Reviewed on this page:
The Cars - Candy-O - Panorama - Shake It Up - Heartbeat City - This Side Of
Paradise - Door To Door - Troublizing - Move Like This
The Cars were yet another late 70s band that responded to the bloat and
pretension of overproduced studio rock with snappy tunes and
stripped-down arrangements. First the bad news: unlike rivals Elvis Costello, Blondie or the Talking
Heads, the Cars had no particular message, and next to no interest
in expanding beyond their synth-plus-guitar pop-rock sound; plus, lead
singer Rick Ocasek has a thin voice that isn't particularly flexible or
gripping. On the other hand, Ocasek had a real knack for writing simple
rockers with memorable hooks, and the band's energetic presentation
(particularly Elliot Easton on lead guitar) overcame the frequent
thinness of the material. The band was an immediate commercial success
(their first five albums went platinum) and if anything, their popularity
increased throughout the early 80s. Then, suddenly, they ran out
of gas (sorry) and broke up after playing to half-empty houses on a 1987
tour. Ocasek pursued a solo career that brought him mild success -
though nothing like the original band's - and resisted all reunion temptations until succumbing to a 2011 album and tour.
There's an amazingly comprehensive fan site
complete with amusing gratuitous slams of VH1. Worth a look. (DBW)
Rick Ocasek, vocals, rhythm guitar; Greg Hawkes,
keyboards; Elliot Easton, lead guitar; Benjamin Orr, vocals, bass;
David Robinson, drums. Band split up, 1987. Orr died of pancreatic cancer, 2000. Band reformed, 2011.
The Cars (1978)
This debut, produced by Roy Thomas Baker, is loaded with the Cars' main claim to fame: catchy garage rockers with great
guitar hooks and prominent synth lines ("Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Just What I Needed," "You're All
I've Got Tonight," "Bye Bye Love" - all five remain AOR staples). The rest of the disc is in the same mold, but
differences in tempo, structure and arrangement keep things from getting in a rut. The sluggish "Moving In Stereo" is a
drag, and some of the riffs are obvious ("All Mixed Up"), but this is solid mindless fun. (DBW)
It's become a cliché to say that the Cars said it all on their first record, but it's not true. This was their
sales breakthrough, and it's a solid record: the big hit "Let's Go" is irresistable, and the radio staples
"Dangerous Type" and "It's All I Can Do" are fine if not at the level of the band's very best work. And this time, there
are none of the lamefests that make you wish you weren't too lazy to get off the sofa and skip to the next track;
the filler is very near as good as the hits, with good hooks ("Double Life") and taut performances ("Nightspots") -
there aren't a lot of terrific tracks, but there are no bad ones. As usual, the lyrics are allusively, detachedly sleazy ("Lust For Kicks").
Overall, there's a bit more cheesy synth, a bit less rhythm guitar, and a lot more lead solos (Easton sparkles on the title
track), but sonically it's very similar to their debut, and if you like that you should get this too. Produced by Baker.
There's no particular musical progression here, just more of the same formula: self-consciously modernistic synth lines
crossed with mid-tempo garage rock riffery. There's only one hit, and a commercially weak one - but at least "Touch And
Go" sports tension-building verses, cool rockabilly guitar parts on the verses, and a fine guitar solo. They also get
across a first-rate riff tune with a pleasant refrain and a solid beat ("Running To You"). Although there isn't a heck
of a lot else going on, the band usually succeeds with its commercialized transformations of Blondie's hyperactive, dance-friendly pop ("Gimme Some Slack"), the Talking Heads' stiff, neurotic mantras (title track, which drags at almost six minutes; the plodding "Don't Tell Me No," with some annoying synth drums), and most of all Television's precisely arranged guitar heroics (the frenetic, power-chordy "Getting Through"; the driving "Down Boys"; the exciting "Up And Down," with a thrashing, militaristic beat).
The handful of ballads like "You Wear Those Eyes" are a bit dull, but pretty and also reminiscent of Verlaine's approach.
So the album isn't as consistently memorable as their debut, but it's respectable.
Also produced by Roy Thomas Baker. (JA)
Shake It Up (1981)
There's no trace of the druggy slowed-down approach that popped up on the previous album; just more snappy but unoriginal
synth-rock. Which shouldn't be a bad thing, but Easton's been relegated to the background, the lyrics are too silly ("Victim Of
Love") and it's just not exciting anymore. The title track (their first Top Ten hit) is the only really good tune on the
album, though "Cruiser" has a decent riff, "Think It Over" uses electronic percussion to sinister effect, and "Since
You're Gone," also a significant hit, features amusing Dylanesque phrasing. (DBW)
The wacked-out lead guitar sound on "Since You're Gone" is a carbon-copy of Robert Fripp contemporary "Frippertronics" technique - but Easton is far clumsier. (JA)
Heartbeat City (1983)
At long last, the band changed its style; unfortunately, the change wasn't for the better. Former AC/DC producer Robert "Mutt" Lange came aboard for this release,
and threw out all the remaining retro rock and guitar riffery in favor of big,
crunching, obvious synth lines. The result was a smash, with "Hello Again,"
"You Might Think," and "Magic" becoming hits despite not having one good riff among them. And no, there's no truth to
the rumor that "You Might Think" is just Springsteen's "Glory Days" sped
up to 45 rpm. The ballads are a step up: the huge hit "Drive" is atmospheric and creepy, and "Why Can't I Have You" is even better. On the other hand,
the title track could be an ad for a sleeping pill. Overall, a painful
reminder that we can't blame the whole early 80s on image bands like
KajaGooGoo and Flock Of Seagulls. (DBW)
Beatitude (Ocasek: 1983)
Greatest Hits (1986)
The source of the band's most recent hit, "Tonight She Comes." (DBW)
This Side Of Paradise (Ocasek: 1986)
Ocasek's second solo album is listless and dull, with the same sluggish
tempo and dreary synth layers (courtesy of Hawkes) over everything.
There are none of the exceptional hooks that defined the band, and so
the best tracks here just sound like Cars outtakes ("True To You,"
"Emotion In Motion," "True Love"). Chris Hughes, who produced with
Ocasek, adds programmed drums that are inventive but distracting - he's
so focused on stereo effects and weird sounds that he never gets a good
groove going. Meanwhile, Ocasek's twisted love songs have never seemed
so rehashed ("Hello Darkness," ""Keep On Laughin'"). Orr adds backing
vocals to several tracks, and Easton guests on one - otherwise the main
guitarist is Billy Idol sideman Steve Stevens, whose metal antics are
occasionally irritating ("Coming For You") but more frequently
ignorable. A couple of high-profile guests (Tom
Verlaine plays a guitar solo on "P.F.J.," Tony Levin adds stick to "Coming For
You") don't do much to help matters. This hit the Top Forty, like
Ocasek's previous solo outing, but I recommend you stay far away.
Door To Door (1987)
Their last gasp. It's a tossoff, but it isn't embarrassing: the
garage-style production (by Ocasek) is charming on "Leave Or Stay" - yet
another cheerful rocker with twisted lyrics - and the silly pop "You
Are The Girl," and overall it's a lot more vigorous than the previous
album. They also use unusually heavy guitar on "Double Trouble," which
is a nice change of pace. On the other hand, it's all so generic ("Ta Ta
Wayo Wayo," a leftover from their earliest days) it's never riveting.
Definitely not the first one to get, but not one to avoid either. (DBW)
A whimper instead of a bang, with no important hit singles. (JA)
Fireball Zone (Ocasek: 1991)
Troublizing (Ocasek: 1997)
Ocasek hasn't mellowed with age: if anything, he's crankier, with
allusive attacks on lovers ("Fix On You") and the world in general
("The Next Right Moment," "Society Trance"). And he's up-to-date, with
loud sloppy backing provided by alternarockers Billy Corgan (Smashing
Pumpkins), Brian Baker (Bad Religion) and Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole) - master
of thudding, repetitive, brain-deadening bass lines. Greg Hawkes is back on
keys, adding his characteristic little touches. What's missing is the big
irresistible hooks that kicked your butt so hard you didn't notice the
incoherent misanthropy of Ocasek's lyrical vision. Melody is almost
nonexistent, and Ocasek's singing is more straight-down-the-middle than
ever, so there's no distraction from the unrelenting ugliness. If you
want to hear Ocasek in a depressing grunge context, be my guest, but
don't expect to have any fun. Everything's written by Ocasek except
"Asia Minor" by Corgan, who also co-produced half the tracks. (DBW)
Move Like This (2011)
After a 25-year layoff, and minus Orr, The Cars still sound exactly like The Cars: snappy tunes, synth licks, vaguely creepy lyrics ("Blue Tip"). That holds not only for the strengths (the muscular "Keep On Knocking"; the methodically crunching "Drag On Forever") but also the weaknesses (the drab, Heartbeat City-ish "Too Late").
Overall, the upbeat stuff ("Sad Song") works better than the slow numbers ("Soon") - though again, that was how I felt about these guys all along (am I the only one who never cared for "Moving In Stereo"?).
The upshot is, if you didn't miss The Cars when they broke up, there's no need to go looking for this, but it's every bit as solid as a fan could ask for.
Half the tracks were produced by the band, the rest by Jacknife Lee (who also split bass chores with Hawkes).
Boy, this was just what I needed.