Thursday, June 18, 2009

6/18/09 - The Cars, Band Out Of Time

The Cars exist, still, decades later, as a band out of time. Their sound is definitely '80s, but in a sui generis way, such that to hear a Cars song on the radio is not to feel that it could only have been a hit in 1982, but that it could have been a hit today with the sound of '82. One wouldn't necessarily react that way to, say, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", which has much more of a time capsule feel.

The Cars, though, have a sonic influence that has proven remarkably widespread. Despite criticism of the time that tried to fix the band into the New Wave movement (where they undoubtably belonged), the Cars sound has wormed it way into some unexpected places. From the Rolling Stone review of Candy-O, the second album:

I don't dislike Candy-O—after all, it sounds better than practically anything else on the radio—and I still like the Cars. They're a good band. Their virtue is they're never anything less than that. Their limitation is they've yet to prove they're anything more."

This fixes them purely into the times while missing the Cars true legacy - a sound that has made them one of the few bands serve as a sonic touchstone whenever any band straddles that classicism/futurism divide by busting out the synths. Potter Stewart-style, any pop music listener can instantly identify the "Cars" sound - there's only a handful of ingredients, after all. Mid-tempo; crucial because you don't want to shade into punk on the fast end or sludge on the slow end, brightly wheedling synth sounds; needed for the the bright melodicism combined with the sleazy undercurrent of a suggestion that All Is Not Right Here; and hooks redolent of '50s proto-rock and British Invasion rock of the '60s.

Bands have taken and stretched these sounds to fit their own ends, but in doing so the Cars sonic legacy never fails to shine through. Take a song like 12:51, by the Strokes. It's not just that the synth-sounding guitar is a nod to the Cars the points up their bizarre and particular influence, it's the way that that instrumentation combined with the hook-laden vocals make the song sound not like a Cars-influenced Strokes song, but like a long-lost Cars song wearing some kind of surface Strokes mask. The sound endures eternal.

The destabilizing sonic element of the Cars, the synths on top of power chords, account for why they're such an influence on a lot of the noisy '90s bands, the ones that were all supposedly about bringing rock and roll back from the cheesy neon lights of the '80s. So you get Poison rejected, but the Cars embraced, as in the Smashing Pumpkins, of all bands, covering "You're All I've Got Tonight". There's even a Nirvana cover of "My Best Friend's Girl" floating around out there, and why not? Trojan horse pop destabilization was Cobain's game. Just as Kafka's name as adjective lives on more vividly even than his most trenchant stories, the most resonant aspect of the Cars might well be their blueprints, not their buildings.

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