REVIEW: Cake takes the cake at Sonic Boom

When the End Times come, we’re going to need a house band – and that’s where Cake comes in.

Imagine: all Cake, all the time. As it has been written somewhere: And the living shall envy the dead …

Perhaps we’re making too much of this, but rarely has there been such a happy-sounding band with such a depressing overall message, shown by the band’s giddy set at Sonic Boom 2011 at the Northlands Expo on Sunday. Amongst a bill that included Jane’s Addition, Metric, Social Distortion and more, Cake is not a classic “feel-good” band despite surface impressions. Their songs themselves were dark enough – sweet ‘n’ sour pop ditties dealing with love, hate, death, heaven, hell and girls who wear short skirts with long jackets.

Early in the show came a love song called Long Time – whose lyrics seem to deal with a suicide pact. Sample: “It’s been a long time since we drank the arsenic.” Also consider the newer song Sick of You, which is a list of things that, well, that the protagonist is sick of: You, me, work, play, every piece of land, every city that you plan “will crumble into tiny grains of sand.” Nice.

But it wasn’t so much Cake’s lyrics as it was frontman John McCrea’s dark and deadpan stage patter that really gave the festivities an apocalyptic pall. Early on, after noting the sorry state of global finances, he complimented Edmonton on our “powerful economy … still plenty of protein in your diets, obviously.”

The singer turned Sick of You into a massive singalong, dividing the crowd into two uneven groups “because life isn’t fair.” The people on one side, the small side, “are into escapism, into vampires, marijuana, computer games and shopping experiences.” The other side, the larger side, “are people whose heads are about to explode in anger – and none of it is your fault.”

Yes, that’s right. He insulted the entire audience. The entire audience, seemingly oblivious to the mass slight, sang their assigned parts with cacophonous gusto.

The theme returned in the “na-na-na-na-na” part of Short Skirt/Long Jacket, dividing the crowd between “people who work hard and sing hard” and “those who are empirically feeding off of other people’s energy … we hate you and we’ll hunt you down and find you.” He added, “Why do you need them to suffer in order for you to be happy? That’s why there’s no hope.”

Turning rock ‘n’ roll clichés on their ears, so to speak, has been a specialty of Cake for some time. Much appreciated was a rendition of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs – introduced as “Boil” – with the trumpet taking the famous lead guitar solo. How droll!

Was there a silver icing on this fragrant confection of mordant irony? Just a little bit. Never There – another bittersweet love song that’s more bitter than sweet – was preceded a little speech directed at all the fans experiencing the show (and most of life, we suspect) through the viewfinders of their smart phones.

“If you’re videotaping this whole thing, just put it in your pocket and be with us in the short time we have left in our lives,” McCrea urged. “When this is gone, it’s gone.”

For now, anyway. We’ll see you after Rapture and have as much Cake as we want.