|Side One:||Side Two:|
The reasons for this particular purchase might be, in their way, kind of stupid. There was a period of time in high school where I began to raid my father’s rather extensive poster collection, which was largely made up of the theatrical ones from his time managing a theater in the early 80s (I’ve got some real doozies, actually, like the ones for Blade Runner, Life of Brian, Poltergeist, Escape from New York and Wrath of Khan), but had a tiny smattering of music-oriented ones. One somewhat wrinkled, partly ripped but extraordinarily large one was the cover art for Shake It Up. While I originally began to put whatever posters I liked up (in some cases the link being semi-tenuous, as I’m not huge on Halloween II, but the poster is good, and I do like Halloween), I started to decide I should own the works in question before advertising them, as if it were disingenuous to say, “Look at my Shake It Up poster, what a good album!” and then not even own it.
That’s, in large part, why this is the only Cars album I own (on vinyl, mind you). It was oddly unusual to run across the album in stores on CD, despite the fact that their self-titled debut, Heartbeat City and Candy-O still made regular appearances. I’m not sure why that is–“Since You’re Gone” and “Shake It Up” were big hits, the latter even being their first top 10. Still, it meant that stumbling into a copy on LP was a “necessary” buy–after all, I couldn’t justify that poster to myself without it. Silly, I guess–but somewhat indicative of the strange elements of my psychology.
If there’s one song I really bought the album for personally, it’s “Since You’re Gone”. Unsurprisingly, prior to buying and listening to the whole album, I knew only the two biggest singles. I liked them, as I do all of the Cars’ singles, but tended not to have favourites when it came to them. I didn’t, that is, until “Since You’re Gone” came along at the right moment in my overwhelmingly disappointing love life (disappointing, should a few people who know me, be a former part of that life, and even remotely likely to see this read that, as an average of the time spent alone, not with anyone). The sort of clipped almost echo-less handclaps that open the song are kind of deliberately sterile and processed, in a way that makes them sort of stand out in their isolation, setting the ground for the faded in guitars, and the plodding bassline. When the basic and seemingly morose drumbeat from David Robinson starts and Benjamin Orr’s bass actually finds its full rhythm, Elliott Easton and Ric Ocasek turn guitars to a riff that seems to climb hopefully only to turn itself back downward–as if they’re seeing the object of the song, only to realize it’s someone else. Greg Hawkes’ keyboards are hiding in the mix, adding a high pitch that’s almost indiscernible. But ooh, it’s those two notes he plays when answering Ric’s chorus, “Since you’re gone/Nothing’s making sense…” It’s catchy, crafted, poppy and enjoyable, but with Easton’s lower-end guitar solo that slides around, finally hitting a few high notes that just drop right back into the deep–it just fits a rather calm sense of loss.
Possibly the antithesis of “Since You’re Gone”, “Shake It Up” is the title track, and the words are obviously the inspiration for the rather silly cover. It’s based primarily around Hawkes’ largely monotonic keyboard line, that only occasionally slips up and then down, with Easton and Ric playing dry, palm-muted guitars that function more as rhythm and leave Hawkes in control of the song. When the chorus hits, a random scatter of midrange and pleasant notes render themselves from his keys, before a higher variant on his original line emanates. The heavily harmonized backing vocals that answer Ric’s thin, wobbly voice have a lot of weight to counter his lead vocal. Easton’s solo is probably his best on the album, following a nice fill from Robinson, that burns and bends with the right flare of energy for a song that is ostensibly just a fun “party” song about having fun on a dancefloor.
The thin electronic melody from Hawkes that opens “I’m Not the One”, followed by Easton’s sad, sliding lead tells us that, as the title suggests, this is more in the “Since You’re Gone” range emotionally, and so it is. The song itself carries the tone of resignation and acceptance that matches the lyrical content–with the rest of the band quietly but more confidently singing “You know why…” to bring in lines from Ric that could be telling the object of the song that she knows why this is all the case, or maybe echoing in his own mind as reminder of why he himself knows all of this. The song is very downtempo, still catchy, but focused again on the electronic elements primarily, including some wonderfully fake pseudo-horns toward the end.
“Victim of Love”–ah, I’d say should’ve been a single, but it was. Really, it just should have been bigger. While Ben Orr sang a fair number of Cars hits, he still has yet to see a lead vocal on this album. “Victim of Love” does not actually change that. As if trying to make as little noise as possible without making none, the guitars are muted but firm, and it’s Orr’s bass that (almost secretly) carries the melody, another insistent and near-monotonic Hawkes keyboard line driving the song. The guitars open up as they move toward the chorus, ringing and single-picked, while Hawkes’ pulsing keys turn to a higher, whistle-like variation on the same key riff. In the next verse, they drop back down, but not all the way, and continue to establish that sound as the defining aspect of the song. And I can’t fault them for a minute–that thing is brilliant. It’s mostly rhythm–two beats, a rest, two more and then three in rapid succession. Simple but catchy as all hell, and cleverly modified into two different sounds as the song goes along, caught in just the right place in the mix, so that the earliest version worms its way into your head and only becomes obvious when it shifts to a different pitch (though occasionally the middle note of the last triplet is dropped).
There are two semi-weak songs on the album, and they’re paired as the closer for Side One and the opener for Side Two. “Cruiser” is the first, though it has a great key-to-guitar hook. Unfortunately for Orr, this is his first lead vocal on the album. There’s an emphasis on beat over melody in the basic framework, Hawkes playing three of the same note with a brief pause over and over, the guitars playing open, distorted chords that just ring for a moment, Robinson holding it all together with a steady beat. Each of Orr’s lyric lines, though, is answered with a sudden gnarled lick from the previously simplistic guitar, each accentuated by just two piano-esque beats from Hawkes. The chorus is marked by the muting of the guitars and a more varied keyboard line, which, at the end of the chorus, turns to a slow descent on the keyboards for a few measures. That gnarly lick and that descending keyboard–those keep the song interesting, but the thumping beat makes the song feel a bit long in totality–it feels a bit like the sound of someone who keeps explaining past the point, possibly due to internal difficulties in stopping at the proper point. I realize this may be a bit hypocritical for me to criticize as a notion, of course.
“A Dream Away” is drum-machine driven at open, and its lyrics read and sound like a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness laundry list. The oblong rolling wheel of Hawkes’s rising and falling bassy keyboard riff does keep it from thudding too steadily. The echoes on Ric’s voice and the intermittent approach to the guitars do give it an appropriately dream-like quality, and it’s interesting the way the song seems to respond to Ric’s claim that “We’d better take it on the run”, seemingly beginning to pull away from him at this moment.
The only song with a co-writer (Hawkes) alongside Ocasek, “This Could Be Love” is ominous and pounding as it starts, all drum and bass. The muted guitars, played as if trying to move their hands or arms as little as possible. Hawkes plays a keyboard riff that manages to be innocent and catchy, but also off-kilter and contextually appropriate. “You were slinked and dressed in pink”, Orr sings, and then one guitar becomes clean and open as he goes on, “There with someone you wouldn’t think”, his voice rising at the end of the line in a vaguely aching way. “Is this the kill/Is this the thrill” he sings questioningly, and the song returns to its subtle threat. There’s a great, glitchy solo from Hawkes about halfway through, too, but the song rides on the feeling of obsession, the defining tone of the album as a whole.
“Think It Over”, Orr’s final vocal lead on the album, is the closest to “Shake It Up”, hopping around on the insistent keys of Hawkes and the absolutely rumbling bassy keyboard line Orr played live, until the loud snap of Robinson introducing the backing vocal, bouncy chorus, which Easton pushes the band into as he slides a delightful lead up the neck of his guitar. It may actually be more cheerful than “Shake It Up”, though there is a weird kind of arrogance or overconfidence in the lyrics, again bordering on obsession.
Roiling drums from Robinson keep “Maybe Baby” in perpetual motion, though a tightly wound hook from Greg easily catches the ear during the chorus. While Robinson’s drumming doesn’t stop for anything throughout–most distinctly in motion because it focuses almost exclusively on toms–the rest of the band moves at an easier tempo for the verses, only accelerating with the tense hope of the chorus, Ric’s voice layered with an echo that is both powerful and almost impotent, calling out to a response that is only his own voice. Despite Robinson’s pace, the song fits very well as a closer, for the same reason that Ric’s echo-laden voice makes sense in context.
I’ve always thought of the Cars as sort of the “true” new wave sound, in the sense that new wave was originally used primarily as an alternate term for punk, first in the U.K. naturally, then later in the U.S. to try to “sneak” punk onto the radio. The Boomtown Rats are a solid example of straddling that line: their first single, “Lookin After No. 1” is very nearly pure punk, while the varied instrumentation and more complex, fully-realized pop structures of their later work placed them more squarely and comfortably into the currently understood definition of “new wave”. The Cars, though, for all that they had some of the energy, the independence, and wiriness of punk (never more apparent than in the awkward look of Ric Ocasek, who sometimes appears less like he’s emulating or originating the look for David Byrne’s infamous giant suit, and more like regular suits just make him look tiny–and let’s not forget his fitting voice!), were always too electronically-based, too happy to craft from their very first album (the 1978 self-titled one), too willing to use handclaps in such a distinct way–despite the age of that first album, they seemed to have already developed the essence of what the U.S. public, at least, eventually decided was the definition of “new wave”, the sort of sense used most often these days: heavily synthesized, with roots in punk. Certainly, others followed them, and most likely some were developing in at least the background somewhat contemporaneously, but right out of the gate they had this sound.
It’s often interesting, then, to see the variance in response to the Cars. Breaking down their work musically tends to be rewarding: carefully constructed and constrived pop songs with a healthy dose of quirk and some measure of experimentation. Their lyrics, though (largely the work of Ocasek), left them pretty squarely in the pop side of things. Despite the immediate impression that most “serious” folks would relegate them immediately to the pile marked utterly disposable and uninteresting, they’ve maintained a sense of respectability despite the sheen on their music and the simple themes they stuck to.
This album in particular is, despite my silly reasons for making it the one I pursued most adamantly, probably my favourite Cars album. It’s not that the material is that much stronger than, say, the self-titled album (that one is forever a whopper, as quality of material goes), it’s that it’s four albums in and a steady hand on the wheel of style, but a weird tone, intentional or not, that marries deeper depressions to rejection, and more unsettling levels of devotion–again, bordering on obsession–to the romantically hopeful tunes. When Orr sings, “There’s nothing you could do to make me want to stop”, you don’t get the feeling he’s necessarily doing anything that would concern the person he’s singing to, but are still left thinking, “Well, that’s sort of a creepy sentiment, even if the manifestation is innnocent…” Or when Ric sings “Since you’re gone/I’m throwing it all away […] Since you’re gone/I took the big vacation”, there’s a hint of such intense response to this loss that you wonder how far he’s carrying this reaction. The songs, in both cases, keep their tones from being truly unpleasant–or unpleasant at all, for that matter–but may make you look a bit to the side, see if maybe anyone else just heard what you did, or if it is as innocent as you would think from the reputation of the band.
- Next Up: Caustic Window – Compilation