Column 322: Can The Cars Make a Comeback in a Modern Age?
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
This started as a simple review of The Cars’ new album, Move Like This, which was released on Concord Music this past Tuesday. It’s the band’s first studio album since 1987’s Door to Door, and the first since the death of bassist / vocalist Ben Orr of pancreatic cancer in 2000.
If you grew up listening to The Cars or are just a fan, you’re going to love this record. It has all the classic Cars qualities — Ric Ocasek’s yelping vocals and infectious melodies, Elliot Easton’s blazing guitar riffs, Greg Hawkes’ quirky neon-pink keyboard touches and David Robinson’s usual metronomic percussion. The only thing missing is Orr’s dreamy, ballad vocals, and of course, his amazing harmonies, which were central to The Cars’ sound. I’m not sure who’s handling the harmonies these days, but they’re there, and somehow the band manages to muddle through despite Orr’s irreplaceable loss.
Actually, they do more than just muddle through. Move Like This is hands-down better than 1980’s Panorama and miles better than their presumed swansong, Door to Door. In a perfect world, this would have been their follow-up to 1984’s Heartbeat City, the strangely modern (for its time) sinister masterpiece that stands as the band’s high-water mark.
But as I sat down to write this glowing review, a question kept running through my mind: No matter how good this record is, would it — could it — find an audience with a new generation of music fans, or is it doomed to merely be considered a quaint reflection of a simpler time?
Let me put it in a way that older readers are more likely to understand. Heartbeat City was released 27 years ago. I remember the first time I heard it on the radio while driving around in my 1978 Ford Fiesta. It seemed modern and edgy back then, certainly more modern than the music released 27 years prior to Heartbeat City, in 1957.
I’ve always considered the pre-Beatles late-fifties as the “Happy Days” era of rock. We’re talking Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Patti Page, i.e., my parents’ music. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time listening to the local ’50s radio station when I was a teen-ager. That was old people’s music.
In fact, I considered the music that came out just 17 years prior to Heartbeat City’s release –– the music of 1967 — as hippie stuff, antiquated and quaint, a reflection of a simpler time when every day was lived in the drug-fueled “Living Color” of eternal summertime — at least it always looked like summer in the historic news footage. Music of the ’60s was Freedom Rock — old-fashioned, dusty relics compared to the music that would come out just 10 years after it.
The Cars first album, released in 1978, felt starkly modern compared to the disco hits of The Bee Gees, the schlocky ballads of The Commodores and Billy Joel, and the glam of Nick Gilder and Sweet, all of which had big hits the same year. Their debut, which included the creepy hit “Moving in Stereo,” along with the album’s follow-up, Candy-O, felt brazenly cutting edge. Candy-O managed to carry the torch of a blossoming New Wave movement, but still had enough pop sensibility with songs like “Let’s Go” and “It’s All I Can Do” to attract a huge, national mainstream audience.
The hits kept coming with 1981’s Shake It Up, though the band’s formula was beginning to tire. Then came Heartbeat City and the beginning of the MTV era. With songs like “You Might Think,” “It’s Not the Night” and “Drive” — and the videos that helped power those songs up the charts — The Cars had effectively reinvented themselves. Despite the singles’ obvious pop leanings, there was something deeper and darker about Heartbeat City. The rumor going ’round was that the album was really a cynical, clever take on the ’80s drug culture; a love story about someone trying to pull a lover or a friend from the abyss of heroin addiction. The more you listened to the record, the more it made sense.
Move Like This doesn’t have any deep, overshadowing pretext to its lyrics, but songs like “Blue Tip, “Sad Song” and “Free” are as hitworthy as anything from any of The Cars’ best albums.
But does any of that matter? In this era of Animal Collective, M.I.A., Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire, can The Cars be considered anything more than colorful nostalgia by the teens and 20-somethings who have never known a world without the Internet or hip-hop (and yes, The Beastie Boys may have a similar problem with their amazing new album Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, which is decidedly “old school”)?
Can Move Like This ever be taken seriously next to today’s releases, or will it be relegated to the unfortunate genre known as “Dad Rock”? Will today’s youth think of a band like The Cars the same way I thought of Pat Boone when I was their age? Is good songwriting as relevant now as it was 27 years ago? Is rock and roll timeless? Or all we all just getting old?
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An even better question: How will Move Like This be remembered 27 years from now, in 2038?
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Tonight at The Sydney in Benson, Brad Hoshaw and The Lepers open for Rock Paper Dynamite. $5, 9 p.m. Check out The Sydney’s kick ass new website. How many local characters can you name from the homepage photo?
Also tonight, Chicago-based mash-up freaks The Hood Internet are playing at The Slowdown as part of the Big Omaha Conference. Guaranteed entrance with BO badges is between 7 and 8 p.m., then its $10 tix at the door until it sells out (and it will sell out). Show starts at 9.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.