Saturday, October 26, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 562: The Cars

I meant to write this review on Thursday but I was dog-tired and so here I am instead, up early despite last night celebrating my friend Chris’ birthday.  Happy birthday, Chris!

Earlier this week I watched some Jools Holland (I have about 35 left from when I taped them off of the HIFI channel).  Jools featured Ray Davies from the Kinks (recently reviewed) and also Cyndi Lauper.  Although I can’t say I liked Cyndi’s interpretation of blues standards, I really liked her – pushing sixty but still looking great, wrapped all in leather pants and attitude.

But enough of Cyndi, let’s return to another eighties icon.

Disc 562 is…. Heartbeat City
Artist: The Cars

Year of Release: 1984

What’s up with the Cover?  Half pin-up girl, half muscle car poster.  That’s about as good as it gets.  This is half of a 1972 drawing by Peter Phillips entitled “Art-O-Matic Loop Di Loop” which is a pretty bad title, but a cool drawing.  Here’s the entire thing:

Note the traditional pin-up art trick of making the girl's legs twice as long as they'd be in real life?  I love that trick.
How I Came To Know It:  This was a big album when I was in high school, with lots of associated music videos, so I knew the hits fairly well, but it was Sheila who introduced me to the full album.

How It Stacks Up:  We have three Cars albums.  Their self-titled debut is the best, and I’ll say “Heartbeat City” is second, although I reserve the right to bump “Candy-O” into that position if it suitably impresses me when I roll it.

Rating:  3 stars but almost 4

I never thought an album so full of organ, synthesizer and (egads) drum machine could be this much fun, but the Cars’ “Heartbeat City” pulls it off.

The album jumps out with energy and enthusiasm with “Hello Again” the first of five hit singles on the record.  “Hello Again” is my least favourite of the singles, but I am still awed by how much human energy these guys can create from a simple piano riff and a bunch of weird synth effects.

It helps to have Ric Ocasek as a lead singer.  His voice is perfectly suited to this style of music, with its short choppy lines and New Wave feel.  He sounds otherworldly and right on the edge of making fun of his own affectations, with never going over.

Ironically one of the album’s most famous tracks, “Drive” is sung by bass player Benjamin Orr.  Orr plays Roger Taylor to Ocasek’s Mercury on “Drive.” Like Taylor, Orr has a high and unpretentious crooning that breaks from the more theatrical delivery of Ocasek.  It is a perfect fit for the romantic ballad he sings on.

Drive” was one of those magical slow songs at a high school dance.  Girls loved to dance to it, so you could almost always find a partner to press up against for four minutes.  If there is anything in high school more magical than getting the girl you like to slow dance with you, I can’t think of it right now, so thanks for the memories, Benjamin. 

Of course the king of all slow dance songs remains “Stairway to Heaven” but if you want to read about that, you’ll have to back a couple years in the Odyssey to when I reviewed it back at Disc 342.

The best and biggest of the hits on “Heartbeat City” is “Magic” however, with its ELO-inspired synth opening, cutting immediately to a hard-edged guitar riff before Ocasek breaks all the musical tension, emphatically singing:

Turns me upside down
Summer summer summer
It’s like a merry-go round.”

I don’t know how lyrics this empty of content can be so cool, but this song is undeniably cool.  It is fun to sing along to, fun to drive along to, and just generally makes you think of those summers where you’ve got no responsibility other than finding $10 to put in the gas tank so you can take your girl to the beach.  Enjoy those summers, friends, because there aren’t very many of them over the course of your life.

In fact the worst thing about the hits on this record, are the truly stupid videos it spawned.  I particularly remember “You Might Think” which featured Ocasek, model Susan Gallagher and a bunch of badly done computer graphics.  Worst of all it was popular on the video channels.  I remember other kids at high school talking about how cool the video was, and what annoyed me the most was that it was a good song being buried in stupid visuals.  It deserved better.  For starters, I would’ve gone with less of Ric Ocasek’s head put onto the body of a fly and more of Susan Gallagher.  Maybe at the aforementioned beach?  But I digress…

Side two of the album is less hit-driven and more experimental, as side twos generally are in the era of vinyl. In many respects, side two is a throwback to their earlier albums’ hard-edged punk and new wave influences but updated to the eighties by famous producer Mutt Lange.  For the most part, he doesn’t wreck them in the process.

Looking for Love” is a pretty little track that is mostly guitar driven, which makes it feel slightly out of place on the record if only because of its normalcy, but I like it. “It’s Not the Night” sounds a bit too Laura Branigan for my tastes.  “I Refuse” is the worst in eighties music, with its empty, strained chorus and beat that generates images in your mind of bad eighties dancers swinging their loosely clenched fists from side to side.

Why Can’t I Have You” is this album’s “Moving in Stereo” with an alien sounding production filled with synth-Goth organ and robotic hand claps.  It sounds like it would be terrible, but it is actually brilliant.  The cars manage to perfectly blend true romantic yearning in with the disconnected feel of the song’s tune to capture the numb despair of loving somebody who doesn’t love you back.

This is a very good record from a band that demonstrates that you can update your sound with the times and still maintain the artistic integrity that got you famous in the first place.

Best tracks:   Looking For Love, Magic, Drive, You Might Think, Why Can’t I Have You


Chris said...

I think I probably wore out my cassette of this back in my youth, likely for many of the reasons in your review.

I haven't really heard any from then since. I was pretty sick of them by then, and I wonder if time has cured me of that aversion.

Thanks for the birthday wishes. That was a lot of fun!

Kim said...

The Cars were such a great band to dance to! As you said, the lyrics were simple and playful and the new wave sound was a welcome change from hard rock/folk. Just refreshingly different. I really liked Ric Okasek, particularly. I loved his cool nonchalance. My favorite song of theirs was "Just What I Needed."
A local band, 'Faber Drive' did a decent version of this one.