Sound — 9
Let's continue my spree of reviewing records I've listened too a million times and quite well enjoy by my main go-to-band - The Cars.
For those just tuning in - The Cars were a new wave band based out of Boston, Massachusettes - formed in 1976 initially as Cap'N'Swing, and through a couple personnel changes and instrument choice alterations turned into what they became here. They released their self titled debut in 1978 on Elektra records, and followed that up in 1979 with the thicker and bigger and meatier "Candy-O" album. Now we are to talk about the third, and often much maligned release - "Panorama."
Here, The Cars start to change, while that classic cool/understated/sometimes-funny/sometimes-runny sound that has been there since the start is still there, it's show it's implemented that has changed.
I think one of the biggest influences on this album is TECHNOLOGY - The Cars were a very high tech band, and they always brought the latest in technology to the studio for their albums, but here it soars to new heights. Of course, people being used to hearing the late seventies version of the cast of "Happy Days" sing about barely attainable girls on the surface of something possibly bigger - were probably turned off "when all those dad-gum cold heartless robots showed up!" But me, oh yeah, EDM artists should listen to this album - instead of killing off guitars and rock because it's old - take a page from The Cars book and keep the old and usher in the new and push it ALL forward.
Anyway, let's talk about the band at this point, and then production...
The lineup is:
Ric Ocasek - rhythm guitarist, vocalist #1, and songwriter (with usually one collaboration with plastic-ivory tickler Greg Hawkes an album). On this record, Ric still uses his Ampeg V4, though it sounds like he started using his Marshalls a little more because his guitar sound has gotten more of a midrangey, boxy tone that's a lot more Marshall than on the previous two releases, but it's also a bit less as warm sounding. Guitars used: 1973 Gibson SG with DiMarzio pickups, 1974 Fender Jazzmaster, 1963 Fender Jaguar, 1980 Kawai Moonsault (moon shaped guitar), and possibly a bunch more "lightweight" Les Pauls (double cutaway specials, Juniors), and at least one new Gibson Les Paul SG, bone stock, and I think I hear some Strat in there as well, the overall tone of the album screams Fender to me for some reason.
Benjamin Orr - the attractive vocalist and bassist the girls want to have and the guys want to be like. Prior to the recording of this album his apartment burned down and he lost most if not all of the gear he was using prior to this record. Benjamin Orr's new axe of choice is a Fender Active Precision Bass, but he also uses a Gibson EB-2 Hollowbody electric bass on "You Wear Those Eyes." His sound has changed a lot, but is tighter. Something else to note is learning the guitar and bass from this album myself, Benjamin Orr is a VERY underrated bassist - you'd think he'd be plodding along root-notes like any other multi-instrumentalist bassist guy, but nope, Benjamin is all over the place on this record bass-wise, so if you did not catch this from the previous two releases you will catch it here.
Elliot Easton - Elliot was still using Dean ML's at this point, mostly a new turquoise-burst one (wonder if it's Tiki themed). But that's not the star guitar of panorama - The new Fender Lead series released the year before is! I read somewhere Elliot may or may not have had a hand in that model's development somewhere as I also found out he used these on "Candy-O" in some spots as well. Elliot had at least 2-3 Lead I's (single humbucker), a white and black one being the guitar used on "Touch N' Go," a Lead II that was mentioned as being used on "Shake It Up," and a white Lead 1 1/2 (Single/Hum setup) that he used on tour for this record most of the time. He also used Stratocasters, and I think even a Fiesta Red 1961 Jazzmaster (left-handed of course). The amps seemed to mostly be Mesa Boogie though I think "You Were Those Eyes" was a Fender Vibrolux or some other Vibrato equipped Fender amp. His sound changed a lot here, it's a lot more... eh "Silver" - sparklier, but thinner, yet tighter. Gone is the thick legato germanium Fuzz of "Candy-O," replaced with high gain Boogie sounds and a good bit of thrash and twang to go with it. It also appears Elliot got a new Flanger pedal on this record as well, either him or Ric Ocasek did as opening title track has a LOT of Flanger.
Greg Hawkes - Greg breaks out the Saxophone on the title track, and he's still got his MiniKorg 700S, ARP Omni, but it seems there is no Yamaha CP-30 on this record (he just had it on stage on tour for the older songs I believe). he also made use of some huge modular Moog or Moog-alike thing, and still has the Prophet 5. I also think I hear some Korg MS-10 on here as well.
David Robinson is the drummer, and I really don't know much of what he used gear-wise from this point onward. I do know this is the first album he did backing vocals on. As for his art direction, he picked a very simple white/blue/black motif - almost to mark this album as Candy-O's polar opposite. A lone checkered flag on the cover, and a circle of everyone in the band holding guitars...
...actually, here's what everyone is holding on the back cover of The Cars "Panorama" album...
- Ric Ocasek - his 1980 Kawai Moonsault, a boutique Japanese guitar
- Benjamin Orr - Gibson EB-6 six string bass guitar
- Greg Hawkes - 70's Ovation Deacon he's used on non-album Cars songs
- David Robinson - 1973-1975 Veleno all aluminum guitar
- Elliot Easton - 1979 Dean ML, either the red Candy-O one or a black one
But an interesting twist is "Panorama" to a lot of people was too experimental sounding, gone are the summer nights dreaming of the girl who won't give you a call, now the themes run deeper, and the music is rather exciting and interesting, and even more so in that wonderland I call HEADPHONES!
Yes, if you listen to "Panorama," especially on vinyl - put on some Headphones and listen to it - even if you hate the album, I tell you, it will change your whole experience... how RTB and The Cars implemented the stereo spectrum is bloody brilliant! Guitars coming at you from every direction at different times, data-streams of keyboard just magically appearing like this is some kind of audio-powered RPG video game, sonic landscapes that vary between the lush and thick but real and edgy - or totally barren and alien. "Panorama" was the album that influenced my own music production skills - I always aspired to pull off what they did here.
The only complaint about the sound is that things are a bit thinner and tinnier on this album, weather it's the Fender Guitars or if it's just a part of how they got that ginormous stereo picture, I'm not sure. Even though it's my favorite, I'll give it a 9. Even so, I'd still go out and spend $250.00 on a 7.1 Speaker setup if they remixed this in 7.1 Surround sound or THX - man oh man - if money had been no object, The Cars should have done a tour the inverse of an "in The Round" show, and rather had a show where the stage goes around the audience. It's like if Star Wars was a new wave album.
Lyrics — 10
In contrast to all previous releases - this is a dark and edgy sounding album. While the first record was American Grafitti, and Candy-O was Grease, this one is a James Bond movie. It's dark, it's cranky, it's edge, I love it!
Ric's lyrics on this record seem to come from a man whose going through the struggles of success that leads todays current pu... er... stars to things like drugs and suicide, but instead here, Ric choses to be an avid observer of the situation.
And if you read my previous reviews, remember what I said about every Cars record being like a really well done early '80s teen sex comedy done as a new wave record... "Panorama" is no different, but I LOVE this one, where "Candy-O" was grease, this one is the Last American Virgin on steroids..with a secondary story of a celebrity irritated with the realities of the industry one can derive from it...I love stuff I can pull multiple meanings from, here's the track by track story play by play....
"Panorama" - Our story starts with our lead character separated from the girl he loves, and she's not reaching out in any effort for him to remain "in her panorama (her thoughts)." On the undertow, maybe this was about touring and having a strained relationship because of the amount of time you and your better half can spend together. As for the music itself, it fits the feel of the music video more than the lyrics, but it's so cool I'll give it a pass. To my ears, it sounds like David Robinson put down his kit for a day and decided to go crazy on the Syndrums with the Roland TR-808 drum machine keeping the pace. Greg dons a saxophone for a 2 note lead-in a few times, and Elliot Easton has this blistering arpeggiated bit played on a clean chorused Stratocaster in position 4 that is just insane (I'm tabbing that one out BTW), plus 2 killer guitar solos.
"Touch and Go" - Our character, so keep his sanity, must have been having a little "Touch N' Go" outside action. I'm still wondering if Ric's title is a play on the slogan for the 1958 Edsel's TeleTouch transmission (just push a button and it's "Touch and Go"!). Kind of fitting since this band IS called The Cars. As for the music, it perfectly fits, it's rather haunting with Greg's ARP Omni strings underlying Benjamin Orr's tricky 5/4 time Bass part (which he flubs about 3 runs in, but it's barely noticeable), but the centerpiece of this is Elliot Easton's carefully composed guitar solo - one of many but possibly the most Magnum Opus of the many he's made in his career. He used a Fender Lead I guitar through a Mesa Boogie (Mark II I think) head into a Marshall Cabinet. There's also a touch of humor as the haunting feel gives way to a cowboyish "wackadoo-wackadoo" Luther Perkins like guitar bridge part.
"Gimmie' Some Slack" - Our character spends the night at a musty hotel and apparently is a person of interest, curious people are "peeping in the keyhole" and he just wishes they would mind their own business. It could also be a reference as to how the media treats celebrities too. The music does sound very "news-like" with it's fast galloping pace, which is very fitting considering this could be a low-key stab at the media, and I always get a mental picture of Ric walking down a hall during this song with all the characters he mentioned in the lyrics accosting him along his brisk walk back to his hotel room to get away from them.
"Don't Tell Me No" - Benjamin Orr takes the mic on this song where our character finds himself at a party trying to get some action and getting rejected, hence why it has sinister, dark sounding party music, sounds like this guy might be getting publically humiliated at his own party over it. I dunno. One of the more simple pieces (like Gimmie Some Slack) but still great, and it's overall tone foreshadows what is to come in the next record ("Shake It Up").
"Getting Through" - a twangy, fast paced, kind of like if a country band tried to be Slayer... that's the best I could come up with. Seems like a commentary on consumer culture to me, maybe our character is watching television: with the circus mouth shooting all directions, and TV ads that sell erections. But it could also be a commentary on old Hollywood (broken wings and Flip top Fenders), or could even reference G.A.S. (well, flip top fenders are complex for a car hood, and broken wings are often a sign of weakness - and the Fender Jaguar at the time was considered a weak guitar, and Ric got one around the time of this album - so yeah, maybe a rip at gear acquisition, LOL). This song is awesome defined though as it builds up to a crescendo guitar and synth apocalypse in the middle of epic proportions, I think Greg and Elliot just grabbed anything that sounded ridiculous/weird/funny, dialed it up as crazy as possible, and hit it the fourth bar. Heck, I have fun covering this without a synth on guitar. Ric of course sings lead vocal.
"Misfit Kid" - Seems like another success pain story, this time about being surrounded by other celebrities at a party. This is another one of those classic Cars "clickety-8th-note" tunes hummed along by twangy Fender guitars. Elliot Easton plays a mean and clean Strat on this one. Maybe our character is famous in this story, and he has to deal with other success pressures. I think one telling line is "I go through insanity, all they want is money" - which I think pretty much defines the arts and especially the music business relationship between artist and executive. The song alludes to a racetrack, probably referring to the other artists on the charts they have to compete with, but that our hero enjoys hearing.
"Down Boys" - Fast passed fuzztone rock out about outcasts. Benjamin Orr takes the mic again, singing this time about how someone tried so hard and desperately to fit into the expectations of the cool kids and/or society and failed to do so - thusly referring to them as "down boys" (ie downers). Another goot strat Solo from EE here, and the music fits well with the story, especially Elliot's little textures. It leads into the next track with a nice, big explosion...
"You Wear Those Eyes" - Now here's something new, a duet ballad between Benjamin Orr (singing the spoken word verses), and Ric Ocasek (on the bridge), and then both harmonize on the chorus. Elliot puts on one amazing solo. This song to my ear conjures up images of our character going to the mountain peak overlooking the town, and finding his woman with someone else. It does capture some of that '50s-'60s feel lost on this album, I was expecting the singing to stop at some point and Dick Clark to step out and do a monologue at one point... on a star filled stage (as in outer space). Maybe this is a flashback to our character's high school days. It seems there's some real interest with some longing here.
"Running to You" - This is my favorite track, it screams that whole edgy edge of seventies-eighties thing. It has a sexy undertone with a bit of uneasiness mixed in. He goes from sounding a little uncomfortable on the verses, to singing about being selfish on the bridge, to a huge, almost a round-like, call-response vocal line thing that morphs and changes over the course of the song. Greg Hawkes delivers a killer synthesizer solo on here.
"Up and Down" - Sonic bombast, bringing up mental images of bridges such as the infamous Tacoma Narrows collapse footage, it chugs along like a angry freight train at full speed, while Ric hits you from the left with his guitar and Elliot from the right. Seems our hero continues seeking his "satisfaction" elsewhere leading the story out.
As for my impression of the lyrics overall, sounds like a story of a successful person whom is experiencing relationship pains, media drama, and all the other crap fame throws at you, and resorting to cheating after this guy's woman cheated on him because he's never home and always away on business. Wonders don't cease if this was possibly a rare case where it's not fiction, or at least, it was inspired by events in the band's life.
Panorama comes off as a honest assessment, and at that time of the early 1980's, the people listening to this were teenagers without internet or the knowledge of what REALLY is out there in the real world for their musical heroes at that time. So if they caught a drift of that blowing the lasers, mirrors, and smoke that is shown on the TV about rock n' roll, portraying the secondary results of all the media, hype, attention, and constant traveling, and the strain it puts on the people involved... those kids probably either decided "ignorance is bliss" or missed that interpretation altogether.
As for singer skills, it seems Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr evolved and changed somewhat.
Ric seems to have lost the '50s/'60s retro kitsch thing entirely. he sings a bit more than speak-singing, but he sounds even edgier, and more "New Wave" and "retro." He's halfway between "Candy-O" Ric and "Shake It Up" Ric. Ric still has not matured fully as a singer yet at this point, but what he does vocally fits perfectly with the dark, edgy uneasy vibe of this record.
Benjamin Orr steps out of some sort of comfort zone here and does some raunchier tracks. Benjamin seems though that he's a lot less focused on this record and a little more gritty than he was on the previous two. While he was the teeny bopper on the last two albums, Benjamin is practically as edgy and hardcore as Ric can be showing how their dual vocalist thing can work.
Hearing them as a duet is awesome, and I think "You Wear Those Eyes" is the best example of how The Cars had 2 guys on lead vocals. You have the deep voiced Orr leaving ladies calling for a towel for their seats, while Ric swings in and adds a dose of the heart side - and then they both harmonize perfectly.
And on the subject of The Cars and their harmonies, the singing skills of the entire band must have been rehearsed a lot. Theres even a clip of them practicing some harmony lines on the Panorama tour on their DVD "The Cars Unlocked" where they are going through the harmony lines for "My Best Friend's Girl" (mock sock-hop style for comedic effect), and "Don't Tell Me No." Even goofing off and having fun they sound good.
I'll give it my ultra-rare 10. Great lyrics, there's a deep story to be found in them, the music fits to a T giving an excellent late '70s/early '80s atmosphere with a very amazing use of the stereo spectrum to create a amazing atmosphere to go with them.
Overall Impression — 9
If I had to compare "Panorama" to another album, it would have to be maybe The B-52's "Wild Planet" from 1980 - contrasting where The B-52's started off very spare sounding with sparse instrumentation while The Cars got more sparse and sparse from Candy-O onward till' Heartbeat City in 1984 (when EVERYONE got thicker and more high tech sounding - it was the '80s). Like "Wild Planet," it's edgy, there's darker themese than the normal party/girls/cars/nightlife/fun thing, except instead of korvettes sacrifices to seabirds and dog abuse, we're dealing with celebrity torment and strained relationships from touring and how to deal with it.
To be honest, this is another album by The Cars where it's hard to really pick because I can't hit skip on ANY of the songs, but when I do, it's usually "Misfit Kid," and "You Wear those Eyes" because that was my ringtone from when me and my wife were dating and I got REALLY burned out on hearing that bassline and Ben's voice 50 times a day.
To me though, Panorama is my favorite album. It's got a deep story relatable to the band to be found in the lyrics via various interpretation, it's got amazing production that in headphones (how w I listen to almost everything anyway) feels like a THX production when listening to it off vinyl. There's tons of guitar and synth just working in tandem on/off/against/with each other, and lots of very subtle dynamic and compositional choices that you don't notice till you actually might try and play one of these songs. This may have been the "experimental" album and the "commercial failure" - but I'm not championing Panorama because it's the underdog - I'm championing Panorama because it's a great album, but like many other things in life, it's just misunderstood. It was not designed to be a pop record - it was designed to be experimental, different, and cool.
About the only thing I don't like is the CD editions of it don't have the stereo separation and representation the original vinyl pressing does, and therefore the production turns from tight, bright, and edgy to muddy and tinny on the early AAD releases of "Panorama" on CD.
As for stolen/lost, HAH! I have it again, on CD, MP3, and on the original 1980 record. The record version is one of my prized possessions, especially since it took awhile to scare up a new copy of it after burning out the copy I had in high school trying to learn Greg Hawkes' synth solo from Running to You back in high school by playing that section of the song so many times that you'd hear "Skreeeeeeeeee" as soon as the solo came up and it'd end when the solo ended.
You kids and your darned MP3s... you have it so easy! Us poor '90s kids, and the kids of the '80s and '70s had to actually DESTROY our albums to learn them.
Anyway, go pick this one up and listen to it without preconceived notions, you most likely will see what I mean about it's greatness.