Graded on a Curve:
The Cars, The Cars

I’ve always hated The Cars for no particular reason, the same way I’ve always hated Pauly Shore for no particular reason. Except I have lots of good reasons for hating Pauly Shore, and come to think of it I have at least one good reason to hate The Cars too–they embody all of the worst attributes of New Wave to me.

Their cold, hard, airbrushed music strikes an anti-human note to my ears–it’s all so mannered and manicured and metronomic and perfect, the sound of a Lamborghini being operated under scientific conditions on an antiseptic indoor racetrack in neutral Switzerland, where all the trains run on time.

When it comes to diagnosing the problem I have with The Cars, allow me to turn to that great rock ’n’ roll doctor Keith Richards, who once said, “Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.” And there you have The Cars in a nutshell. “Good Times Roll” is a pretty good rock song, but there’s no roll in it; it’s all machine-tooled detachment and metronome, rock for robots wearing skinny piano-key ties.

But hey, lots of people want to be robots, and who can blame ‘em? Robots don’t have to feel, and being human is a walk in the park only if you ignore the eyes of all those sager-toothed emotions ready to pounce from the bushes.

So who am I to gainsay The Cars? They’re great at what they do, and what they do on their 1978 debut The Cars is assembly line a uniquely sanitized brand of mid-tempo New Wave music (the closest these guys get to punk get up and go is “Don’t Cha Stop”) designed not to make you feel, but to make you not feel; only on the brilliantly dark “All Mixed Up” do I sense even the faintest traces of human emotion, and I’ll betcha Ric Ocasek is still beating himself up about it.

That said, I’ve got to hand it to Ocasek; he has a knack for the catchy. Once these songs sink their hooks into you, they never let go. I know most of these tunes even if I don’t love ‘em, and I kinda like most of these songs despite myself. Which is, I suppose, proof I’m part robot too.

The Cars is an exercise in tightly circumscribed formalism–Ocasek set some very tight musical constraints upon himself and his band, and went from there. While none of these songs sound exactly alike they all sound startlingly similar, and to the extent that I can tell ‘em apart Ocasek’s exercise worked; the guy does amazing things within the small musical box he put himself in.

And there’s no denying The Cars affords its listeners with lots of pure (if uniform) pop pleasure, and you would have to be any even bigger hater than I am to deny the power of most of its songs. “My Best Friend’s Girl” is romantic angst with a rock-solid beat and just the slightest hint of robotic rockabilly; “Just What I Needed” boasts a big bottom and just enough liftoff to keep things interesting.

But the ones I like most are the ones that disturb (however slightly) the gestalt. “Moving in Stereo” is mysterioso pizzicato, mood music for stalkers and other night creatures; “All Mixed Up” is there for all you confused lovers and lovely indeed. And the very perky “Don’t Cha Stop” proves these inveterate trotters have at least a little gallop in ‘em.

I never really got The Cars; I like my androids with a sense of humor, and my streamlined rock with a faster tempo. The Cars were all airbrushed perfection, the Boston of New Wave. And isn’t it odd that both The Cars and Boston hailed from the same town? Just what are they putting in the clam chowder up there any way, android lubricant?

That said, if you like your ties skinny and your machines sleek, and your idea of a great album is an album as warm and cuddly as Gary Numan, The Cars just may be your cup of very thin motor oil.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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  • Robert Sharpe

    Never got them either. I was shocked -shocked! – to see them inducted in the Hall of Fame. Although “Drive” (who’s gonna drive you home tonight) is a guilty pleasure.

  • MT

    Love the early albums. Panorama might be my favorite. But “Let’s Go” is their all-time great single.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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