I admit it, I am not up on the modern rock scene. I know a few names, Foo Fighters, Get Up Kids… that’s about it. But I know my classics and I know my Cars backwards and forwards in my sleep [25 years of listening to it will do that to ya]. They’ve been one of my favorite since receiving Panorama from my Dad [who also brought the Police into the house] in 1980. And I have though Since You’re Gone is one of the top records of the 80s, oft mentioned in the same breath with Def Leppard’s Photograph and the Replacements’ Can’t Hardly Wait. So I see Not Lame Recordings is putting out a Cars tribute album called The Cars- Tribute: Substitution Mass Confusion AND donating part of the proceed to cancer research in Benjamin Orr’s memory. Contribute to a cause and check something NEW out, cool deal.
Opening the wrapper I am torn. I know no one is going to recreate the layers of keyboards nor Ben Orr’s deep rich voice [just think Just What I Needed] nor Ric Ocasek’s quirky yelp. I just think about that legacy and wonder if the Cars were products of their producers, Roy Thomas Baker [also responsible for Queen’s rise through News of the World, including the over the top A Night At the Opera] and Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange [best known for Def Leppard, AC/DCs killer trio Highway to Hell, Back In Black and For Those About to Rock, and producing his wife, Shania Twain. I still say he has fiddles playing left over Def Leppard riffs on her albums…]. But I am also excited, knowing that hearing someone else’s interpretation can open up a song a whole lot. Seeing what other people see as the essential part of the song and then adding themselves to it. Sure it’s easier with great material, but it takes stones to try something like this knowing someone can and probably will say ‘You’re ruining my favorite song!’
Three songs in I am wildly pleased… Hello Again with big Led Zeppelin sounding drums and good, not toooo cheesy keyboard parts by the Argument. [And believe me, some of those keyboard parts are cheesy to start with and if not handled right can over-cheese in a hurry… happily this never happens on this album!] Damone tearing through a speeded up Just What I Needed with a female singer that just kicks ass, just the right snarl on the vocals… Jason Faulkner tackling the tricky Touch and Go with a more fleshed out sound than the quirky, almost minimalist original, and it comes of really well, a fantastic take! Butch Walker does a minimalist take of My Best Friends Girl/Magic that proves that Ric Ocasek was just repeating himself all those years [that faker!]. The Millions turn out a rocking You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, complete with phasing all over the place. Owlsey take on the filler track Got A Lot On My Head [side 2 Candy-O] and just rock the snot out of it, equaling Elliot Easton’s off the wall solo and Greg Hawkes bad 60s keyboard fills. Purr Box supercharge Shake It Up much the way the Goops revved up Build Me Up Buttercup on the Mallrats soundtrack.
But it all stops with Chris Von Sneidem’s take of Drive.
The one song I thought could NOT be done, the signature song of the late Ben Orr. Just stop and think about the lush production that frames Orr’s vocals, possibly one of Lange’s best productions, from someone best known for piles of guitars… but undeterred Chris plows in with an acoustic guitar and some nicely layered, deeply backgrounded keyboards [or accordion or vibraphone or something… I still don’t know if I am just imagining these parts. I’ve listened three times, the last time in headphones… it could be guitar harmonics but it sounds similar to whatever he used to produce the solo… GREAT PRODUCTION CHRIS !!!] And with a plain and simple vocal and a guitar and some background noises, Chris pays a great tribute and still manages to make the song his own.
Things kick up again with Johnny Monaco tackling Dangerous Type and nailing Easton’s solo. He also contributes a great impression of the Cars original times in his liner notes: “I think of high school dances, making out at sleepovers, truth or dare, the drive in, kick the can, jean jackets, cherry slupess at 7-Eleven…” to which I add baseball cards with bubble gum inside the packs and riding the bus… The Bravery contribute a true synth pop/New Wave take of It’s All I Can Do that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. Gigolo Aunts contribute a minimalist I’m Not the One, lush and ethereal, even mildly psychedelic…The Andersons take my fave Since You’re Gone in a totally different direction, totally ignoring that cross beat click – click – click – clickclick that just totally makes the original for me, but it WORKS! Dum Dog Run knock off a totally metallic/ Husker Du take off of Let’s Go, and THAT works! I’d been waiting to hear Misfit Kid since I saw it on a track listing, one of my favorites from Panorama, and John Auer turns in a minimalist take with the right elements of echo, power guitar and/ or tympani drums all at just the right spots. And he nails Elliot Easton as ‘the secret weapon of the Cars’ and ‘the heavy metal George Harrison.’ The Cautions contribute a cold but powerful Night Spots. And the Daybirds wrap the whole thing up with a version of Good Times Roll that sounds like it was dipped in caramel and is being stretched on a taffy pulling machine, kind of Good Times Roll meets Champagne Supernova… different from the original but not in a bad way.
I am happy to report that all of the artists here kept the basic elements of the songs and added their touches and their perspectives. Again it’s easy to do with good material, but it takes balls to do it. The song selection surprised me a bit: five from the classic The Cars
, six from Candy-O
, two from Candy-O
, three from Shake It Up
, three from Heartbeat City
, two non LP tracks and nothing from the final Door to Door
, which it not a bad record. Someone could have tried the metallic Double Trouble or title cut, the moody Fine Line or the ballad-ish Coming Up You or Wound Up On You… maybe that just leaves songs for the second edition.
I think the summary of the CD is this, taken from the notes by the Daybirds: “When it was all said and done, we had the essence of the original but with new revelence that was in line with the current day experiences. Middle America in the 00s is not the East Coast of the 70s bit the good times still roll around here.” AMEN BRUTHA to that.
4 Stars out of five… that’s four big round 55 T Bird headlights in your rear view mirror… check it out!
By Chaz Galupi