Clean and pure, without a bit of wasted fizz, this self-titled first album is a pop masterpiece.
Looking simultaneously backward and forward, 1978's The Cars is a rock 'n' roll guitar record glossed with new-wave sheen. The songs, by singer/guitarist Ric Ocasek -only "Moving in Stereo" was cowritten, by keyboardist Greg Hawkes-go down smooth with a confectionary lightness, but as with much great pop, care has been taken to temper the sugar with substantial songcraft and sharp musicianship.
Part of the magic involves the album's complementary lead vocals, where Ocasek's oddball-hipster deadpan ("Good Times Roll") alternates with bassist Benjamin Orr's suave and silky delivery ("Just What I Needed," the album's biggest U.S. hit). And let's not forget the brilliant guitar solos, by lefty axe-slinger Elliot Easton, a guy whose playing is so exciting and studio-crisp that he could've blazed leads for Steely Dan. Easton coils and then springs, and he always leaves you wanting more.
The drumming is a thing of more subtle beauty, but once you begin pointing out David Robinson's gifts, the bounty seems endless. Robinson is unquestionably fixed in a supporting role, but like a character actor who can steal the show from the top-billed stars, he has a lot of fun choosing valuable ways to make his contribution. As the Cars' "artistic/fashion director," he knows the value of a hook, and his parts are packed with them, from the famous beat flip in the last verse of "Just What I Needed" to the over-the-barline fill in the chorus of the tom-pounding "You're All I've Got Tonight" to the bouncy snare/tom phrasing on "My Best Friend's Girl."
With Hawkes' synthesizers and Robinson's embrace of emerging drum-machine technology, the Cars are often thought of as an electronic band. But despite exceptions like the flanged drums on "You're All I've Got Tonight," the first record isn't exactly awash in effects and electro tones. Along with producer Roy Thomas Baker, the quintet tinkers with trendy late-'70s sounds, notably on the ominous "Moving in Stereo," yet also makes great use of rock conventions like chooglin' bass and rhythm guitar, crunching six-string overdrive, and pumping keyboard lines. After starting off, for instance, with a futuristic electronic "backbeat" on the opening track, "Good Times Roll," Robinson comes in strong with a deep acoustic sound that at times recalls Queen's Roger Taylor. (Did Baker, who's famous for his Queen productions, push things in that direction?)
Vital to the group's sound is rhythmic precision, and indeed the ensemble interplay on The Cars has been honed to a one-mind tightness. Robinson anchors the band's very straight time feel; even when he plays bass drum double strokes on the intro to the fierce yet sunny "Bye Bye Love," the effect is propulsion, not syncopation. Beyond the minutely orchestrated linear pattern on "I'm In Touch With Your World," his parts are not complicated, but they're distinctive and arranged just so-dig the hi-hat pulls and tom rolls on the brisk "Don't Cha Stop"-and they show once again that simplicity and creativity can go hand in hand. Robinson clearly thought hard about his vocabulary of fills for each track as well, and he doesn't repeat himself.
The drummer, who gave the group its name and also helped design its album covers and stage sets, retired from music after the Cars broke up in 1988, following the release of Door to Door. He made his comeback, true to form, with the 2010 reunion CD Move Like This, minus Orr, who died in 2000. ("Ben, your spirit was with us on this one," the band wrote in the liner notes.) But Robinson will perhaps be best remembered for his first efforts with his mates, right out of the gate. No list of stellar debut albums is complete without The Cars, thirty-five minutes of pop perfection.
The Cars (1978)
Good Times Roll * My Best Friend's Girl * Just What I Needed * I'm In Touch With Your World * Don't Cha Stop * You're All I've Got Tonight * Bye Bye Love * Moving in Stereo * All Mixed Up
Ric Ocasek: lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Benjamin Orr: lead vocals, bass
Elliot Easton: lead guitar, backing vocals
Greg Hawkes: keyboards, percussion, sax, backing vocals
David Robinson: drums, percussion, backing vocals
Produced by Roy Thomas Baker
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