For an example of shifting perceptions, consider the Cars. When their debut LP appeared in 1978, the Boston quintet was tagged as a prime commercial and critical prospect of the emerging post-punk phenomenon called new wave. In other words, they were cool and potentially popular. Then, presto! Upon release of an album, the Cars became an immediate smash and entered the ranks of platinum-sellers, where they remained. Critics, predictably, soon found fault in their credibility, despite remarkable consistency on disc.
The Cars changed little after that first record established the ground rules. On their self-titled debut, singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek pursues the trail of ironic, sometimes wistful romanticism blazed by David Bowie and especially Bryan Ferry. “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and other tunes contradict blithe surfaces with nervous undercurrents. As sparely produced by Roy Thomas Baker, virtually interchangeable lead singers Ocasek and Ohio-born bassist Ben Orr (who died of cancer in 2000) ride a slick, pulsing current generated by Elliot Easton’s skittish guitar, Greg Hawkes’ poised synths and ex-Modern Lover David Robinson’s booming drums. Here, and on subsequent albums, the alluring glibness serves as a gateway to underlying emotional anguish. (The Deluxe Edition issued by Rhino in 1999 is an ambitious two-disc package that mirrors the album with a nearly complete set (and then some) of demos for it.)
Candy-O‘s main flaw is that it offers the same accomplished style. Emotions are more directly expressed on the title track and the frankly sentimental “It’s All I Can Do,” but the polish remains. “Let’s Go” and “Dangerous Type” express a muted ambivalence that allows the Cars to continue pleasing superficial listeners. Panorama tampers with the formula slightly, though not enough to jeopardize the band’s enormous popularity. Many tunes are murkier and less immediate, giving greater play to the creeping desperation that permeates Ocasek’s writing. More unsettling, though still highly listenable.
Shake It Up is the lightest album in the Cars’ collection. The title track comes as close as they ever got to a conventional good-time tune, and others are less haunting than you might like Ocasek’s songs to be. Highlight: the feverish, blatantly Roxyesque “This Could Be Love.” Then the Cars took a group vacation.
Ocasek made Beatitude with Hawkes and a handpicked selection of semi-underground scene stars, using a predominance of synthesizer to reduce (albeit slightly) the inevitable resemblance to the sound of the mothercar. While several Cars tracks worked similar languid terrain (“Since You’re Gone” on Shake It Up and “You Wear Those Eyes” on Panorama are two), Ocasek’s solo approach is subtler and texturally richer; his lyrics are also exemplary. Best track: “jimmy jimmy,” a sympathetic portrait of a troubled teen.
Niagara Falls confirms keyboardist Hawkes’ role in shaping the Cars’ instrumental sound, but it’s mighty dull fare. Take away the band’s lyrics, vocals and tension and you get this sort of muzak.
After that dalliance, the Cars reconvened for Heartbeat City, a more substantial LP than Shake It Up and the band’s most commercially potent record. The disc yielded no less than three major hits: the dreamy “Drive” (later explained by Ocasek as being about “someone having a nervous breakdown”), the ebullient “You Might Think” and “Magic,” which might best be described as the Cars meet the Electric Light Orchestra. The lyrics are Ocasek’s usual neurotic doodlings, though he shows more compassion for his “lost generation” characters than before.
Buoyed by that album’s stellar performance, the Cars took another solo break. Easton’s Change No Change is a minor work to be sure, but a surprisingly good record nonetheless. A more immediate and electric record than the band would ever dare make, it contains some pithy harmonies, some snarling boogie and even a Costello soundalike. Irrepressible Jules Shear co-wrote all the tunes. (Easton later led Band of Angels and entered the 21st century as a member of Creedence Clearwater Revisted with the old CCR rhythm section.)
Joined by co-producer/drummer Chris Hughes (ex-Ants), Ocasek employed most of his bandmates, Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, Tom Verlaine and G.E. Smith to imitate the Cars some more on This Side of Paradise. The man’s stylistic consistency is indeed amazing.
Orr’s tepid record is also Cars-like, but with a lighter, more vocal-oriented feel and a warmly non- mechanical pop approach. That’s not to say the songs — co-written with Diane Grey Page — are any good, but The Lace is harmless enough.
Following a desultory Greatest Hits (containing only the previously unreleased “Tonight She Comes” to recommend it), the final Cars album, Door to Door, which Ocasek wrote and produced, is likable but irrelevant. (The group’s audience evidently agreed: it was the only Cars LP to fall short of a million sales.) Ocasek has never before allowed this much noisy guitar rock to corrupt the chilly tension of the Cars’ formula; the overenthusiastic intrusion on the group’s familiar sound is noticeable but not unpleasant. And that was that.
Just What I Needed completely trumps Greatest Hits with 40 selections, stopping at all of the roadmarks in the Cars’ career and proceeding on from there. The sparklingly packaged set includes three B-sides, an outtake version of Candy-O‘s “Night Spots” and seven previously unissued demos, among them a clumsy cover of the Nightcrawlers’ venerable garage classic “Little Black Egg.” A broad swipe of ’80s nostalgia that holds up fairly well track by track but wears thin over the course of two jam- packed CDs, Just What I Needed (over)does it once and for all.
In 2005, with Ocasek’s reluctant approval (read: lawyer-induced acquiescence), Easton and Hawkes assembled a group they called the New Cars. They installed Todd Rundgren in the frontman role, and he completed the lineup with two accomplished members of his inner circle: Tubes drummer Prairie Prince and Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton. (Robinson amicably declined to participate.) Rundgren’s body of work includes plenty of note-for-note mimicry of other artists (Faithful, Deface the Music); his originals, at times, could be said to share a compatible mindset with that of the original Cars. So the prospect of Rundgren standing in for Ocasek seemed to hold a fair amount of promise — certainly more than most lead-singer transplants. But judging from It’s Alive!, a collection recorded by the New Cars before their tour, Rundgren treated the whole enterprise as a means to pay the bills. Revisiting a dozen classic Cars songs, along with two of Rundgren’s best-known originals (“I Saw the Light” and Nazz’s “Open My Eyes”), the musicians sound as if they were still rehearsing when they recorded them. Rundgren doesn’t try to imitate Ocasek or Orr, but amazingly, he doesn’t make any effort to lead the band either. The performances don’t have any of the taut sleekness of the originals, and the echoey soundstage recording doesn’t help. On any given night, somewhere in America, there’s a bar band doing a better job of covering the Cars than this. The disc’s three new songs, co-written by Easton, Hawkes and Rundgren, and given proper studio recordings — the Utopia-style rockers “More” and “Not Tonight” and the ballad “Warm” — show that this could’ve been a perfectly respectable project, had the musicians come up with a new name and more new material. As it turned out, It’s Alive! proved that Ocasek’s old bandmates couldn’t mount a viable Cars reunion without him. Or that the point was to make money on the nostalgia concert circuit, not music that could augment their reputations.
Five years later, though, Ocasek buried the hatchet with Easton and Hawkes, and Robinson was coaxed out of retirement. The old Cars recorded a new album. (Hawkes ended up sharing bass duties in the studio with producer Jacknife Lee.) “Blue Tip,” the first track on Move Like This, offers all the familiar elements of the Cars’ classic sound: frosty keyboards, crisp drumming, synthetic handclaps, coolly unsyncopated guitar, all polished to a sharp gleam, with Ocasek’s wobbly, slightly adenoidal voice up front. “Keep on Knocking” and “Drag on Forever” rock with a sinister undertow, showing off the Robert Fripp influence in Easton’s solos. “Soon” and “Take Another Look” are blissful, hymn-like ballads; “Sad Song” updates T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” for 21st century listeners. The poppy “Too Late” could be read as an elegy to Orr: “All the storms in life / You got to contemplate…When the mornings rise / You gotta celebrate.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cars album without a few oddball lines, such as this verse from “Blue Tip”: “Keep your hat on backwards / And keep your lips tucked in / The world is full of quackers / And belly-button rings.” On the other hand, it’s hard not to grin when Ocasek describes himself, in “Hits Me,” as “looking like Ichabod Crane.” Orr’s presence is missed: his voice would’ve sounded particularly great on the ballads. Apart from that, Move Like This is the sound of one of the most popular, enduring acts of the ’80s returning to active duty, sounding no worse for time or wear. And to those who might think the Cars are just reiterating that patented new wave sound, why shouldn’t they? They invented a lot of it, and perfected the rest of it.