09 May, 2011

The Cars - Move Like This

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  It seems like the new Cars record is just what I needed this summer.  

It seems that some groups chase trends, while others remain blissfully pocketed within a niche of sound.  The newest Beastie Boys record sounds as though it could have emerged right after Hello Nasty and been completely at home with audiences.  Likewise, AC/DC has never changed their sound, and the music of George Strait has never taken a Beatlesque turn for the weird.  Some music is crafted just to appease audiences and artists, an attempt to recapture glory days or to fit within the sonic temple that some bands make for themselves.  Others try not to follow it since there is a law of diminishing returns for all but the most dedicated bands that maintain this career directory.  For every Radiohead album, there’s another Jennifer Lopez album that rehashes the same thing that they put out years ago with limited artistic success (I’m still not sure about her commercial appeal since I don’t watch American Idol; I imagine I’m in the minority here).  There’s a reason why Kings of Leon are so successful, and it was because they were willing to make changes to their sound and songwriting while not compromising their identity (at least until this latest album, anyways).  

Well, you can throw out all that noise about diminishing returns with Move Like This.  The Cars have returned after 24 years, and they haven’t aged a day in terms of their sound, which is a collection of inverted pop mixed with New Wave.  It sounds very refreshing, yet familiar at the same time, and part of that familiarity has to do with the fact that so many bands took the sonic template laid out by Ric Ocasek and his band, then made it their own.  Ever since Weezer received production help from Ocasek for their first and third records, artists such as the Rentals, the Pink Spiders, Rooney and the Bravery have co-opted the group’s guitar/keyboard dynamic.  “Moving in Stereo” basically spawned the Chromatics (and if you don’t know who they are, please listen to “In the City” or “Mask” after reading this review).  The new Strokes record especially sounds like a Cars tribute album, with poor results. 

Every song on Move Like This is uniformly strong, comfortably mixed together to recreate the classic sound of a Cars record produced by “Mutt” Lange or Roy Thomas Baker.  After 24 years, it had better be (though Jackknife Lee is sitting in the producer’s seat for this session).  If opener “Blue Tip” didn’t sound like a lost Yeah Yeah Yeahs song with the harmonic guitars, the keyboard takes us to the heart of the city and back to Candy-O  “Sad Song” could have fit on the first album seamlessly, that’s how good it is.  “Soon” is a sequel to “Drive,” and “Keep On Knocking” would have been right on home on Heartbeat City, yet it has a candy crunch that was missing on that album.  “Free” is a song that Rooney would kill to have right now, particularly with the level of goodwill that most classic rock stations would give the Cars.  “Take Another Look” steals back the synth sound that Ace of Base took from Panorama, and is basically a call by Greg Hawkes to the Killers’ Brandon Flowers that he’s not the only one that can use a Korg to dress up a melody. The closer “Hits Me” hits hard, and the Halloween chorus is all about survival, baby, with Elliot Easton’s lead guitar pouring out the song's meaning through the lines.

Ocasek’s lyrics are just as cutting and acerbic as ever.  “Your eyes are dim, your heart is blue/cause nothing ever lasts” is a great lead into “Don’t you ever want to take another look away?/Don’t you want to play the whole thing down?”  While he never lost sight of the lyrics on other releases, this is the first time in a long while that the wiry singer has sounded so vital and sarcastic.  “I was looking like Ichabod Crane” is a little on the nose, but what can you do when you’re right?  On “Hits Me,” Ocasek tells us that he’s “just gotta get through these changing times.”  Death and paranoia have always been an undercurrent in his words, but now there’s a tinge of sadness and needing to make a connection because he’s not getting any younger.  “Stupefy the thinkers…./mystify all the fakes” seems to sum up his worldview, which is a way of showing his elder statesman status.  

But I will say that nothing necessarily surprises me besides the energy and the songcraft.  Sometimes that’s enough, as in the case of the latest Foo Fighters album, yet in that situation Dave Grohl had written his strongest set of songs in years and slimmed down the proceedings to exclude much of the artistic hubris of his last album.  Likewise, the leanness of Move Like This works in its favor.  This is probably the fastest 40 minutes you’ll have in music if you dedicate yourself to it, and it had me listening on repeat.  It’s mood music, but what a mood it replicates.  There’s no “Just What I Needed” or “Moving in Stereo” here, yet the hooks sound so good it is impossible to ignore.  For me, “Too Late” is the quintessential Cars song, all building guitars and sweeping synths that take us on a summer night drive to nowhere.  However, now it has the weary experience and yearning that Ocasek brings to the lyrics to really make the audience understand what he’s going through.  If it doesn’t light up thousands of disco balls in cars this summer, I blame poor taste and high gas prices.  

For a good comparison of how the record could have sounded, I’m going to turn to something I never wanted to remember again:  The Who’s Endless Wire.  Both Move Like This and Endless Wire followed their respective bands’ last studio albums by 24 years, and both were chiefly composed by their primary songwriters.  Both albums were released following the deaths of key members (Endless Wire was the first time a Who album was released since Keith Moon and John Entwistle passed, and bassist/singer Benjamin Orr died of pancreatic cancer in the year 2000), and both represent a band moving into the gray years of their career.  But by harnessing what made the band special in the first place, the Cars are successful in reclaiming their early New Wave royalty by remaining tight and sticking with their sound, beefing it up where necessary.   Endless Wire is an overproduced, undercooked embarrassment that suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen, horrific vocals from Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and an overblown level of pomposity that would have been excised if Entwistle provided his rumble and Moon gave the proceedings intensity the intensity of a jet engine.  “In the Ether” was the worst song I heard last decade, a wet fart of Pete Townshend singing like Tom Waits singing like Kermit the Frog that signaled the worst fall from grace I’d ever known, and I’m including Courtney Love’s solo album in that decade too.  Don’t believe me?  Listen at your own peril:

Oh God, I’m so sorry.

My point is that things could have gone horribly wrong for the Cars, and the fact that it didn’t is nothing short of a minor miracle.  Whether one is geared to enjoy it based on years of fandom or simply stumbling upon it through a spin on their player, Move Like This is a fun album that sounds just as good coming out of hybrids as it did Trans Ams and Chevys when they were making music in ’84.  It isn't going to change the world, but it's going to make the night sound cooler than it really should.  

EDIT:  I came across this excellent A.V. Club post about why people often gravitate towards older music as they age, and it presents some excellent thinking points for all that read it.  Please read it if you get the chance.  

1 comment:

W.D. said...

In all honesty, I've never really given that much thought to The Cars. I've heard their music before, but it wasn't something that caught my attention beyond a simple "oh hey this sounds pretty good". I decided to listen to all of the songs posted here before reading the actual review, and I have to say that you've made a believer out of me, Dr. Moody. I wouldn't say this is an album that I'm running to the store to buy immediately; should I be in the music section of a store however, you can bet I'll be looking for this album for purchase in the near future (or maybe I'll go the digital route and get it through Amazon).

Bravo on the review, and looking forward to the next! I'm thinking you should go after the Kids Bop! cds. It could be fun.