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"Let the good times roll, let them knock you around"

Class D

Main Category: Pop Rock
Also applicable: Synth Pop
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Cars fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Cars fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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If Blondie were the first successful pop band to say interesting things in a New Wave kind of way, then the Cars were the first pop band to prove you could say UNinteresting things in a New Wave kind of way and still be successful - and not just commercially. It's really hard to determine what particular things the Cars actually did to earn their place in the late Seventies pantheon; the Cars simply were, and that particular thing looks fairly good to me. Just like it did to all those record buyers who confirmed their status as a monster hit machine.

The Cars emerged from Boston. Actually, this phrase can be understood both literally, since the band's origins are indeed Bostonian, and metaphorically - as in, "continuing the traditions of Boston": their music was basically a variation on radio-friendly accessible mid-Seventies pop a la Boston, with light touches of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac visible. However, in addition to that the Cars had a bunch of ingenious ideas - such as to add a little more bubbly synthesizer and to procure some stylish modernistic haircuts - and, presto-changeo, suddenly they found themselves headlining the New Wave revolution. This, of course, only goes to show how vague a notion this "New Wave" is: the music of the Cars has virtually nothing to do with acts such as Talking Heads or The Police. And yet, the Cars were definitely New Wave, simply because mainstream pop music was never quite like this before The Cars. There had been classic rock, for sure, and there had been the Euro-pulsation of Kraftwerk and David Bowie, and there had been the decadent romantic wail of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, but all of them had rarely, if ever, come so close together.

The fact that their music is still remembered (and, every once in a while, loved) today is proof undeniable to one simple thing: above all, you have to be a good melodist. The Cars, and primarily their leader Ric Ocasek (with frequent collaboration on the part of Greg Hawkes and Ben Orr), did not strive much to be experimental. Once they'd found their formula - classic rock/pop riffs and rhythms soaked in trendy production values - they pretty much rolled along with it on all of their albums. None of the band members were great instrumental virtuosos; outside of the standard three-four-minute pop single, they simply wouldn't be able to know their way, and so they preferred to wisely close the door on everything outside that little house. Nor did Ocasek, or anybody else in the band, for that matter, have a unique singing voice - for the most part, he sounded just like that sub-standard kid next door. Moderately nervous and paranoid when necessary, moderately romantic when needed. And as for the stylish haircuts, well, Clem Burke of Blondie had one, too, and he still played his drums like hell.

But the Cars wrote good songs. The modernistic "tinge" they gave these songs was a vital element - without it, not only would the music be bland and faceless, it would have been plain superfluous in the face of, uh, I dunno, Cheap Trick, for instance. Yet it would have been nothing more than a modernistic tinge had these guys not known what professional songwriting is. Memorable, exciting vocal melodies coupled with even more memorable, exciting choruses - that's what you have to expect from pop music in the first place. I wouldn't place the Cars on the upper level of popular songwriting, along with the Beatles or the Kinks or even Blondie, I'd say, but there's one big thing to be said about them: the Cars were consistent. When you're writing pop music, it's so easy to forget about hooks, especially if you already got a couple of 'em; Ocasek and Co. have this respectable tendency to make every song on their albums interesting in some way at least.

Which makes it a very difficult task to determine what exactly is "Cars Filler". Sometimes I'm tempted to say that the Cars never (or, well, very rarely) wrote filler, and sometimes I'm just as tempted to say that everything they ever did was high-quality filler, because separating all of these glossy, superficially immaculate four-minute pop-rockers from one another is impossible. The minute I cease listening to the Cars regularly (and I certainly do because, after all, I never grew up with the band - and I can't imagine the Cars being a Top 10 favourite for anybody who didn't), all of their output starts getting glued together in one solid mess. Needless to say, there ain't much to be said in terms of emotional resonance: the Cars were professionals and hitmakers, and while they did have an unusual touch of sensitive "artsitis" from time to time, there's an obvious formulaicness to their work which prevents any kind of 'soul bonding' - for me, at least.

That ain't to say that the Cars aren't (or weren't) cool. Apart from making your song hookless, there are numerous other crimes a popmeister can make. He can bring in a goofy pompous ass to screech the verses as if they belonged in Don Giovanni, which the Cars didn't. He can write banal, cliche-ridden lyrics which the Cars... well, they're not entirely cliche-free, but most of the cliches are, with a touch of pragmatism, saved for the singalong choruses, whereas the lyrics can actually be smart and 'hip', and occasionally presage the New Romantic movement with its nifty "I'm nursing a bleeding heart, but that don't stop me from being a smartass nihilist" slogan. He can call in talentless hacks to butcher the melody with corny or overproduced arrangements - which the Cars successfully evaded for a whole four albums, before "Mutt" Lange eventually steered them into generic synth-pop territory on Heartbeat City. Even then, they were still finding ways to circumvent the choking production and make their talents clear and the final results listenable.

In the end, the Cars never made a truly great album (although if "great" equals "consistent", the self-titled album comes very very close), but they managed to never make a shitty one either - and when they came dangerously close to making a shitty one (Door To Door - which is still rather pretty in spots, but doesn't hold much promise for the future), they just disbanded. Which is also an asset, or else they might have ended up becoming a collective Phil Collins and spending their latter days licking the dust off the thresholds of MTV's offices, desperately pleading to fill backup position in a J-Lo video or something. As such, they pretty much have left their honour intact - and a solid collection of excellent pop songs to boot.

Lineup: Ric Ocasek - guitar, vocals; Greg Hawkes - keyboards, vocals; Benjamin Orr - bass guitar, vocals; Elliot Easton - guitar, vocals; David Robinson - drums, vocals.



Year Of Release: 1978
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

Dinky bluesy poppy boys discover New Wave, and end up recording the best piece of trash I ever heard...


Track listing: 1) Good Times Roll; 2) My Best Friend's Girl; 3) Just What I Needed; 4) I'm In Touch With Your World; 5) Don't Cha Stop; 6) You're All I've Got Tonight; 7) Bye Bye Love; 8) Moving In Stereo; 9) All Mixed Up.

Eh, well, the funniest review of this album I've ever seen was written by Signor Mark Prindle, so if you're expecting a joke or two, just move on straight ahead. Me, I'm just gonna bore you as usual, but whaddaya know, some people actually like that... Kinky.

Rephrasing what I've stated above in the intro, my main credo about the Cars is as follows: "The guys that never wrote a single great song but never wrote a single bad song, either". This, of course, means just that they never wrote a truly great song (a la 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' or 'Superstition'), but they never stooped down to a thoroughly inadequate suckjob either (like 'Hold On My Heart' or 'Passion', eeeh, yuck). In within the restricted borders, though, lies a good deal of diversity and alternating quality - and I'm not going to eschew the usual route and pretend that their debut album wasn't their best one, because it certainly was.

But mainly because it was the first one, hey, all the Cars' albums sound the friggin' same. (With a few reservations, of course, but who am I to resist a generalization when it's on the tip of my tongue?). On here, Ocasek, Orr & company haven't yet discovered the unlimited possibilities of synthesizers, and the record is far more guitar-based than whatever followed; the keyboards are quite prominent, of course, but they're used in a nice traditional way - substituting for orchestrated lush pieces of background slush, or playing something pathetic and bloated in the vein of progressive acts. British progressive acts: thank God, Greg Hawkes never took any inspiration from patriotic Christian wankers like Kerry Livgren. Anyway, what I just wanted to point out is that there are none of these "bleeps", "beeps" and "bloops" that symbolize later Cars, that is! So this isn't even "synth pop" as we know it. Rather like a good old rock'n'roll band that decided to get trendy and poppy by spitting on its bluesy legacy, but never dared to dump the actual songwriting talents either. Which is fun.

All, or most, of these songs are deserved US radio classics and probably don't need being introduced to radio-listening crowds; but if you happen to never listen to the radio, afraid of the potential interference of Bob Seger or Britney Spears, or if you're not a US resident - and hey, only about 250 million people on the planet are! - you might need some introduction. (I, for instance, have never heard not a single of these tunes before I actually bought the CD! Can you believe that?) Out of the nine numbers on here, not a single one can be accused of lacking ideas; granted, these ideas aren't particularly revolutionary or anything, but I wouldn't blame the Cars for sounding too retro, either. Simply put, just like Blondie, they sounded perfectly right for a year like 1978 - and this explains their massive commercial success. Great pop hooks, drenched in tradition and at the same time paving the road to the future; how could this record not be a bestseller?

Of course, on first listen the first seven songs might appear a little mixed up in your head - more or less the same steady mid-tempo beats, the same cheerful and pleasant, yet slightly menacing atmosphere, due to the grim basslines, otherworldly synth backgrounds and Ocasek's robotic vocals, which were by far the most innovative element of the band's sound on American territory. Obviously, the man took a few listens to David Bowie's recent output, which was nicely shunned by the American musically interested public for being 'too weird' - but at least Ric was singing about his best friend's girlfriend and about letting the good times roll, not about beauties, beasts, and Joe the lions, so the public swallowed him instead.

Anyway, whatever. What do all these songs get by? Come closer, let me whisper in your ear. 'Good Times Roll' gets by due to an insanely catchy vocal melody and its contrast with the stark, terrifying arrangement. 'My Best Friend's Girl' gets by due to... due to more or less the same, but add up the tasty echoey guitar line upon which the song is based and especially the pretty ring-ring-ringing Beatlesque guitar line that the band inserts every time after Ric wails '...but she used to be mine!' That Beatlesque guitar line just drives me crazy, even if it's directly stolen from some Beatles For Sale passage I can't remember right now. Whoever else would have thought of that? The right rip-off, in the right place!

Meanwhile, 'Just What I Needed' gets by due to the vocals - the vocals rule, man. The synth line rules, too, and so does the bass in all of its genericness. Don't try to deconstruct the song any further, though: it's only when all the elements are tightly glued together that it actually works. 'I'm In Touch With Your World' gets by due to its complexity - check out David Robinson's tricky drum pattern and the quirky ascending guitar riffs on that one. 'Don't Cha Stop' gets by due to the fact that it's the only fast song on the album, and it's also the only good fast song. Punkish just a wee bit, but these guys never intended to be punks - the guitars are actually quite tame and comfortable. 'You're All I've Got Tonight' got phased drums, grumbly power chords, heavenly synths and intricate vocal melodies. Maybe it's the best pop song of the Seventies. Maybe not, of course, but the problem is: how could you disprove that? How could you disprove that? The song is immaculate on an objective level, and how could you actually put it down? Not that I really make that statement, mind you: I'm just trying to say that whenever someone says 'it's one of the top five songs ever recorded', he's putting forward one hell of a hypothesis...

'Bye Bye Love' ends this trail of poppy wonders on yet another high note, but then the album gives way to some of the band's darker fantasies: 'Moving In Stereo' is one of those deeply depressing numbers that youthful bands like to pump out to prove that they're youthful but they're oh so worried anyway. Of course, the Cars are such a dinky dorky happy band anyway that they don't entirely reach the desired effect: the song is intriguing and 'hilariously spooky' rather than anything truly depressing, but hey, we got enough goth music in this world already. You wanna depress yourself, try Nico or the Swans. Me, at this particular time I just wanna groove along to the Cars' quaky quirky qeecky sound. 'All Mixed Up' ends the album on more or less the same 'pseudo-depressed' note, with the album's best bunch of vocal harmonies which - for once - really move you and shake you up, to misquote a particularly underrated Cars' album title.

In all, this is this is this is well this is about as far as 'intelligent post-golden epoch pop albums' can go. Think of it as post-Beatles Hard Day's Night: objectively inferior, but almost just as fun and everything. An album worth treasuring, apart from the horrible album cover. Man I hate lipstick!



Year Of Release: 1979
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

A good mix of pop and Nuave with a slight scent of the Cars' rootsy roots. Not tremendously exciting, tho'.

Best song: sorry. If I pick one, the others will get pissed off.

Track listing: 1) Let's Go; 2) Since I Held You; 3) It's All I Can Do; 4) Double Life; 5) Shoo Be Doo; 6) Candy-O; 7) Night Spots; 8) You Can't Hold On Too Long; 9) Lust For Kicks; 10) Got A Lot On My Head; 11) Dangerous Type.

The Cars' second album firmly established them as New Wavers (as compared to the 'mixed' debut album), and it's a good New Wave record indeed. But if you ask me, it's not a pure New Wave record. See, distancing ourselves a little from the actual quality of the songs on the album, we should notice that the Cars were something of a 'buffer band' by 1979, "smoothing" mainstream America's transition from the conservative values of roots rock to the modernistic values of modernized, electronic, paranoid music. Therefore, while Candy-O is, in its essence, a pop album heavily based on technological advances, it still sounds nowhere near as groundbreaking for 1979 as whatever the Talking Heads on one side of the Atlantic and the Police on its other side were doing at the same time. The Heads were learning their lessons from Eno (who, in turn, earlier learned his from the Krautrock scene); the Police were learning their lessons from Bob Marley. Who gave lessons to the Cars? Nobody but the traditional American rock scene... and their New Wave contemporaries.

Let us get back to the actual quality of the songs on the album, now. I must confess that I feel like a tail-waggin' idiot, because the more I kept listening to this album, the more I just poked my eyes at every review of it and reader comment on it in existence and going like, 'Eh? These guys probably have a third ear on 'em somewhere!' Because, try as I might, I simply can't understand what the hell makes one of these ten songs (I don't count 'Shoo Be Doo' as it's just a short electronic gimmick) more outstanding than any other. If there's anything undermining this album, it's a hyper-annoying lack of diversity. Not that diversity was a necessary element of late Seventies' pop, of course; but at least better New Wave bands had something to compensate for the lack of diversity. The Heads, for instance, had that unprecedented rhythmic style that makes all of their droning compositions on More Songs About Buildings And Food so hypnotic. The Police had an absolute mastery of melody and hooks which makes all of the stylistically similar numbers on Reggatta De Blanc so godlike. What do the Cars 'ave? A decent, but not perfect, sense of harmony, a jovial, fun-time atmosphere (New Wave for forklift drivers! Youpee!) and awful haircuts.

That said, not a single of these ten songs is bad. In fact, all of these songs are good. I suppose that upon the fifty-first listen something is supposed to really click and you'll head on down the street able to lovingly hum any one of them, because they are hummable. While they're on, they're a total gas: the Cars have a great feeling of rhythm (normal rhythm, not the lunatic asylum of the Heads), and the serious emphasis on Greg Hawkes' keyboards is actually a good thing - the synths don't sound cheesy at all, though, granted, at first I was a bit thrown aback at hearing the trademark "sci-fi" sound in something that was supposed to sound like a normal rock song. Well, you get used to everything.

The record is actually playing behind my back, because I don't feel like reviewing it otherwise - like I said, the songs are not at all memorable. A strange thing, because there really are hooks. 'It's All I Can Do', for instance - what do you call that chorus? Catchy. 'It's all I can do, to keep waiting for you'. Hmm. I guess I'll have to write that down on a piece of paper and carry it with me. Now if only I could read notes...

The most famous song on here is probably the energetic kick-album-ass-opener, 'Let's Go', but the person who can sufficiently well explain me why it should be considered superior to 'Double Life', or 'Candy-O', or 'Night Spots', or 'Dangerous Type' will have to be a patented sophist. 'Night Spots', by the way, is for me the song that stands out most of all - mainly due to Ric Ocasek's vocal impersonation of David Byrne. At least he's trying out the same paranoid, m-m-m-m-umblin' style, and even though the song lacks any other paranoid elements, the ferocious guitar riffs and Hawkes' astral synth zooooops are a perfect background. Mind you, I'm not calling the song particularly great, it's just a bit different from the rest. Perhaps the title track, too, is a little bit angrier than everything else, with a dark and disturbing atmosphere around it. ("Dark and disturbing", of course, is not a particularly suitable epithet for the Cars, whose music can't normally disturb even a person who's been suffering from acute schizophrenia for the last fifteen years, but it's the best I could come up with. Me bad with me words. Me no speak English, see? Me crazy Russian guy).

And the rest? They're all right. 'Got A Lot On My Head' is fast, so it gives me a few kicks (unlike 'Lust For Kicks', which only gives me lust for kicks, but it still has a wonderful synth pattern going for it). Perhaps 'You Can't Hold On Too Long' and 'Since I Held You' can qualify as relative 'filler', but only if you want very badly to distinguish between good songs and bad songs on this album. Me, I just don't feel such a necessity - I take Candy-O for what it is: a daring, yet somewhat 'conventional' record supposed to keep me dancing the night away and digging those crazy New Wave sounds that We, Your Attentive Tutors the Cars, are bringing to you, the average Eagles fan. In other words, the Cars are popularizing New Wave. Good for them, good for me. Who cares if there ain't a single classic on this album? It's not the point.



Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Darker, and a little artsier, but I think it works!

Best song: TOUCH AND GO

Track listing: 1) Panorama; 2) Touch And Go; 3) Gimme Some Slack; 4) Don't Tell Me No; 5) Getting Through; 6) Misfit Kid; 7) Down Boys; 8) You Wear Those Eyes; 9) Running To You; 10) Up And Down.

Guess everyone hates it but me. Well, actually, I've heard some say it's a favourite among hardcore Cars fans, so maybe it's just the right band for me or something, but anyway, I don't see much that's wrong with this album. The general idea is that for their third album, the Cars decided to do something slightly different from the usual formula - do a record that would be slightly more pretentious and, well, er, substantial or something. Not nearly as based around hooks as it used to be, but relying more upon weirdness and atmosphere. And what are The Cars without hooks? That's right - nogoodniks. When we want atmosphere, we turn to Brian Eno. Or Devo.

I would heartily agree with this line of reasoning if it weren't for one simple reason: this album is anything but hookless. Maybe some of the songs take a bit more time to sink in than the usual one or two listens that's normally enough for listening to any given Cars song to appreciate it (say, three listens instead!), but in this particular case, it only means that the hooks are a bit more complex. And when you couple that with the fact that this is indeed a somewhat darker and occasionally even more "paranoid" album than the two preceding ones, well, shouldn't that be a boost to any self-respecting art-pop fan? Hey, why not? What's wrong with being artsy-fartsy when you're not betraying your own identity?

Granted, you do have to get past the title track. That one was easily a misfire, and the album's one truly stinky spot. The Cars shouldn't be allowed anywhere near in sight a six-minute "epic" that's based on a robotic groove rather than a catchy melody. Naturally, putting on the record and hearing this bombastic ramble where one used to earlier hear a delightful three-minute pop romp could have easily deranged any fan so much that even the rest of the listening process would have been spoiled. It does have its moments, especially at the very end - with the sweaty rock'n'roll guitar solo that almost saves the day, but in the long run it's too late anyway, because you have to endure four minutes of Ric Ocasek mumbling something incomprehensible over a rudimentary synth beat before that. Now Ric, be a good boy and start singing into your microphone instead of your sleeve again.

But already the second track is 'Touch And Go' - the album's big hit single, not one iota better or worse than all the other Cars hits. More singing into one's sleeve, but this time the sludgy verse melody gets transformed into the upbeat, poppy, memorable chorus way before you get the chance to become seriously disgruntled for the second time (and the great rock'n'roll guitar is back, this time in power-pop mode!). And I swear that if you start listening to the record with the second song, not the first one, your view of it as a cohesive entity will shift very, very seriously. Let's just go along and see what we can find: 'Gimme Some Slack' is an almost imbecile-style synth-rocker whose main charm lies in juxtaposing Rick's demented "just gimme some slack" chorus with the ridiculously simplistic four-note synth riff. Stupid as stupidity, but utterly fun.

Then Orr takes lead vocals on the once again darker, more robotic 'Don't Tell Me No'. Not a highlight, but no slouch either. Decent guitar part, somewhat spooky chorus, nice booming percussion, good guitar solos... wouldn't know what would be wrong with it, really. And the first side comes to a close with a lightweight piece-o'-rockabilly ('Getting Through') which might be classified as filler, but then again, with a band as "insubstantial" as the Cars it would be a real nightmare to tell filler from non-filler. Besides, if it is rockabilly filler, what does that whacky Eno-era Roxy Music-style synth solo think it's doing right in the middle of that song?

On the second side, the odd one out is 'You Wear Those Eyes', the only song on the album that can be somehow classified as "ballad" because it's slow and moderately sentimental (especially in the chorus), but atmosphere-wise, it's just as dark and crazy as 'Panorama' or 'Don't Tell Me No'. Ocasek makes a slight Velvet Underground reference in the lyrics, Easton adds up a biting lead guitar line, Hawkes adds synthy bleeps and beeps, and in the end I'd say there's nothing to complain about either. Not when it's surrounded by successful rockers like 'Down Boys' (gotta love that "musical saw" imitation in the intro and the magnificent - there, I've said it! - guitar riff that carries the verse melody) and moody power-pop anthems like 'Running To You', even if the latter is based on a very cliched guitar melody in the verses and on a very basic reggae pattern in the chorus; but who cares when that sad, but slightly solemn keyboard melody in the background perfectly carries over the lonely romantic message of the song? Hey, not even Duran Duran had any tunes like that. And then the album fully redeems itself for its "misbeginning" with the gruff martial patterns of 'Up And Down' - the riffs are so simple it's almost punkish in essence, but, of course, they're trying to be artsy and all, so there's way too much going on for a direct punkish attack.

All in all, it's different and everything, but after all's been said and done, it's still a Cars album, and that means a set of short guitar-and-synth-based pop songs with hooks. Maybe that's not much, but that ain't too little either. They pretty much abandoned this particular approach soon afterwards - maybe due to a backlash or something, I don't have any information on how the press/fans treated Panorama upon release - and went back to the tried and true, but it wasn't that hard to do given the discrepancies are really not that big in the first place. Well, okay, maybe overall the material is a little bit simpler melodically than their previous records, but where they lose in terms of number of chords used, they compensate in terms of atmosphere, and atmosphere coupled with a simple, but memorable melody isn't something one should reject lightly, you know what I mean? So there.



Year Of Release: 1981
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

Lightweight, but quite pleasant, "proto-synth-pop" overloaded with hooks. Got any problems?

Best song: CRUISER

Track listing: 1) Since You're Gone; 2) Shake It Up; 3) I'm Not The One; 4) Victim Of Love; 5) Cruiser; 6) A Dream Away; 7) This Could Be Love; 8) Think It Over; 9) Maybe Baby.

One thing I really admire about the Cars - actually, the thing that makes the Cars a really great band, as opposed to numerous other contenders - is how they're using all those contemporary hi-tech gimmicks and still the music never sounds lifeless or sterile, like, say, Phil Collins. On their fourth album, for instance, Greg Hawkes is almost completely in command, inserting his synths everywhere; and in addition to that, the Cars start exploiting all kinds of drum machines, and Ocasec's guitar relies hugely on those leaden metallic riffs that were so popular among early Eighties popsters - you know, so that their band could write dumb bubbly music and not sound like total wusses (which most of 'em sounded like anyway). And yet, when I listen to the nine songs presented herein, I really don't get the feeling that I'm listening to typical Eighties music. And why is that? Because they're so dang creative with their stuff!

Seriously now, the drum machines are never robotic enough - when they're actually used on some of the tracks, the band disguises them as handclaps or real drums and makes 'em thin and inobtrusive. The guitar riffs might sometimes be overdistorted, but they're not just stupid powerchords - real clever guitar riffs with enough memorability and inspiration to them. And finally, Hawkes has finally matured into a 'master soundscaper', rarely placing the synths at the very center of the sound so that they could overshadow everything else, but instead making them stand somewhere aside and just fiddle their diddle... and it works. Just listen to the way they open 'I'm Not The One', for instance. Could this be called 'synth-pop' when the synth riff - which supposedly underpins the entire song - is so thin and wimpy and almost sounds to be coming from one of those little toy synthesizers that we buy for our four-year old kids? It's so dang cool...

Surprisingly, this record gets underrated way too often, being dismissed exactly for those faults: too 'thin', too 'wimpy', too 'lightweight', too 'lifeless'. Well, what's wrong with being thin, wimpy and lightweight? This is not exactly Blonde On Blonde or Quadrophenia we're dealing with. This is a typical commercial Cars record, absolutely hit-oriented - and it did get some hits, and they were deserved. 'Nuff said. If all Eighties synth-pop took lessons from the Cars, I guess the decade might have been free of all those hideous lapses of taste like No Jacket Required...

Just about all of these songs make the grade in my book - granted, it's not an overwhelmingly high grade, but dammit, I like a well-placed hook, and there's at least one well-placed hook in almost every one of these songs. 'Since You're Gone' displays a weird Dylan influence in the way Ocasec sings the 'looping' verses. The title track is a bit hokey, but how can one resist the driving synth riff? A good old piece of boogie updated for the electronic age, and nobody could do that as well as the Cars could... well, perhaps Brian Eno could, but by 1981 Brian Eno was far more interested in living in bushes chock-full of ghosts than boogieing along. And the Cars just were ripping it up! So much fun, count me happy. 'I'm Not The One' could be a failure, but I already mentioned the reasons it's not. I shudder at the thought of how the song could have turned out in the hands of Phil Collins, but here it works out all right.

And how can you deny the insane catchiness of 'Victim Of Love'? One more thin synth line undercuts the chorus, and does that in a brilliant, hilarious way - I smile every time it comes along. And what a better way to follow it than with 'Cruiser', featuring what could arguably be called the Cars' best ever guitar riff? A little Talking Heads influence can be perceived here (don't you feel the Byrnism of Ric yelping 'big city noise...'?), but not much, as there's nothing 'weird' about the song, just the cool guitar riff and the cool echoey vocal harmonies and the pretty little synth bleeps along the way. This has also been called the Cars' best 'driving song', and I couldn't agree more, even if I don't drive. But hey, can't I fantasize a little?

'A Dream Away' and 'This Could Be Love' slow down the tempo a little, reminding the listener that the Cars used to be a 'dark' band at one time - both add a wee bit pseudo-industrial/pseudo-Goth atmosphere, and while 'A Dream Away' has Ocasek at his most paranoid (and electronically encoded), 'This Could Be Love' mostly gets by due to Hawkes' ominous synth playing - these notes are SPOOKY! Spooky and catchy, of course. And yeah, they were certainly due to a huge Roxy Music influence, of course, but taken in perspective, these are the immediate historic roots of Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode, and in my humble opinion, they beat out both bands, but that's my humble opinion, of course...

The last two songs I could live without - 'Think It Over' didn't turn out to be as memorable as last remember, and while 'Maybe Baby' doesn't actually feature a techno rhythm (for the sole reason that techno as we know it today was still non-existent at the time), today it would certainly have featured one. It's still catchy, even if five minutes is a wee bit too long for the tune. Still, this shouldn't detract from the fact that Shake It Up is criminally underrated, both in terms of influence and in terms of actual song quality.



Year Of Release: 1984
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

Mainstream synth-pop to the point of suffocation. Why am I giving it a 10? I must be a dumbass.

Best song: DRIVE (if I'm gonna prostitute myself, I might as well go right to the bitter end)

Track listing: 1) Hello Again; 2) Looking For Love; 3) Magic; 4) Drive; 5) Stranger Eyes; 6) You Might Think; 7) It's Not The Night; 8) Why Can't I Have You; 9) I Refuse; 10) Heartbeat City.

I... let me tell you, I wouldn't want to be caught dead playing this thing. In fact, upon first listen I was ready to give this piece o' product a 5 or 6 at best, saying something very pompous about how the Cars have finally exchanged their talent for a bunch of big hit singles and how they started licking the big guys' asses to get that cooooool Eighties synth-pop production and completely lost all kind of personality and...

...dammit, they did all that and more. They were never your average "artistically integer" non-pandering band in the first place, but Heartbeat City is still a sellout even by Shake It Up standards. This is essentially just your average boy-meets-girl unsophisticated typical-Eighties synth-pop. Big electronic drums, luvverly cold as ice hi-tech keybs, and when you get yourself a ballad, you get a patented "heavenly atmospheric" backdrop that even Phil Collins would die for. Guitars? Yep, they're kinda there, but you wouldn't really notice that at once. Energy? Just as much as generic electronic drums and generic corny dink-dink-synthesizers are able to provide you with. Sure ain't no Live At Leeds.

So you see, anybody who proclaims to have good taste and doesn't go crazy whenever the timeless sound of Bananarama echoes through the windows of the nearby car belonging to your average post-baby-boomer pre-Britney-Spearser guy, will shudder and faint the very moment he hears Ocasek wail about how 'it's not the night!' or Ben Orr romantically moan about 'who's gonna drive you home'. I know I certainly did the first time I heard 'Drive' on a classic rock radio station while taking a car ride, and I actually didn't know it belonged to the Cars... I remember feeling a strong urge to vomit on that ride, and although that probably wasn't directly connected to 'Drive', you know how everything's tied in this small world.

But back on the topic - dismayed and distressed, I found the force to give this a few more listens, and after a while I started getting the suspicion that these songs were actually well written! Not 'emotionally resonant', no; this is clearly just commercial fodder, hit-oriented material that's hardly moving anybody to tears. But on a pure formal basis, Heartbeat City is... okay. The choruses are catchy, and there's more - even some melodies are catchy and fun, which is more than I could say about any Duran Duran album except their first. See 'Hello Again', for instance: not only will you be subconsciously willing to sing along to the chorus, you will also appreciate the goofy synth riff that goes along with the song (not the cheesy high-sounding keybs, rather the synth bass that occasionally starts playing a melody of its own rather than just following the disco melody).

'Looking For Love' has something almost Lou Reed-like to it, I'd say, maybe mostly due to the strained tense vocals, but it's actually more complex than your average Reed song (three-part vocal melody), and it's totally cute and inoffensive once you've looked past the production. And while I would have crapped multiple times on 'Magic' had it been placed on something like Yes' Big Generator, it's a song that works well on the Cars level - sure, the metallic guitar riffage is utterly predictable, and the big booming chorus just screams 'MTV' all over, but what can I do, it's still a fun song.

Heck, I've even learned to appreciate 'Drive', let me tell you. It's not a chef-d'oeuvre or anything, but believe me, it sounds infinitely better in the context of the album, rather than jammed in between Foreigner's 'Head Games' and something by REO Speedwagon or Journey. There, it only serves to remind you of the reasons why the Eighties were the worst musical decade of the century; here, it's actually a pretty, well-developed ballad, and I surmise if you actually got around to track number four, you've already gotten yourself adapted to the production values. (Which reminds me: the album was produced by Mr Robert "Mutt" Lange, who apparently didn't care that much if his clients were the Cars or AC/DC. Come to think of it, those one or two times when the guitars are supposed to sound really heavy, they sound exactly like on Back In Black, too). Anyway, 'Drive' is really well-constructed, and probably one of the best adult contemporary ballads there ever were. Which isn't saying much, but I won't say any more about it anyway. I still keep remembering that car ride.

Anyway, every other song on here is moderately, moderately good, except for the snorefest 'Why Can't I Have You' probably, and the title track which closes the album - that one's actually marginally better than most, with that simple, but very dreamy and evocative cyclic synth pattern driving it and excellent "decadent" style vocals. Maybe 'Drive' is dreamy and lush in the heartbreaking sense, but 'Heartbeat City' is the only song on here that actually has some style to it. Maybe a little similar to Roxy Music's Avalon. Maybe not.

But let me tell you this: I am still embarrassed by this review. Mortified. Humiliated. I have to review some Univers Zero or some Front 242 to compensate for it. Oh my gosh, what next now... Modern Talking? Milli Vanilli? Geez, don't tell anybody I reviewed this crap, just buy the heck out of it from used bins.



Year Of Release: 1987
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

The underappreciated song of an old, melancholic swan.

Best song: GO AWAY

Track listing: 1) Leave Or Stay; 2) You Are The Girl; 3) Double Trouble; 4) Fine Line; 5) Everything You Say; 6) Ta Ta Wayo Wayo; 7) Strap Me In; 8) Coming Up You; 9) Wound Up On You; 10) Go Away; 11) Door To Door.

Since after Shake It Up the time intervals between Cars albums got progressively longer and longer, and the number of solo Ocasek albums grew progressively higher and higher, it was pretty obvious the band had run its course - commercial success of Heartbeat City notwithstanding. And on Door To Door, it shows. It shows because it is an album made by sad, tired, bitter men. There's hardly an ounce left of the former exuberance. The ballads are not so much romantic as they are melancholic, and the rockers are not so much ass-kicking as they are desperate. The more you listen to this stuff, the more you feel this heavy shadow that seems to have covered our favourite Bostonians.

That said, whoever tells you that Door To Door is a seriously atrocious letdown, don't believe him until you have a chance to experience it personally. It's not so much a letdown as it is about a letdown. You know what's probably the best solution if you're forced to crank out a musical album while feeling uninspired and disillusioned? Make a musical album about feeling uninspired and disillusioned - and while it might not result in something great, at least it will result in something honest. This is why the only truly bad track on Door To Door, the way I see it, is the title one. It is unlike anything the Cars ever did before, and for good reason, because the Cars imitating Slayer isn't exactly the right panorama to shake you up, right Candy-O? No it isn't. Well, okay, to be honest, it's more like the Cars imitating hardcore Ramones, but that ain't too hot either. Speedy power chords, a blurry, rappy vocal delivery, and a chorus that's moderately catchy but only looks stupid in this context (and a generic metallic guitar solo that still manages to sound clumsy) - an amazing lack of taste on the part of these guys.

There's a nice little solution to this problem, though: 'Door To Door' is the last track on the album, and for all it's worth, it has the distinct feel of a bonus inclusion. Five songs on side A, five songs on side B, with 'Go Away' functioning as the ideal moody album closer, and then wham! comes this piece of ridiculous shit. I simply advise you to forget about its existence, and you'll be left with a decent forty-four minute album that's as cohesive as anything. True, there are no highlights. But have there ever been any? Okay, the songs are somewhat less memorable on the average than the radio classics on the immortal debut. They're still good. The most important thing is - they're believable. And occasionally, even way too believable for the Cars.

Like 'Fine Line', for instance. That's a nice song. I guess it falls into the "adult contemporary" paradigm, but so does a lot of Peter Gabriel material. The important thing is, it ain't one bit sappy or cheesy, like your average a.c. material. The background synths are solemn and gloomy rather than Phil Collins-ey, and the occasional guitar line is grumbly and ominous - and the South American pipes are a nice touch. It's long and slow and potentially boring, but it's got credible atmosphere a-plenty, and when you consider the fact that it's one of the last songs of this band on their swan song album, hey, that adds a little piquance to the proceedings. And I like the way they sing the line 'there's a fine line between us, such a fine fine line' and then the pipes kick in. Goshdarnit, I don't think I have to be ashamed of myself for liking this stuff after I'd already expressed my feelings towards 'Drive'.

With their faster, more upbeat numbers they try to create a landscape of loneliness and melancholy as well. 'Go Away' could use a few more interesting ideas in the sphere of instrumentation, but even in its current state I could easily see it as a minor highlight on Roxy Music's Avalon - a pretty romantic ballad with just enough desperation and catchiness to it to make the listener if not intrigued, then at least mildly pleased. The synths and stuff don't drown out the simple, but effective ringing guitar line either, and it's the guitar that serves as the meat'n'potatoes in this song, meaning there's a decent instrumental melody involved. It is pretty weird that I would waste so much space praising this good, but essentially middle-o'-the-road song that will hardly ever be hailed as a classic, but sometimes it's necessary to praise the "pleasantly mediocre" stuff as well - because every now and then the "pleasantly mediocre" has this curious ability to replace the "undeniably great" as a fan's personal favourite.

Actually, in terms of catchy choruses Door To Door is anything but a letdown - pretty much every song got one as usual, with the obvious exception of the first track; for some reason, 'Leave Or Stay' is so self-assured in its cocky arrogance it thinks it can do without one. Well, fuck that song. Everybody singles it out as the highlight usually, but my idea is that it's just because it's the most, uhh, Candy-O-like sounding tune on here. Along with maybe 'You Are The Girl', the one minor hit single from the album. These two songs open it, are the most cheery, the most quotable, and eventually the most forgettable. For me, the album doesn't truly begin until 'Double Trouble'...

...which, for some others, actually initiates the album's problems, but hey, that's the way life goes. I like its slow, dreary, sticky vibe - even the generic Eighties metal guitar tone feels at home in this particular environment. If anything, generic Eighties pop-metal guitar conveys the impression of something very nagging, very annoying, very nasty and shabby, and as much as it sucks to hear it in an upbeat pop song, it's nice to hear it in a downbeat song. Then there are all those mid-tempo contemplative love songs like 'Strap Me In' and 'Coming Up You' - nothing special, but nothing offensive about them either. And the album's "major" ballad, 'Wound Up On You', is no 'Drive', that's for sure, but Ocasek is still paranoid enough to not let the sap override the melody.

Re-reading this review, I find out it falls into my favourite "defensive" category once again, although maybe there's less reasons to defend it than for a truly universally hated album like Dylan's Selfportrait. Because essentially, I still roll along with the punches: this is the Cars at their worst, and this is a final "fizzling out" instead of a big bang to bring the house down. But I don't see any impassable gaps between this album and the rest of the band's output; if anything, the real difference lies in its simply being sadder than its predecessors. And it's obvious that most people don't want their Cars sad. They have the Cure for that. But on the other hand, the sadness of the Cure was so over-pervasive (is that a word? well, let it be one) you couldn't take it as anything but a cleverly constructed artistic mask, while the sadness of Door To Door looks quite real to me. Then again, I could be mistaken. Well, I like The Cars anyway.


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