Thursday, August 29, 2013
Classic Albums: The Cars
There are precious few records that can be called "all killer, no filler," and The Cars' debut album is certainly one of them. While they had more and bigger hits later in their career, they never put together a single album as good as this one.
They are a band that has faded from popular consciousness, in large part because like a power-forward with a hot outside shot, they're tweeners who can't be easily categorized. The Cars are one of the few bands that have a foot in New Wave and in classic hard rock. Their use of synthesizers and their tight, power-poppy tunes fit right in with the punk/New Wave trends of the late 1970s, but their heavy, straight-ahead riffs are more Foreigner than Elvis Costello.
On The Cars, that combination is as glorious as peanut butter and chocolate, gin and vermouth, or Tango and Cash. The meld of rock tradition with New Wave innovation is apparent on the first track, "Let the Good Times Roll." It starts with a riff that sounds like the blues, but as played by one of Kraftwerk's robots. The song title recalls classic R&B, but Ric Ocasek's voice is as angular as his face. From there the album segues into "My Best Friend's Girl," which has a 1950s rock theme and retro organ triplets paired with modern synths and a liquid guitar solo.
Just when you thought the band couldn't top that one-two punch, up comes "Just What I Needed," a gloriously catchy power-pop number that still invigorates every time I hear it. It's more on the New Wavey side, with the faux British pronunciation of "perfume that you wear" and the synthesizer riff between the verses. That last two songs on side one, "I'm In Touch With Your World" and "Don't Cha Stop" can't match this brilliance, but they do bring in nervy New Wave rhythms and an artier touch than the poppy tracks that start the album. It's hard to find many records what have a better side one.
Side two tempers the rocking rave-up with fraught emotions. The first song, "You're All I've Got Tonight," is about crawling back to a bad ex out of loneliness and sexual need. The guitar gets skanky and Ocasek drops the arty pose for some cutting anger. The temperature keeps rising on "Bye Bye Love." Again, the title recalls old time rock and roll (the Everly Brothers, in this case) but the song has got punky edge and an epically cool descending synth/guitar hook.
At that point, the tempo slows for the album's end. "Living in Stereo" is a moody, minor-key track that sounds like a refugee from the Talking Heads' Fear of Music album. Things end with the emotionally tumultuous "All Mixed Up," leaving the listener in a very different place from where the good times are rolling. All in all, this is a record that moves from peak to peak so effortlessly that you would never believe that it's a debut album.
The Cars' straddling of hard rock and New Wave may have allowed them to be overlooked or underrated, but they were able to put together a record jam packed with more memorable songs than many acts produce in their lifetimes. They did it all by bringing different genres together and playing to the strengths of both. It's something more artists ought to be doing nowadays.