Sound — 9
Ahhh, The Cars - this is MY JAM. I've been putting off reviewing their work for awhile because it's all-too-easy for me to write a 10,000 word essay on every record being as I got into them in 1997.
For the uninitiated, The Cars are a Boston college rock underground scene amalgamation that turned up with the right sound, image (thanks to their Drummer), and general lexicon overall at the right time that grew to become a major player in the mainstream pop consciousness by the mid 1980's.
The band was formed over time through several other names/incarnations via Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr (The Grasshoppers), Greg Hawkes (Martin Mull's Fabulous Furniture), Elliot Easton, and David Robinson (who was in the Modern Lovers). Various lineups including at least some of these guys appeared from 1973-1977 under various names from Mirkwood, to Richard and the Rabbits, co Cap'N'Swing.
In 1977 they made a demo and it made it's way to WBCN Boston and their breakthrough hit - Just What I Needed - in it's early form, was played on that radio station by Maxanne Satori - eventually bringing in interest from various labels - in the end, Elektra Records won out and in 1978 - the entire band shipped over to Europe and recorded this album with Queen producer - Roy Thomas Baker, infamous for his layered vocals - in the prodcing spot. Let's see how they do...
The band members are...
Ric Ocasek - the tall beanpole "older looking" guy who sings and plays rhythm guitar. On this album, Ric played a 1973 Gibson SG with DiMarzio pickups, and a 1974 Fender Jazzmaster - through an Ampeg V4 or V22 amp as The Cars got a endorsement from Magnavox (whom owned Ampeg at this time) when their first album started production. Ric may have used some sort of distortion device on this album, though I've heard he had a Marshall in the studio for distorted parts. Ric is also the sole songwriter of The Cars, he has a very abstract, arty, "Kerouak-ish" as I heard once described poetry style.
Benjamin Orr - Ric's best friend (and no he did not take Ric's girl) and the "hot guy" in the band - even though he was the elder statesman of the group. Benjamin Orr is the guy selected to sing the "nice songs" and has an AMAZING vocal talent I will get to later. He played Bass for The Cars - using an Ampeg SVT or V4B for his amp, and a "immaculate" 1967 Vox Constellation V hollowbody teardrop bass (his favorite), and a late seventies Mark I MusicMan Stingray active 4-string. He also had a MuTron Octavider in his pedal setup used on All Mixed Up and Moving in Stereo.
Elliot Easton - Berklee alumni, Backing vocals and Lead Guitar. Elliot Easton brought three amps into the studio and 3 guitars - a 1977 Gibson Les Paul, a 1977 Fender Telecaster with a Bartolini Hi A Firebird pickup in the neck, and a Martin D-18 we hear on All Mixed Up. Amps were a Fender Twin Reverb, a Marshall, and one of the various Magnavox era Ampeg amps. He used a Roland Chorus pedal a lot on this album, as well as a Morley Echo "with the Disc instead of tape" for the slapback echo ala. "My Best Friend's Girl". I also think some sort of distortion device was used. As a guitarist, Elliot Easton is the guitarist's guitarist - he does not overplay, he plays for the song. His solos are short, tight, cohesive, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end - little songs within the song as he describes.
Greg Hawkes - The other Berklee Alumni, Greg Hawkes plays guitar too (on some rare live tracks I'll talk about in another review), but here it's strictly synthesizer. On this album, Greg Hawkes was mostly limited to using a MiniKorg 700S monophonic synthesizer, and a Yamaha CP-30 electric piano for most synth sounds, and an ARP Omni for the "String Sounds" as heard on "Good Times Roll." Greg is considered one of the forerunners of pop-rock synthesis. Greg usually also co-writes a song per album with Ric. On this album, most of what you'll hear out of Greg keyboard-wise is Atari-like bleeps and bloops mixed with some Electric Piano and String-synth sounds that were popular at that time. Despite sounding "of the period" somehow Greg's implementation of these sounds is very timeless.
David Robinson - Drummer/Percussion, I believe on this album he uses a Slingerland or Ludwig (can't remember which if either of those) kit, but he also uses a Linn Drum on the kick-off of "Good Times Roll." He is also the band's fashion consultant/image designer, and had a hand in the album art through most, if not all of the group's career. He was once described as the guy who could only have $.50 to his name and still look best at the party. His drumming is basic yet effective, and the production used presents a very wide stereo picture.
The overall sound of The Cars, in my opinion, is almost the PERFECT pop-rock band - they have catchy, hooky songs, with multiple meanings the band does not want to push on you but rather have you have something meaningful to it you come up with yourself. The guitars are powerful even at their lightest thanks to Elliot's well picked textures, hooks, and concise solos against Ric Ocasek's James-Hetfield-Level tight rhythm guitar work. Greg Hawke's synths give it that '70s space opera atmosphere, and David's drumming somehow hits precise and simple like a computer clock crystal whilst still retaining a human element to it.
Another important thing to mention about The Cars is TECHNOLOGY - The Cars were extremely high tech, and with every album they used the latest. This is the lowest tech album they did and even here they are using some of the latest things including synths, stomp boxes that are not just simple filters and overdrives, even on bass, and not to mention Roy Thomas Baker's signature "wall of vocals" production. What's cool is they always implement technology - but not in an intrusive way to where it becomes a gimmick - they do it in a way that it just naturally fits in there and enhances the already good songs that are there.
To this album, there is one downside though - Elliot Easton joked that it should be called "The Cars Greatest Hits" because all of the most popular Pre-Heartbeat City tracks of The Cars catalog came from this record. As this, they are overplayed. Heck, the first three tracks get pretty regular airplay on the radio even today - released in reverse order - Just What I Needed, My Best Friend's Girl, and Good Times Roll. Bye Bye Love, You're All Ive Got Tonight, and a package deal of Moving In Stereo/All Mixed Up were also released to radio stations and still get occasional play. When I first got into The Cars in 7th grade back in 1996 - I already had most of this album taped off the radio when I was first getting to know them - leading me to buy this album last because it lacks the mystique of the others.
Overall, I'll give it a 9, it's one of their best, but like Nirvana's "Nevermind" album, it's been played to death because it was so good. It was a victim of it's own success basically. I put this album in the category of "I'll listen to it when it comes on the radio/CD Player/MP3 player at random but I don't actively seek it out very often." However, it's undeniable this was an extremely strong first mainstream release, putting The Cars on the map for the first half of their career until (my personal favorite) Panorama came out in 1980.
Lyrics — 8
If you want simple, The Cars ain't your band - these guys share an awful lot with early 1990's grunge rock in a lot of ways. Ric Ocasek sort of has the same thing Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, or even Dave Grohl has - or even the Beatles - they have ABSTRACTION. They also make subtle use of Irony, Catchy mixes of words, like Kurt Cobain once said that it's not the words that convey meaning so much as how you sing them.
The Cars have 2 singers - Ric Ocasek - who handles the heavier/neurotic/darker material, and Benjamin Orr who sings the ballads, sexy songs, pretty much any song that will draw the female fans in. Very clever setup they had. Both Ric and Ben have similar vocal ranges - but Benjamin Orr is a more traditional singer with slight quirks to his delivery including a unidentifiable accent that comes out once in awhile (possibly his Polish/Czechoslovakian side?) to give it a character that makes girls want him, and guys want to be him.
Ric Ocasek, on the other hand, for lack of better words, kind of has a mix of Dylan, Buddy Holly (with all the hiccups he throws in but yet made his own in a way, which is a part of Ric's signature delivery), and Ric also has a bit of that forceful "greaser" nature, he may not win a looks contest, but the guy makes up for it with that "cool guy" attitude that conveys through his vocal work on these early albums. Ric Ocasek is sort of like a New Wave "The Fonz" before he jumped the shark when it comes to vocals.
Ric's lyrics also make heavy play on that 50's/60's American Grafitti/Happy Days thing that was popular at the time. While the B-52's took the Space Age B Movie Retro Kitsh road, and Devo the nerdy scientist road, The Cars fittingly took the cool greaser road mixed with New Wave quirkiness and it's apparent in the lyrics as much as the music. Most of the songs on the surface revolve around the usual things - girls, parties, cars, romance lost, broken hearts - but they are done in an interesting underground-ish sort of way. It's almost hard for me to iterate because the songs can be interpreted from so many sides. Time for the track play-by-play.
GOOD TIMES ROLL - play on an old saying and song title "Let the Good Times Roll" - usually screamed by some party goer when the party gets started. However, with lines like "let them knock you around" and "let the stories be told, let them say what they want, let the photos be old, let them show what they want", it almost seems as smuch about possibly tolerance of others as they are as it is about good times. The Music to this for some reason really gives a feel similar to the castle from Rocky Horror Picture Show in a way, and has that same sort of big party with a sinister undertow to it feel. Ric Ocasek sings this one.
"My Best Friend's Girl" - a Mock 50's "Rock N' Roll" sound with the classic 1-3-5 chord setup running through the song almost the whole way played on a Tele and a Jazzmaster for that authentic 50's twang. This is possibly one of their more simple songs apparently being about a guy who lost his girl to his best friend and being annoyed by having to see her all the time. Vocals courtesy of Ric Ocasek in full Happy Days mode with that twisty and sneering delivery.
"Just What I Needed" - Some liner notes from The Cars anthology put songs like this into a good perspective - "Is this a pledge of love or a subtle put-down." Taking a chord progression from Pachabel's Cannon and throwing it in the dark at some points - the verdict is still out if this guy is annoyed by this chick, or if he really likes her - but that's part of what makes The Cars so fun to listen to - so many interpretations to be taken from their lyrics, there's always at least two.
"I'm in Touch With Your World" - New Wave Frank Zappa Band Alert! The endearing quality is how this song is quirkiness taken to an extreme that's right up there with something The B-52's or Devo would do like Rock Lobster, except The Cars do it in a way only they can - with that understated, yet quirky sense that has a big sense of humor to it. An interesting touch is how crazy Greg Hawkes goes with instruments on this thing - including the "Everything is Science Fiction" line where Greg gives off possibly one of the craziest synth noises of the album. The lyrics are so vague that it could mean anything and nothing all at once, which is fitting with the crazy chromatic soundtrack - about all Greg did not do on this song is pull the Fire Alarm! I think the 52's laid claim to that first. Ric Ocasek on vocals of course for that "quirk factor".
"Don' Cha' Stop" - Well, we all know what this one is about... the Backseat Waltz (to borrow a Greg Hawkes solo title). Simple material, but even here their power-pop mixed with Hard Rock styling gives this song a lot of power, and Elliot Easton really rips it up on this track. It has that understated-slanty-signature Cars thing to it sonically all the while still giving the vibe of a frenetic bedroom session. This song conjures up images of ladies that would get this review rejected - let me just put it that way. XD Ric on vocals here.
"You're all I've Got Tonight" - Another in the Irony Bucket - this song rocks HARD with Dual Gibson grit, and kind of foreshadows what their second release would be like in a few ways. It's the heaviest song from a guitar standpoint on the album, with an extended Elliot Easton solo-fest. Ric Ocasek sings this one of course.
"Bye Bye Love" - Benjamin Orr takes the mic back for the rest of the album from here on out. Here is a swift yet classy little track about unrequited love (a very common theme in The Cars catalog) - It's An Orangy Sky, Always with some other guy - and the band does a GREAT job of conjuring up that Orangey sky with their instruments I must say here. Feels like an after-school drag race with the undertow of seeing the girl you want with the head jock fueling your top time. We see Benjamin go nuts on the last verse, showing his versatility - Benjamin Orr can give a good growl of angry power when he wants to.
"Moving In Stereo" - Then in the category of "Heaviest SONG (from a song perspective)" on the album - Moving In Stereo. Driven almost entirely by a 3 chord riff played on a Flanged and overdriven guitar by Ric, with some heavy ARP Omni string-work intersped in between - this song shows the albums dark New Wave side which it never gets out of from this point on. It seems the song is about having a breakdown of some sort - reactions to life's problems. Benjamin Orr - whilst being run around the stereo spectrum (by Roy) - brings that introspective feel to the song. Something we won't hear as much out of Benjamin for the remainder of the catalog.
All Mixed Up ends the album on a dark note with a semblance of hope, starting with a almost waaay cool and ahead of it's time acoustic, chorused Tele, and synth kick-off that conjures up images of rain on a dark night. It feels like whoever the chick is in this album's story, she's back together with him, but it's that uneasy sort of "back together" - she's his everything including his albatross, then ol' Hawkes surprises us all with his multi-instrumentalist prowess again with a Saxophone solo to lead us out of the story of this Record.
Overall, I always feel The Cars albums tell stories of troubled relationships in ways no other rock band can, it's like if The Last American Virgin or Fast Times at Ridgemont High were a New Wave record instead of a movie - and this theme continues up till Heartbeat City - where they grew up and joined the other MTV Regulars. Here there's still some innocence - and that's what Pre-Heartbeat City Cars records are all about.
I give it an 8, you can see that The Cars singing and lyric-wise had their base styles there, but it's only begun, oh has sit only just begun.
Overall Impression — 8
The Cars were a part of a scene not much unlike the Seattle grunge scene a decade later - there was a general flavor there, but every band sounded different, and were a part of a community that stretched beyond just the local "scenes" that made it what it was. In general, these bands were quirky, had some sort of '50s/'60s retro angle to their sound, but mixed the latest in style and music technology to create something unique. A scene fused with Punk DIY and Pop Consciousness while dropping the pretentious anger and crankiness of punk in favor of humor and quirkiness that makes it so interesting. A lot like a contemporary ZZ Top, these bands did a grand job of mixing Funny and Cool and doing it successfully. Along with The Cars were Blondie, Roxy Music, Devo, Berlin, The B-52's, The Motels, and on the rockier side The Pretenders and the Stray Cats. All of these bands shared elements of each other whilst sounding like individuals, and that's what made this scene so cool.
The Cars are - THE CARS - what can I say. They are an understated, mostly guitar driven (at least for the first half of their career) rock band with some retro kitsch but more on a Fonzie level than on a "Gee Willickers" level like say, the B-52's whom I got into more recently. They have class, and style, but keep their feet on the ground about it.
Standout tracks - what one is not, I find if I do hit skip, which is rare, it's usually "I'm in Touch With Your World" because I'm not in a super-quirk mood, or maybe, and vary rarely "Don' Cha' Stop." Like I mentioned earlier, Elliot Easton (the guitarist) said this album should have been called "The Cars Greatest Hits" due to the sheer number of singles and how much they got played (and still do get played I might ad - I heard Moving In Stereo in the car 2 days ago on the radio - not a CD, not MP3, not tape - RADIO).
About the only things I don't like about this record, is the album art on the cover (that girl on the cover - Elliot, I know why you blacked out the teeth when you signed those, LOL), but David really steps it up on the next record I must say. Also, I give it an 8 because maybe I'm a bit burned out on it because it's been played to death on the radio, and my record player, and CD, and Tape, and MP3.
As for lost or stolen - I own TWO vinyl copies, one practically mint, I still have the original CD version and DELUXE editions I bought in high school, and my MP3s across several devices. It'll be hard to separate me from my collection of Cars stuff considering they were a formative influence on me as a musician, as well as my #1 band for over 2.5 decades now.