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Cars & Swipes Forever

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.

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

The Cars

The Cars’ brand-spanking-new album Move Like This is naturally supposed to be a comeback album, since it’s their first release in nearly 25 years. But it’s probably not going to revive their glory days–their late ’70s and early ’80s releases just set the bar too high for that, and by this point, frontman Ric Ocasek sounds pretty worn out as a singer and tapped dry as a songwriter. But what’s still striking is how little the band’s aesthetic formula has changed, despite all the improvements in record production since then. It’s not so much that they were ahead of their time–more that they just swung for the fences during their era. Which, sadly, is still long gone.

Wed., May 25, 8 p.m., 2011

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Nada Surf

Nada Surf hit major-label, post-grunge gold in ’96 with their speak/sing/scream denouncement of high-school jockism, “Popular,” which was produced by no less than the Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Elektra dumped the band during recording of their next record, 1998’s The Proximity Effect. But it wasn’t until 2003’s Let Go that they came into their own as indie-rock sensitivos—older, wiser, and carrying the nostalgic pangs that severe unpopularity brings. From there, they set out on a winning album streak that included 2005’s The Weight is a Gift and 2008’s Lucky, all three of which the band will be playing in their entirety, beginning with Let Go, in separate concerts this week.

Thu., March 25, 8 p.m., 2010

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

New New Wavers So Exuberant You Could Call Them Ric Five

First time I saw Spinto Band I wondered if Ric Ocasek had seen the Strokes on TRL, decided the world needed a more exuberant brand of new wave pep, grabbed six of his children, threw instruments on them, and made them practice until their fingers were sore and Tito had to fetch a switch. They were so tight (the cover of “Just What I Needed” was almost fascist in its perfection), so catchy, and so enthusiastic (looked like they were 16 and had choreographed moves) that I assumed an abusive dad had to be behind it all.

Two years later, you can almost believe all of them are allowed in the bar. They’ve got a debut album, Nice and Nicely Done—on Bar/None, which makes sense, ’cause the singer requests the dBs at DJ nights, and they cover the Motels. It’s not quite as zippy as their shows can be (vocals louder here, drums quieter, understandable urge to “explore” the studio or whatever), but they’ve yet to cross over into the torpor threatened by the comparisons to Pavement, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips that inexplicably grace their promo material. Ultragrrrl-adored “Oh Mandy” is some ’91 David Byrne–Peter Buck collabo the planet’s totally ready for, and they rock kazoos on track two. Dad, if you catch them listening to A Ghost Is Born, get the belt.


Spinto Band play Pianos September 17.

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Cool Like That

Interpol are officially cool. Not that the slickly dressed neo-post-punk New York band wasn’t already cool, but when Ric Ocasek comes to your show and stands all by his lonesome to take in the sounds, you know you’ve arrived. The lanky Cars singer, minus his lovely wife, Paulina Porizkova, hung out in the back of the mezzanine area at last Tuesday’s Roseland Ballroom show, clad in his typical black outfit, complete with the helmet of black hair and his creepers shoes (although he was wearing white socks, a total fashion no-no that Interpol’s Carlos D. would have clucked at). One semi-blind friend, upon getting a glimpse of the singer, exclaimed to her mates, “Oh my God, that guy is trying to look just like Ric Ocasek!” Whoops.

Later, we headed to Sin Sin for the Interpol after-party, where we spotted one Casey Spooner, sporting really long hair and an unfortunate headband, thereby completing his L.A. rocker look circa 1985. We squealed like schoolgirls and bum-rushed him and his Fischerspooner bandmate Lizzy Yoder. Mr. Spooner was fresh from his tour and deep in the midst of recording the second FS album, which will sound—if you believe Rolling Stone—a bit like Pink Floyd. Spooner said that was news to him: “Oh, it’s a concept album!” he cracked. “Will somebody please tell me what the concept is?”

He has plenty of time to mull it over, since he’s got till December to write like hell. In the meantime, he relayed the juicy details of Dashboard Confessional‘s Chris Carrabba coming to the band’s show in Detroit. Who woulda thought the emo poster boy would like the artsy trappings of FS? We assured Casey that he, too, was emo. “I sing from the heart!” he cried.

Another bizarre backstage encounter apparently happened the previous night at the DFA show at Bowery Ballroom. One Simon Le Bon, who is hungry like the wolf for the DFA boys to work their magic on the next Duran Duran album, paid a visit to the performers before and after the show. We hear that by the end of the gig, Mr. Le Bon was quite sauced—so sauced that when Liquid Liquid‘s Sal Principato reminded Le Bon that they did a cover of one of his songs, Le Bon couldn’t quite remember. (Gentle nudge: “White Lines,” based on Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern,” was included on Duran Duran’s 1995 cover album.)

Back at Sin Sin, the Interpol boys showed up to a hero’s welcome. Carlos D., resplendent as always, was wearing a Craig Robinson vest, custom-made for his badass goth self. I wondered out loud whether or not the snazzy dresser sits at home in three-piece suits. He admitted that he has “a few” T-shirts—no doubt immaculately cared for with nary a hole in sight—and that he never, ever lets anyone touch his laundry. Not even his socks. Ric Ocasek take note!

Soon thereafter, a different sort of sound could be heard—that of many women sighing as Diego Garcia of Elefant made his way through the crowd. The heartthrob immediately converged on Spooner and Carlos, making a lovely threesome. Warren Fischer, the puppet master of Fischerspooner (and the one with the hard-on for Pink Floyd) wasn’t there, but his wife, Karen, was. Warren was home watching their four-year-old daughter, who plans to be a pretty-in-pink princess for Halloween. Rory Phillips, of London’s Trash party, who had just played at Lizzy’s Monday-night party at Lit, leaned over and confessed that for Halloween he’s gonna be Carlos D. “He might kill me, though.” Just make sure you match your socks, Rory.

If there was one event that showed you can’t turn back time, even on the night that we actually do turn back time, it was the Armani Exchange party at Hudson Studios on Saturday. It was a paean to the glorious days of Studio 54—topless men lined the entrance (one woman took it upon herself to kiss each and every one of them as she made her way down the row), and there were club freaks galore (hello, Amanda Lepore and Kenny Kenny). But Grace Jones‘s flamboyant, brilliant, inspiring performance shed light on just how dull the city has become. (A walking piece of avant-garde art, she could show even Carlos D. a thing or two.) The high from Ms. Jones wore off quickly when the five-O paid a visit, the men in blue replacing the men in buff down the hallway. You really can’t go home again.


tromano@villagevoice.com

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Recordings

Ministry

Dark Side of The Spoon

Warner Bros.

Ministry has always been made up of astute students of the transmutation of sound and its infinite possibilities. They continue to show the fruits of this education on their latest CD, which offers a stunning series of epics with surprisingly little reliance on silly gimmicks. In fact, the only joke to be found is in the twisted Pink Floyd-referenced title, which (heroin reference aside) is actually apropos for an album exploring the peculiar potentials of production. True, departures like the squalling sax and obsessive banjo-plucking on “Nursing Home” and the swinging shuffle of the rehab sneer “Step” provide only temporary respite from the overwhelming drill ‘n’ drone sound of most of these cuts. But the variety is welcome. It’s obviously not everyone’s cup of absinthe, but pretty amazing and beautifully engineered. If the lyrics and vocals were as consistently accomplished as the hell-raising music, this would be in the same league as the Birthday Party. As it stands, it will awe young misanthropes and piss off everyone else within earshot. — Michael Murphy

Joy Electric

Christiansongs

Bec

With boyish charm, excessively cuffed pants and sideburns that could cut through butter, the techno-pop missionaries of Joy Electric look like old-school rockers applying for membership in the Lollipop Guild. So it’s not too surprising to find that their newest album, which celebrates youth (“Voice of the Young”) and faith (“Children of the Lord”) with candy-coated, bubbly synth riffs, would have made a suitable soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz. Ronnie Martin’s devout but surprisingly rebellious lyrics add a refreshing dichotomy to this otherwise overly-cheerful undertaking, making it reminiscent of Erasure. Tracks such as “Disco for a Ride” and “I Sing Electric” twinkle with analog keyboards and robotic drum patterns. The purely new-wave “Make My Life a Prayer” frolics with an instantly catchy dance beat and features Martin’s voice sailing above the melody. Filled with childlike voices periodically shouting “yeah” and “c’mon,” Never-Never Land has never sounded so good. — Kenyon Hopkin

Godflesh

Us and Them

Earache

Until recently, it seemed that Godflesh was lost to the lethargic strokes of masturbatory self-indulgence, never again to recapture and revel in the mechanized horror of classics like Streetcleaner. But then, with the release of the excellent Songs of Love and Hate and the remix album, In Dub, that followed, the band suddenly remembered not just how to inflict pain, but how to do it almost surgically. In many ways, Us and Them is a mesh of the band’s sound on the previous two releases, slyly balancing the cruel groove of manipulated hardware with human combustion. It is harsh, innovative and ultimately brilliant. — Rich Black

Guided By Voices

Do the Collapse

TVT

Dayton’s lo-fi legends are ready to crash the alternative rock airwaves with this disc, their impressive major-label debut. Frontman Robert Pollard leads a full-scale attack on the senses with a series of mind-crunching send-ups consistent with the band’s prog-rock myth. While Pollard is easily the most prolific and underrated songwriter in pop today, his desire to make it big, fueled by many cases of Bud Light, has blurred his historically precise vision. Here he misguidedly relinquishes some artistic control to producer Ric Ocasek, the ex-Cars leader who made over Hanson and Weezer. From the techno/synth-wash that opens “Teenage FBI”— a perfect pop song about getting caught picking your nose— there is reason to be suspect. Ocasek’s twirpy, dated keyboard layers serve as a major distraction in the same way Todd Rundgren damaged the New York Dolls’ debut. But some songs survive the technical melee: bits like “In Stitches” and “Zoo Pie” are ready made for the hi-fi indulgence, showcasing the arena-rock strength of lead guitarist Doug Gillard. — Bill Miller


LI Sounds

Men of Respect

Fair Warning M.O.R.

Entertainment

Here’s one for all underground hip-hop lovers, consisting of six emcees flexin’ their vocal chords over well-known beats. This group— Hempstead’s Nobel Jah, along with Rob West, Mustafa, Rising Sun and Khailil & Kha— has what it takes to make it in the big leagues. The Nassau County emcee is featured on five songs, flowing over a slowed-down rhythm from EMPD’s “So Whatcha Saying” on the album’s title track and borrowing from Notorious B.I.G’s “Ten Crack Commandments” on “Seven Degrees of Separation.” Mustafa proves his worth on “Have No Fear,” where he lets the rhymes flow for two minutes and change, over the Craig Mack classic “Flava in Ya Ear.” Risin’ Sun also stands out from the pack, representing angry youth in “Time for War.” These rhymesters more than make up for the lack of original beats with loquacious lyricism. Contact: M.O.R. Entertainment, PO Box 2, New York, NY 10035, 212-426-4880. — AJ Woodson