The Problem with Comebacks: On the Return of The Cars

By

Growing up, I loved The Cars. They were probably the first band I ever called my favorite. In place of headphones, I’d sometimes just lay on the floor and put the record player speakers next to each of my ears. Their album Candy-O was my favorite, especially the way the weird short song, “Shoo Be Doo” leads right into the cool-as-fuck title track. These two are stereo ear candy on an album that’s an ear candy factory. I loved the way certain sounds (a drum fill, the weird electronic tweeting sound, those patented Cars synth riffs, the robotic hand claps) would sneak from one speaker to the other, like the band was playing mind games with you.

The only other album that did this to a mind-blowing degree for me back then was Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock and the resulting EP, D’Ya Like Scratchin’?, which I had on cassette. My best friend and I played it so much the ink wore off and you couldn’t read which side was which. We had that thing in our boom box every time we’d go play basketball. And we played ball almost every day, even in the rain and snow. Listen to the legendary track, “Buffalo Gals,” and hear how the parts are totally separated–drums on the left, scratchin’ and vocals on the right. I’m about to date myself (if I haven’t already) but the first time I heard this song was in 1983 on a USA Network show called Radio 1990, as if 1990 was going to be this totally futuristic freak of a year.

But back to The Cars. I loved their first three albums (even the “difficult” third album, Panorama). The fourth album, Shake It Up, had some good songs, but it seemed a bit too commercial. The cheesy video for the title track had me cringing a little, but at least the lead-off song, “Since You’re Gone,” was awesome.

After that, I went other directions as a music fan–hip-hop, R&B, and anything Prince-related, plus some weirder bands like Devo.

The Cars made me wait three years before Heartbeat City was released. My reaction was fairly underwhelming. They started to sound like a parody of themselves. And man, did I hate that ballad, “Drive” (odd factoid: the video was directed by Timothy Hutton). A lot of people probably have fond memories of slow dancing to that one, but I just couldn’t get into it.

So I forgot about The Cars for a long time, though I’ve always loved the early stuff. I did actually like Ric Ocasek’s first solo album (1982’s Beatitude), not to mention other bands’ albums that he’s produced (by Weezer, Guided By Voices, etc.) since The Cars ran out of gas.

A few weeks ago I was listening to the radio and heard the DJ say, “We got a new song by The Cars coming up.” I got strangely excited and felt my adrenalin build. I was pretty pumped to hear my old favorites again (even without bassist Benjamin Orr, who died in 2000 of cancer). The first single, “Sad Song,” reminded me of the “Shake It Up” and “Heartbeat City” sounds–a little bit fresh and a little bit stale. The ingredients were there–snappy hand claps and cool guitar riffs being key, but something wasn’t working, perhaps the lyrics. I liked Ocasek’s weird pseudo-abstract rhyming styles early in his career (from “My Best Friend’s Girl:” “You’ve got your nuclear boots/and your drip dry glove/and when you bite your lip/it’s some reaction to love”), but maybe I’ve outgrown them. Maybe they’ve always been bad (from “Touch and Go:” “Then I know it’s gone too far/uh oh/I touched your star and it felt so right/just like the hush of midnight”) and I just never noticed.

One of the first things I discovered when I got home and Googled info about the new Cars album is that this is not the first attempt at a Cars reunion. A video search for “new Cars CD” brought me to a clip from The Craig Ferguson Show. They’re already doing the rounds on TV, I thought hopefully. But something didn’t seem quite right. That wasn’t Rick Ocasek! It was freakin’ Todd Rundgren!

Lead singer substitutions are always awkward, but this made The Cars sound like a bar band (to his credit, original drummer David Robinson also sat this one out). “Just What I Needed” could have been “Louie Louie” as played by your 50-year-old dentist and his four college buddies on a stage anchored by pinball machines and video poker.

In an attempt to resuscitate my deflating nostalgia, I clicked around for the next couple of hours watching some of their old videos and TV performances until I found some short promo clips from the upcoming album, Move Like This. I’m not sure why Ocasek let the others form that inferior version of the band with Rundgren, but I was glad to hear his familiar delivery again, even if the lyrics were still a little pretentious. Besides “Sad Song,” there was a short preview of two more, “Free” (which has a nice Devo sound to it) and “Blue Tip” (great little retro synth riff here). These little teasers are pleasing in an immediate, radio-friendly way. I’m not sure if that’s what I really crave as an old fan though. I want Ocasek and company to push us further. I want some cool, weird shit, something that makes me spout the G-word (genius). More like “Moving in Stereo” and less like “You Might Think.”

I still haven’t decided whether I’ll buy the new album or not. If I do, that would mean I’ve had The Cars on 8-track, LP, cassette, CD, and on my iPod. I think that’s a pretty clear indication of a band that will outlive most others and always matter.

***

Move Like This was released this week from Concord Music Group.


Kevin Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress Future Tense Books in Portland, Oregon. His books include the story collection, Creamy Bullets, the memoir, A Common Pornography, and the novel, This Is Between Us. His work has appeared in publications such as Pank, Sixth Finch, Poets & Writers Magzine, Yeti, Fairy Tale Review, Tin House, Best Sex Writing 2010, and Best American Essays 2013. More from this author →