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The Cars

The Cars  Hear it Now

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The first sound you hear on "Just What I Needed," the single from the Cars' debut album, is the repeated thump of bass notes against the short, metallic slash of guitar. It's a magnificent noise: loud, elemental and relentless. But the Cars–the best band to come out of Boston since J. Geils–aren't interested in simply traveling the interstates of rock & roll. They'll go there for the rush, but they prefer the stop-and-go quirks of two lanes. Before "Just What I Needed" is over, guitarist Elliot Easton has burned rubber making a U-turn with his solo, and Greg Hawkes' synthesizer has double-clutched the melody. Leader Ric Ocasek once sang that he lived on "emotion and comic relief," and it's in this tension of opposites that he and his group find relief (comic or otherwise) between the desire for frontal assault and the preference for oblique strategies. This is the organizing principle behind not only the single but the entire LP, which is almost evenly divided between pop songs and pretentious attempts at art.

The pop songs are wonderful. (Besides "Just What I Needed," they include "My Best Friend's Girl" and "You're All I've Got Tonight.") Easy and eccentric at the same time, all are potential hits. The melodies whoosh out as if on casters, custom-built for the interlocked but constantly shifting blocks of rhythm, while Ocasek's lyrics explode in telegraphic bursts of images and attacks ("You always knew to wear it well/You look so fancy I can tell"). Neither Ocasek nor bassist Ben Orr have striking voices, but by playing off the former's distant, near-mechanical phrasing against the latter's sweet-and-low delivery, the band achieves real emotional flexibility.

As long as the Cars' avant-garde instincts are servicing their rock & roll impulses, the songs bristle and–in their harsher, more angular moments ("Bye Bye Love," "Don't Cha Stop")–bray. The album comes apart only when it becomes arty and falls prey to producer Roy Thomas Baker's lacquered sound and the group's own penchant for electronic effects. "I'm in Touch with Your World" and "Moving in Stereo" are the kind of songs that certify psychedelia's bad name. But these are the mistakes of a band that wants it both ways–and who can blame rock & rollers for that?


(Posted: Jun 17, 1997)


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