One week this summer, we dug out our old Cake CDs. Can't remember what set that off -- it was eerily just before the band's last hit, "Short Skirt / Long Jacket," showed up in a recent iPod commercial, and before news broke about the band recording again -- but it was fun (at first, anyway) to plumb that particular vein of the '90s. John McCrea's snarky deadpan sounds a bit dated now, but the free-wheeling swagger of those first two records, "Motorcade of Generosity" ("Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle") and "Fashion Nugget" ("The Distance"), still holds up musically. Somewhere back then I remember chatting with guitarist Greg Brown about his deep Western swing influences, all the way back to Bob Wills.
Which made it even more surprising when Brown and bassist Victor Damiani ditched Cake at the end of the '90s to play in Deathray, an unabashedly New Wave-inspired project in the Northwest. The rollicking, honky-tonk guitar he applied to Cake disappeared; instead, Brown peeled tight, fuzzy riffs straight out of the Cars, Gary Numan and Nazz playbooks, making Deathray's self-titled debut in 2000 a gem of the New Wave revival before it really began.
"Deathray" is non-stop power pop, opening with a catchy-as-hell, handclaps-loaded lament about being held back by "My Lunatic Friends." By the end of it, you're set up for an album of upbeat, not-as-druggie Dandy Warhols rock, chugging through "Check It Over" and "Legionnaires in Doubt." Brown's way through a solo is evident, albeit shorter, on "Someone After You." The sound of the band can swing wildly, though; "Zero" gets metaphysical over guitars made to sound like sitars, and the breezy "What Would You Do?" sings queries about blue skies and grey skies with an acoustic sunniness and harmonies Matthew Sweet might envy.
The band fell apart not long after its label did, and Brown is MIA. But Cake, it seems, is about to offer up another slice.