Music Review: The Cars — New Cars quality at a old Cars price

It’s been nearly 24 years since The Cars released a studio album — 1987′s Door To Door. After four and two score years, yesterday saw the release of Move Like This, the band’s latest album. All of the band’s original members reconvened for this effort, with the notable exception of bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr, whose voice you’ll recognize singing lead on “Drive,” “Let’s Go,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Just What I Needed.” It’s relatively clear that he’s the one thing this new album is missing. Orr passed away in 2000 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Lead singer Ric Ocasek handles all the vocals on this seventh album by the band. Ocasek himself has been quoted as acknowledging that Orr would have done a better job on half of them. While this is likely true, the album is still really good. It’s classic Cars. Isn’t that what we want? Too often you hear bands from decades ago reunite in an attempt to re-invent themselves. Too often these bands simply sound old. Members of these bands have a misguided interpretation of where they fit in within the confines of pop culture. I’ve loved The Cars since seventh grade. I remember walking home from school in the warmth of spring listening to “Just What I Needed” on my cassette walkman. At the time I had a crush on April Velazquez. I still do, really. And Move Like This sort of reminds me that I do.

The Cars - Move Like This

The individual gray hairs that are beginning to decorate my beard might remind me that I’m not 13 anymore, but this album is as effective as any Just For Men product when it comes to reclaiming some semblance of youth. While it appears that the band hasn’t released any of the album’s songs as a single, it occurs to me that if the MTV that we knew in the 80′s (where they actually played music videos) still existed today, it’s possible that one of several songs off of Move Like This would be featured in heavy rotation. The best thing about this album is that they sound like The Cars. Each song is simple, poppy, well-structured, and quirky, yet somewhat profound.

They’re demonstrating their relevance.

One could argue that a drawback to this album is that it doesn’t really show any major growth by The Cars as a band. It’s true that they may have gone back to the well for the soft, repetitive two-string chords and light, steady high-hat beats that remain their signature. But that’s the thing, they didn’t forget the formula, and it still works. Though it might’ve been nice to see some departure, I guess that’s what solo careers are for. However, perhaps it also represents why the extended hiatus was a positive thing. Twenty-four years worth of these albums may not have been the greatest legacy, but an album like this ain’t too bad. Despite the nearly quarter-century absence, it’s nice to know that they’ve found their way back to the record store shelves. We still have record stores, right?

Again, it’s worth noting the absence of Ben Orr. His vocals would have perfectly suited songs like the enchanting “Soon” or the eerily familiar-sounding “Sad Song” (which doesn’t actually sound sad at all). This album is vintage early Cars. Many will remember Orr’s vocals from 1978′s “Moving In Stereo” which was featured in the movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High. If I have to remind you, it’s played during the slow motion Phoebe Cates/bikini scene.

"Hi Brad. You know how cute I always thought you were."

That’s pretty much all that’s missing from this album. They’re lacking the mysterious synthesizer and Orr’s voice that helped make the Cars sound like a more complete entity. On no song is this more evident than it is on “Take Another Look.” Ocasek does a decent job with the song, but the opening lines make it clear that Orr’s higher vocal range was invaluable to the band’s success over the years. This does not diminish the overall brilliance of the album, however. It’s as a close a return to what we love about the band as one could hope.

The question is: what prompted this sudden reunion of the band? Ocasek stated ages ago that the band would “never, ever” get back together. Could this be their way of reminding people of who they are? Perhaps it’s a knock at the door of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? Whatever the motivation, fans should be thankful. It’s an enjoyable album, and while not necessarily one of the greatest of the year, it is worth a download. You can do so for free here: http://www1.rollingstone.com/hearitnow/player/cars.html

Actually, nevermind downloading this album, run out to your local Record Town or Musicland to pick up a cassette tape of your very own. Just don’t hurt yourself trying to open that ridiculous, plastic shoplifting-prevention packaging that audio tapes used to come in. You know what I’m talking about, thirty-five-and-over year olds.

Duran Duran + Mark Ronson = Newer Wave

Yesterday, March 22, Duran Duran released the packaged version of their 13th studio album, All You Need Is Now. This album was actually originally released for download in December of last year, so it’s been out for several months. Without question this is their finest album in the last decade, and probably their best since the release of Rio in 1982. It’s unquestionably a better effort than 2007′s Red Carpet Massacre.

The album is produced by British DJ-turned-producer Mark Ronson. Ronson, who won a Grammy in 2008 for producing an album with Amy Winehouse, was only six years old at the time Duran Duran released Rio.

The first notes of the album appear to be signature Ronson. Not entirely unlike his own song, “Bang Bang Bang” released last year on the album  Record Collection by Mark Ronson and the Business Intl., these harsh, synthesized sounds that open the title track “All You Need Is Now” greet the listener almost as an assault the ears. But the jagged sound of the opening quickly gives way to the always perfect vocals of Simon Le Bon. It doesn’t take long to recognize that this just might, in fact, be your father’s Duran Duran.

After 19 years, they seem to have rediscovered the qualities that made them one of the biggest bands of the 80′s. While it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the album oozes the New Wave pop sensibilities that were so vivid on songs like “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex,” it probably is fair to say that it’d be corny to say that. But nonetheless, there it is.

Mark Ronson appears to be a bit retro as an artist in his own right. As a DJ, he gained notoriety not only for his talents at mixing, but also because of the vastness of the musical catalog from which he sampled. As such, many of the studio albums he’s released have distinct New Wave qualities to them. In an odd twist, he now finds himself in a position to put his own stamp on the new albums by some of those very artists that inspired him in the first place. While the individual members of Duran Duran, and Mark Ronson himself may literally be a generation apart, this pairing clearly demonstrates that music spans all generational gaps.

Unless you’re a fan of Taylor Swift. Not sure how to explain that. Sorry, future.