Monday, October 25, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 79 - The Cars

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I'm not sure why I have such an affection for early 1980s synthpop. A lot of it sounds really hokey, and in this day and age it seems more like a relic of the past than anything else. It's the sort of thing that's played in films to remind the viewer that the movie is taking place in 1981. It's a historical footnote, not a living musical tradition.

Synthesizers and digital music have become omnipresent in musical culture today, but in a lot more subtle ways than what the Cars and other bands of the time were doing. To listen to the Cars' music is to go back in time and hear an old-fashioned view of the future, complete with whirring electronics and pristine synthesized sounds and rampant vocoders (okay, maybe that last one still came true). 

A lot of it sounds corny to our modern ears, and a lot of it sounds too sterile and calculated, as if a machine were actually writing the music along with performing it. It's not hard to see why a lot of this synth music was relegating to the lost-and-found bin of musical history, along with the keytar

But there's something undeniably fun about this sort of music. The hooks are catchy, the songs are full of energy, and the music manages to be a perfect cross-section of teenage pop and nerdy electronica. I liked the Cars in particular because they don't even try to pretend like their songs are meaningful statements, unlike, say, Tears For Fears. The Cars are pure fun, unencumbered by any sort of pretensions. Well...most of the time.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I thought I had only heard the song "Just What I Needed." However, as the week went on, I found myself recognizing more and more songs that I hadn't realized were performed by the Cars. I suppose it's because they're still played fairly regularly on the radio, and I had just never put two and two together.

MY LISTENING: I listened to The Cars (1978) every day this week. I also listened to Candy-O (1979) three times and Heartbeat City (1984) twice. 

WHAT I LIKED: The Cars' first album is their best, and really the only one that people are still talking about. In later albums the band will push their crazy electronic instruments a little too hard, but The Cars is the perfect blend between rock, pop and electronica. The band has jokingly referred to this as their "true greatest hits album" but its hardly a joke. Nearly every song is catchy to some degree, as the band throws out hook after hook; the songs "Good Times Roll" and "Bye Bye Love" will leave the chorus running through your head all day. 

The Cars' great songwriting come from their ability to craft together a track that doesn't seem very complex but still manages to be this catchy - and still sound original, to boot. Take "You're All I've Got Tonight," which combines a driving drum beat, wailing synthesizers, a singable hook of a chorus, a riff-laden guitar solo, and some great harmonizing with the backing vocals. All these pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, leaving a song that's catchy and simple while still incorporating quite a lot. The Cars transition back and forth between traditional rock instruments and electronic synthesizers flawlessly; guitar gives way to keyboard in a way that's never jarring. 

The catchiness fades on the later albums as the band attempts to branch out, with mixed results. Candy-O starts with the clappable rhythms of "Let's Go," the best song on an otherwise unmemorable album. Heartbeat City is sort of over-the-top, but its peaks - like the giddily enjoyable "Magic"- represent the Cars at some of their best. In general, I think The Cars reached the perfect balance between all their disparate elements on their first album, and later endeavors veered too far in one of those directions (raucous energy on Candy-O, cheezy electronic rock on Heartbeat City). But these detours still have some gems.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: The Cars are better when they have a good fast pace and some sort of direction - the leisurely "I'm In Touch With Your World" is one of the few snoozers on their first album. The sound effects certainly don't help this song, and Ric Ocasek's voice, usually so thrilling, becomes sneeringly annoying at this slow pace. 

Candy-O goes too far in the other direction, boiling over with too much energy. The short, space-age song "Shoo Be Doo" comes across as the Twilight Zone theme song on drugs, and by the end of "Night Spots" the guitar doesn't harmonize with the synthesizers so much as declare all-out war on them, each trying to overpower the other. 

Heartbeat City tries to find the titular heart, but unfortunately it ends up conveying some of the worst excesses of eighties rock - "Drive" is the sort of cornball ballad you've heard a hundred times before, while "Hello Again" takes the elements of a typical Cars song and somehow inverts them to no longer be light and fun, but instead be indulgent and trying way too hard. The opening is like a child who just got a new electronic keyboard and enjoys playing with the volume turned up way too loud.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: The Cars are getting back together! Strangely enough, it was revealed midway through the week that the band is reuniting to record their first album in 23 years. I'll refrain from taking credit for the reunion, but it does seem like quite a coincidence, no?

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's Panorama (1980), Shake It Up (1981) and Door To Door (1987). But I'm starting to come to terms with the fact that the first Cars album is all that anyone needs. I probably won't be buying their new one, either.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Just What I Needed"

This is a great song, and the best "Best Song You've Heard" I've selected in recent memory.


This really isn't a good song at all, but its synthesized musical hedonism makes it an enjoyable relic of the eighties nonetheless.