Vince DiFiore - trumpet and keyboards John McCrea - vocals, acoustic guitar Xan McCurdy - electric guitar Pete McNeal - drums and percussion Gabriel Nelson - bass guitar Ten centuries ago, Vikings set sail from Greenland and became the first Europeans to set foot in North America. Not finding much here to pillage, they soon left. Hundreds of years later the explorer Christopher Columbus--who had a keen eye for real estate--claimed the rich land that he found. Had the Vikings possessed Columbus' foresight, CAKE might have come from a town with a Nordic name instead of the Latin-derived "Sacramento." San Francisco and Los Angeles might have been named after Nordic gods, and fast-food restaurants would be serving lutefisk. While the Vikings didn't leave us their language or culture, they left us their conquering "take-no-prisoners" spirit. In the 1970s this spirit was reborn in "Viking Rock": commercial guitar arena rock. Music with Big Guitars. Viking Rock, it was believed, dominated the airwaves for two decades until it was made extinct by the tidal wave of "alternative music." But wasn't alternative music frequently just Viking Rock concealed in looser-fitting clothes? John McCrea thinks so. McCrea, lead singer of the Sacramento-based CAKE, has a lot of beefs for a mellow guy from Northern California. Get him started, and he'll go on about the bombast that is "Viking Rock;" about the problem with "big, wide-load American culture;" or about a musician he met once in Los Angeles who wore a gold tooth emblazoned with the Mercedes-Benz logo. What was up with that? So it's curious to find, halfway through the group's latest album, Comfort Eagle, the track "Arco Arena," a brief, 70s art-rock dirge that takes its name from Sacramento's corporate-sponsored sports center--the loudest arena in the NBA--and the sort of place Bon Jovi might headline. Or take the track "Meanwhile, Rick James..." McCrea wrote the song while in high school, but never recorded it. Something was missing, he thought. That something turned out to be big guitars. On Comfort Eagle, has CAKE come to praise commercial guitar rock or to bury it? Both, says McCrea. "I used to have almost a sickness about big dumb rock. Now I'm realizing that it's a force that can be used for good or evil." CAKE rolls out the carpet for guitar rock on Comfort Eagle, the band's fourth album and their first for Columbia. On CAKE's previous three records, folk, hip-hop, and countrified blues all line-danced behind kitschy trumpet riffs. CAKE's sly wordplay and taut rhythms managed to thrive in an era lousy with dumbed-down alternative rock. Fashion Nugget, CAKE's second album, (which followed their debut Motorcade of Generosity), sold more than 1.5 million copies, fueled in large part by the single "The Distance," as well as songs like "Frank Sinatra," and CAKE's straightforward cover of "I Will Survive." CAKE's follow-up, Prolonging The Magic, went platinum and produced such favorites as "Sheep Go To Heaven," and "Never There." Comfort Eagle is CAKE's sharpest album yet, full of Gram Parsons-style rock, hip-hop Moogs, and Lou Reed doo-wop. McCrea's lyrics, meanwhile, have gotten keener, meaner. The first single "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," for example, only seems to be about a singer pining for a girl with "eyes that burn like cigarettes," until a couple of lines later you realize what he really wants is a woman with "good dividends." "It's a song about prosperity," McCrea states flatly, "about how human sexuality and the American stock market bubble are intricately connected. Musically, the song references the Velvet Underground mostly just because I don't think there's anything more indicative of an economy doing well than a sharp increase in heroin abuse." While McCrea finds disaffection everywhere in the age of corporate mergers and "branding," CAKE itself has grown into a tight unit. "I feel like we're just beginning to hit our stride as a band. It's like a table that now has four legs instead of two. Everyone involved is now actually involved." For Comfort Eagle, the group--McCrea, guitarist Xan McCurdy, bassist Gabriel Nelson, trumpet player Vince DiFiore, and drummer Todd Roper--recorded in the same Sacramento studio where it produced its previous albums. (Drummer Todd Roper left earlier this year, shortly after the album was recorded. "He now has two children," McCrea explains. "The last thing he wants to do is be on the road for the next two years. Would you?" CAKE has added drummer Pete McNeal to their line-up as Roper's replacement.) "This time out," says trumpet player and keyboardist Vince DiFiore, "we weren't so concerned with having the utmost of good taste. It freed us up." To wit: the band has moved past the stark dynamic that marked its earlier records, yet McCrea claims, "We're still a little wrong with Party Town, U.S.A. We don't know how to 'produce' an album that well." For their "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" music clip, instead of making a conventional video, McCrea had camera crews walk the streets of Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, armed with a video camera, a microphone and a mini-disc player, filming people's reactions as they listened to the song. "One reggae fan said, 'It's good but I would never buy this because it's not reggae music. I would tape it off someone else.'" McCrea recalls. "It's like people use music as this tribal identifier, and I think that just drains the actual listening enjoyment out of music. There are all of these tiny stylistic signals that say, 'This is or isn't our tribe.' CAKE would prefer to circumvent and avoid these strict demarcations." McCrea recalls one woman who reacted, "It's good, my daughter would like it at her wedding in October." Even though John originally thought the video would "never see the light of day," MTV has decided to put the clip into "Breakthrough" rotation, and just to keep it unpredictable, McCrea will be producing and editing several different versions of the video. And Canada's Much Music just put the video into heavy rotation. Fitting, as the first Vikings to land in North America landed in Canada. But all of this is just talk. The real story is in the music. It's an album of music, meant to be enjoyed. So what's the best way to listen to Comfort Eagle? "You have to be awake, alert," says McCurdy. "Take it on the Stairmaster," adds McCrea, "it is good motivational music."