The Pop Rock Mastery of the Cars’ Debut Album

The Cars Album Review

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The Cars emerged from the Boston music scene with their debut album in 1978, and were one of many bands to embrace a modern aesthetic upon the advent of the new wave movement. With their hefty application of the latest in synthesizer technology and their experimental sound structures, the Cars truly sounded like a band from the future. The difference between the Cars and their peers, however, is that nearly 50 years and countless technological advances later, the Cars still very much sound like a band from the future. The quintet had a specific aesthetic that they employed to their advantage, but the lesson to be learned from the Cars is that no amount of clothes or gadgets can take the place of quality songs, and on their debut LP, quality songs are one commodity that the Cars had in spades.

At just over 35 minutes, The Cars in its entirety is about as lengthy as a standard lunch break, and if one’s attention wavers for even a moment they are liable to have missed half the experience. Rather than obstruct its appeal, however, the album’s brevity actually encourages repeat listens, which themselves often reveal previously undetected details with each subsequent review. The record is frighteningly easy to enjoy and is dripping with pop appeal, but also features incredible artistic interest and idiosyncratic expression which makes the record something of a musical equivalent to junk food in its enjoyability and addictive nature, but with the nutritional benefits of fruits and vegetables.

Having assembled just two years prior to the release of their debut album, the Boston-based Cars origins actually lie further west, with lead singer/rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek and bassist/occasional lead vocalist Benjamin Orr having first met in Ohio where the two were living at the time. The two would later reconnect in Columbus and would establish a collaborative partnership which would continue until the 1988 disintegration of The Cars. The pair soon relocated to Boston as a folk act under the name Milkwood, and would release one album which failed to make a discernible impact. This venture did bring them into contact with future Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, however, and soon after, lead guitarist Elliot Easton and drummer David Robinson would join the fold, solidifying the lineup of what would become the Cars.

Taking on a new musical direction, the band quickly began to pick up steam, performing in local venues and recording demos which would garner significant record label attention and result in a bidding war for the band between Elektra and Arista Records. Ultimately, the band opted to sign with Elektra, predicting that their fusion of electronic, rock, and new wave would attract greater attention among the label’s roster of more traditional sounding acts. Producer Roy Thomas Baker was urged by the label to attend a performance of the band’s, which prompted him to sign on as their producer, a role he would maintain over the course of their next four albums. With all the necessary elements in place, the band entered the studio in February of 1978 to record their first album.

The album opens with the slinky, single-note arpeggios of Ocasek’s “Good Times Roll,” a sardonic observation on the absurdity of celebrity status and the rockstar posturing which had become prevalent in popular music at the time. The lyrics can also be interpreted as an acceptance of the inevitability of chaos, underlined by the G major chord in the bridge – the minor 3rd of the song’s key, E major – which makes its appearance concurrently with the drums, sparking an atmosphere of unease and seemingly indicating the approach of something sinister. Elliot Easton establishes himself early on as an unsung hero of the album, as his understated lead guitar work weaves in and out of Ocasek’s chugging rhythm and peppers the backdrop with broad, mid-range swells which silently dictate the track’s mood. The critique of lifestyles glamorized by society and the media, but ultimately detrimental to the people living them, is a recurring lyrical theme throughout the album.

“My Best Friend’s Girl” follows, introducing a major-key feel and rockabilly inspired guitar licks. Featuring a stronger blues influence than many of the tracks surrounding it, the song would become one of the most well-known the band ever recorded. The track’s commercial viability was no accident, and Ocasek has stated that the song is not autobiographical. Rather, it was written from the perspective of a member of the band’s target audience, as Ocasek felt that the situation described in the song would be relatable to many listeners. Interestingly enough, the song, which is in the sounding key of F major, was originally performed in E major for the record. It was an increase of speed on the master tape which altered the song’s key to F, although following the album’s release the band could often be seen performing the song in its original key of E.

“Just What I Needed,” another of the band’s most successful songs, was also written by Ocaskec, as most of the songs were on the band’s debut. However, the track sees Orr taking on lead vocals, marking the first instance of him doing so on any of the band’s major releases. The track had its origins in the band’s 1977 demo recording, and features crunchy, palm-muted guitars throughout the verses which explode into a bombastic call-and-response chorus. The song makes heavy use of keyboardist Greg Hawkes synthesizer which acts almost as a lead instrument between the layers of guitar. An incredibly concise and effective pop song, “Just What I Needed” is a fantastic reference point for the deconstruction of just how immaculate the production throughout the album was and still is today.

 

The quality and consistency of The Cars has been attested to frequently in the years since its release. In fact, one could argue that those who speak reverently of the record constitute the consensus at this point. The band would even remark in jest that the record was their true greatest hits album, a reference to the consistent and frequent appearances of each of the album’s tracks on pop radio in the years since its release. But if there is any part of the album that listeners take exception to, the lone bump in an otherwise immaculately paved road, it’s “I’m in Touch with Your World.” On the surface, it isn’t necessarily difficult to discern why that is. Firstly, it arrives on the heels of the incredible three-song run of “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Just What I Needed,” the latter two songs likely being the most accessible tunes the band ever wrote.

This puts any song unfortunate enough to be expected to follow the run in the precarious position of falling flat merely by contrast. Never mind that the drum track is little more than a patchwork of toms on the downbeats and ride cymbal accents on the upbeats, with hardly a snare to be found within the entire track, creating a rhythmic sensation much more akin to floating than propulsion. The song is also in the key of F# and makes prominent use of the minor 6th chord, which when coupled with its unusual rhythmic approach can make for a fairly alien-sounding number among a tracklist of aesthetically pleasing pop-rock tunes. While there is little argument to be made as to the red herring status of “I’m In Touch With Your World” among its more accessible counterparts, to exclude it on this premise is to miss the mark of what it contributes to the album. Rather than be heard as a break in continuity, the track might more accurately be described as a shuffling of the deck.

In music, just as in life, one often stands to gain more by embracing alternate perspectives in order to expand rather than persecuting anything that falls outside a hard boundary, and the psychedelic touches, electronic experimentation, and occasional left-field harmonic choices of “I’m in Touch with Your World” bring a music interest to the album that may not necessarily have been as prevalent in its absence, and would likely have been sorely missed had it been excluded.

The band shifts gears to close out Side One with “Don’t Cha Stop,” an uptempo new wave rocker with interesting drum breaks to spare and further exploration of the minor 6th chord, this time in the key of A, which prevents the song from falling into redundant harmonic territory.

Side Two of the album packs in 18 minutes of music across four songs which almost seem to move as a singular piece. The album’s final two tracks segue into one another, but it could be argued that the entirety of Side Two acts as a musical suite, with each song functioning more like a section of a grander idea which stands as more than the sum or its parts, rather than a standalone piece in and of itself.

“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” opens the flipside of the record, and combines the Cars’ affinity for electronic music and sonic experimentation with overdriven guitars and lovelorn lyrics. Flanging is applied heavily throughout the song, affecting the sound frequency and producing a sci-fi effect that works marvelously in conjunction with Hawkes’ prominent keyboard contributions. Melodically, the song implements the same equivocality that colors many of the preceding tracks, approaching and withdrawing from sharp notes like a batter looking to steal second base but reluctant to take his foot off of first. Lyrically, the Ocasek number explores the unfortunate circumstance in which many find themselves at one point or another, that being the standpoint of being fully devoted to an object of affection who remains relentlessly detached, willing to spare only enough attention and consideration to provide the illusion of hope which reinforces the fallacy that relationship, or lack thereof, may one day develop into something more.

The protagonist in this particular interpretation seems to have achieved a mindfulness of his predicament, acknowledging the one-sided nature of the arrangement in which he finds himself, but disregarding rationale in a last-ditch attempt to fill the void within himself, if only temporarily, despite the augmented emotional distress which is sure to follow. This speaks to the inert nature of humans to seek out connection with others, a compulsion that many follow to their own detriment. Just as a child that is feeling neglected will settle for negative attention over no attention at all, a person will often gladly accept pain as an alternative to numbness and disconnection.

“Bye Bye Love” is the first in the final string of tracks on the album, all of which are sung by bassist Benjamin Orr. The song features rapid-fire drum fills from Robinson throughout, as well as precisely placed lead guitar fills from Easton which exquisitely tie together the elements of the production. The track is significant in that it predates The Cars as an act, and was originally written and performed prior to their formation, before being included on the demo tape that garnered the group significant local recognition.

 

The final tracks, “Moving In Stereo” and “All Mixed Up,” much like Side Two of the album as a whole, seem to function as two sides of the same coin. “Moving In Stereo” lumbers along over an unwavering beat into an electronic darkness which inspires what could be described as the most emotionally poignant stretch of music throughout the album. With no true lyrical center, the narrator seems to be struggling to articulate his feelings as they pertain to deeper issues which bear addressing, a conflict exacerbated by the fast-paced lifestyle which commands his attention, preventing him from tending to what he knows will implode if not adequately maintained. These elements can be interpreted to have been represented through the lyrics themselves, the consistent, up-tempo groove, and the cold, electronic synthesizer waves which invoke the dark underbelly of a hedonistic lifestyle fraught with surface-level pleasures but lacking in any substantial structure.

The mood shifts subtly but substantially as “Moving In Stereo” gives way to “All Mixed Up” which appears like a Sunday hangover following a hectic Saturday night of debauchery. The lyrics here are more assured in their message, but carry with them the sense of impending turmoil of the preceding number. One might suspect that the subject of the tune is the same as that of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” In fact, one could reasonably infer that the songs featured on Side Two of The Cars each speak to the very same situation, despite “Bye Bye Love” having been composed during a separate period altogether.

The album closes with a sonically rich, almost symphonic, construction of musical elements which convey an increasingly escalating desperation beneath a repeated, harmonized refrain which eventually seems to fall in on itself, giving way to what, at first listen, may sound like another of Greg Hawkes’ soaring synth solos, but in actuality is an honest-to-god saxophone solo performed by the electronic wiz himself. The abrupt conclusion does little to resolve the tension built throughout the final minutes of the album, choosing instead to disperse, leaving the listener in a musical purgatory and suggesting the worst for the record’s downcast protagonist.

The Cars was released on June 6th, 1978 to critical and commercial praise, reaching number 18 on the Billboard 200 chart and spawning numerous successful singles. The Cars themselves would unfortunately disband a decade later, with members choosing to focus their attention on their respective solo efforts. The band reunited sporadically in various capacities in the ensuing years, but never on a permanent basis. Founding members Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek sadly passed away in 2000 and 2019, respectively, and while the public will never again see a full-fledged Cars reunion, the band’s eponymous 1978 debut has long since ensured that the band’s musical legacy is etched in stone.

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