Just what I needed: another band with Roxy Music/Velvet Underground leanings, another lead singer in shades, another dose of cut-rate Camus. So many bands now genuflect before these idols that I’ve taken to plugging my ears at the first glint of black leather. But even though the Cars’ songwriter/rhythm guitarist/vocalist Ric Ocasek sports the cliched wrap-arounds and leather pants, this band still conveys the thrill of it all. When ennui’s just no fun anymore, The Cars neatly fulfills anyone’s minimum daily requirement for irony.
Their sensibility is appropriately detached. Ocasek makes it clear in “My Best Friend’s Girl,” when he fractures the word “love” into five bored syllables, that he’s beyond romance (and thus even more cold-blooded that Roxy’s Bryan Ferry or the Velvets’ Lou Reed). Passion? “I don’t mind you coming here,” Ocasek shrugs in “Just What I Needed,” “I needed someone to feed” and later “I needed someone to bleed” — a strange variation on the old in-out. He goes so far as to blurt, “I need you!” in “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” but this time he expects what might be termed mere sex; the girl will apparently “hurt,” “mock,” and “abuse” him, and he doesn’t care. Ocasek inhabits a mechanical universe, where “everything is science fiction,” girls are mere facts of life, lust is an impersonal force like gravity — and human contacts are nothing more than collisions. “Don’t Cha Stop,” an actual seduction, reads like notes on animal behavior: “right here your hands are soft and creamy.” His tone stays matter-of-fact, more clinical than cynical, never disillusioned because he had no illusions to begin with. And if he feels pain — or much else — it stays between the lines.
The key to the Cars, though, isn’t their irony. It’s the chrome — tunes, arrangements, effects, hooks. Naturally, given Ocasek’s pose, many of these are swiped. Ocasek’s singing is a Reed/Ferry amalgam — rock’s equivalent of sprechstimme — and the Cars are fond of ostinato drones that tick-tock in steady eighth-notes (a la Roxy). The effect is cold, alienated, particularly in philosophical outings like “Good Times Roll,” “I’m in Touch With Your World” and “Moving in Stereo.” Where Roxy’s arrangements were entropical, though, the Cars have everything arranged tighter than an expensive alibi.
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Cars’ charts are gleaming and efficient — they deliver their hooks. Generally a rhythm guitar riff turns into a power bottom, the vocal chants in the center, and a repeating keyboard countermelody overlaps both of them. On the LP, the production is so meticulously skeletal that it makes the live Cars sound cluttered by comparison. They probably aren’t, because as far as I can tell they play the LP’s arrangements verbatim onstage (leads excepted), but a loud, indifferent mix at the Bottom Line filled in a lot of spaces. Ocasek is careful not to dominate the group, although he’s a head taller than any of his cohorts. Apparently, he wants to locate the Cars’ personality in their five-man mesh — that way, he stays objective. Live or recorded, there’s no wasted motion: Ocasek’s rhythm and Elliot Easton’s lead guitars never play unisons, and keyboard man Greg Hawkes very rarely uses more than one finger at a time. Vocal harmonies underline choruses (which echo the song titles) and nothing else. For all Ocasek’s lyrical distance, his songs decode immediately.
They’re also downright catchy. At his best, Ocasek balances dehumanizing Anglo-European obsessions with loose-goose American rock — and that’s the Cars’ winning option. The single, “Just What I Needed,” uses a harmony chorus to cushion its sparse power chords and synthesizer hook. “My Best Friend’s Girl” places a riff stolen from the Rockin’ Rebels’ “Wild Weekend” (a fact gleaned from a Dennis Elsas segue on WNEW-FM) in a more jaded context, but ties up each verse with a twangy rockabilly riff. It’s homey, reassuring, like finding a Burger King bag in a white-on-white loft kitchen.
Ocasek’s instincts are strong. He’s a master riffer, whether he’s playing, writing or, er, borrowing. He knows just where to bolster a tune with an instrumental jolt. And the Cars as an ensemble execute the songs with perfect discipline and panache. Only when Ocasek lets artsy ideas run away with him — as in “I’m in Touch With Your World,” a static, metronomic track whose sound effects and one great riff don’t create enough drama — does the group falter.
For me, the Cars are best when they’re least committed to their lack of ideals. At the end of “Just What I Needed,” after the chorus has repeated itself out, bassist Benjamin Orr’s part calls for him to belt out a genuinely anguished solo “Yea — aah, Yea-aaaaah!” It’s the best moment on a brilliant record, because for about three full seconds no image matters at all.