indignity of frat-boy appraisal. The band was strangely genuine, jovial, and seemingly convinced everyone in the house was in on the joke -- which must have been harder to believe after Fashion Nugget, when the quintet found themselves playing abroad for sold-out arena audiences. Certainly not everyone who rushed out to buy tickets got past the rousing chorus of "The Distance" to the distress driving the song, so many fans may have been surprised when Cake was pulled off the road due to stress and exhaustion.
In Northern California, though, you could almost hear the exhalation; you could imagine McCrea looking over a sea of indistinguishable faces, thinking, "Fuck, we're just five guys from Sacramento and I really don't want an Italian leather sofa." Aside from its sarcastic title (and McCrea's explicitly indifferent delivery of the tedious industry phrase "punk rock"), Prolonging the Magic arrives almost completely bereft of the irony that drove Cake's first two albums. "You Turn the Screws" revisits the theme of the band's first hit, but from an insider's perspective; instead of contempt for followers of musical trends, we have dismay for their creators. "Satan Is My Motor" explores a nihilist's unintentional good. "Sheep Go to Heaven" is a straightforward social incrimination ("Goats go to hell"). But for the most part, Prolonging the Magic presents personal material about love and irrecoverable loss, with such sincerity that we can only imagine McCrea's girl couldn't hack the rock 'n' roll lifestyle either. Pedal steel, musical saw, piano, and some exceptional guitar playing from Jim Campilongo, Chuck Prophet, Rusty Miller, and Tyler Pope add to the plaintive country hue of McCrea's voice as he sings lyrics like, "On the phone at long long distance/ Always through such strong resistance/ First you say you're too busy/ I wonder if you even miss me."
While McCrea has not lost his muck-rousing sense of humor, he has boldly stepped out from behind his adolescent swagger and written the group's most interesting and well-rounded album to date. Of course, it is Cake's irrepressible sound that will catch the airwaves, leaving thousands of teenagers wearing Cake T-shirts and singing, "Sheep go to heaven." We can only hope McCrea will lean back and relish the irony. Cake performs at the Warfield on Wednesday, Feb. 17, with Dieselhed and Adam Elk (formerly of the Mommyheads) opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18.50; call 775-7722.
After over two years of publicizing the city's more interesting events, LaughingSquid.com has launched a monthly series of its own to present some of its favorite artists. The first "Tentacles Session" submits, for your bemusement, "An Evening With Hal Robins." The renowned underground comic book artist has been featured in Last Gasp's Weirdo and Salon's "Dark Hotel." Folks familiar with Robins' work as "Master of Church Secrets" for the Church of SubGenius and as co-host of KPFA's most unusual radio show, Puzzling Evidence, know that few men living in this century are capable of mangling a phrase to such comical effect. His treatment of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" should prove it beyond a doubt. Subsequent "Sessions" will include site-specific sculptor Brian Goggin and ArtCar filmmaker and artist Harrod Blank. The Amazons will provide an acoustic prelude at Blue Bar (501 Broadway beneath the Black Cat restaurant) on Sunday, Feb. 21, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $5-10; for information go to www.laughingsquid.com/sessions/.
-- Silke Tudor