Benjamin Orr

REVIEW: The Cars – Candy-O (1979, 2017 expanded edition)

THE CARS – Candy-O (1979 Elektra, 2017 expanded edition)

How many perfect albums are there in the world? Albums with no filler, only songs vital to the whole and valuable to the listening experience? Hopefully you have included The Cars’ Candy-O in your count.  The often “difficult” second album was apparently no problem for The Cars.  Ric Ocasek came in with a huge batch of new minimalist songs, plus a couple outtakes.

“I like the night life, baby!”  Ben Orr takes the first lead vocal on “Let’s Go”, the Max Webster-like lead single.  Already off to a great start, this tight little number is subtle and loaded to the gills with hooks.

“Somethin’ in the night just don’t sit right.”  Ric Ocasek enters the fray with a quirky “Since I Held You”.  The Cars’ unique way with a melody is apparent on this track, one of those deeper cuts you don’t want to miss.  David Robinson’s drums — loud and effective at punctuation.  Give credit to producer Roy Thomas Baker for wringing every last hook out of these songs.

“And once in a night, I dreamed you were there.”  A restrained ballad, it unleashes the melodic power of the Cars at the chorus, given a bump by Greg Hawkes’ mini moog.  One of their more accomplished compositions, every part serving its purpose.

“It takes a fast car, lady, to lead a double life.”  The possible centrepiece of the album, Ocasek’s “Double Life” smoulders and builds into a dark masterpiece.  At one point this track was to be dropped from the album; let’s be glad the Cars came to their sense.  Though the song is built on a punchy, sharp beat, Elliot Easton’s guitar melody floats detached above.

“You ride around in your cadium car, keep wishin’ upon a star.”  A robotic pulse and frantic vocal make up “Shoo Be Doo”, a transitional piece that serves to bridge the two songs it falls between.  Candy-O is beginning to sound like a concept album to the ears.

“Edge of night, distract yourself.”  The fierce title track “Candy-O”, fronted by Ben Orr, is another possible centerpoint of the album.  The song is layered thick with Elliot Easton’s guitar hooks and Greg Hawkes’ keyboard blips.  Though not a single, “Candy-O” has become a favourite and a great example of the Cars’ musical abilities as players.

“Ooh, how you shake me up and down, when we hit the night spots on the town.”  Jittery and caffeinated, the noturnal “Night Spots” again verges on Max Webster territory.  Ocasek stutters his way through the lyrics while the hyper band get bouncing in behind.  It feels like you’ve been staying awake for three days and three nights with nothing but coffee in your blood.

“I can’t put out your fire, I know it’s too late.”  The album then takes a sudden left turn back to smoother ground, playing looser on the ballad “You Can’t Hold On Too Long”.  The lyrics take a darker turn, with the shadow of addictions.

“He’s got his plastic sneakers, she’s got her Robuck purse.”  Ocasek sings an anthem to the mismatched on “Lust for Kicks”, another punchy Cars song though with a laid back tempo.  Hawkes’ simple keyboard hook is the main structure, with Easton providing guitar noise far in the background.  Ocasek’s expressive vocal is the focus.

“Send me a letter on a midnight scroll.”  There’s a frantic energy to “Got a Lot on My Head”, a sense of panic and urgency.  This time it’s the guitar in front and some of the Cars proto-punk roots break through.  A lot is packed into a short song.

“Can I bring you out in the light?  My curiosity’s got me tonight.”  A third contender for centerpiece of the album is the closer “Dangerous Type”, and its closing position might be its only disqualifier.  Though it has a “Bang-a-Gong” knockoff riff for the verses, the chorus dips into much darker territory.  Then another Max Webster moment creeps in when Hawkes adds his moog.  This brilliant track is an apt closer for such a quirky yet dark album.

Indeed, Candy-O seems semi-obsessed with the night, with shadows, and with secrets.  So it’s quite unexpected how uplifted you feel after listening to it — lighter and brighter.  As if the shadows have been exorcised, at least for a little while.

Candy-O itself is only 36 minutes, so if you need a deeper immersion, the expanded edition is perfect.  It contains seven bonus tracks:  five alternate versions, one B-side and one unreleased song.  (There is an additional piece of rare music available separately, a very different early version of “Night Spots” on Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology).  Remarkably, though rougher, most of these are probably good enough for an album already.  If you already love Candy-O, you will dig the slightly different and more raw versions offered as bonus tracks.  “Dangerous Type” is far less dark, and “Let’s Go” is busier.

“They Won’t See You”, like early 80s Alice Cooper, has a dark campy quality but also a biting guitar hook.  It’s actually better than a lot of Cooper from that period, even though it was never released.  Apparently it was a popular Cars encore.  Finally (and appropriately) its “That’s It”, ending the CD at an hour in length (easy enough to digest in a single sitting).  If not for the technical limits of vinyl at the time, it might have made an excellent coda for the original album.  It’s a song about endings, so it works naturally at the end of this edition.

Candy-O, with or without the extras, is a perfectly brilliant listen and an album that deserves a place of honour in a collection.  But why get 36 minutes when you can have an hour, plus an expanded booklet with lyrics, photos and Easton essay?  “Let’s Go”!

5/5 stars

REVIEW: The Cars – Anthology: Just What I Needed (1995)

THE CARS – Anthology: Just What I Needed (1995 Rhino)

Ric Ocasek was cool.  Whether it was the sunglasses, or the black hair and leather jacket combo, he was just cool.  The Cars were birth attendants to MTV.  “You Might Think” was arguably the greatest music video on this side of Michael Jackson.  And The Cars were far, far more than just a one hit band.  This Cars Anthology proves just how much gas they had in the tank.  With 40 songs including a number of rarities, this anthology is just what YOU needed.

The first four songs in a row, all from the Cars’ self-title debut, are radio staples.  “Just What I Needed”, “My Best Friend’s Girl”, “Let the Good Times Roll” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” still rock the airwaves, proving their timelessness.  The Cars could write a song, and whether it was Ric Ocasek or Benjamin Orr on vocals, the hits kept rolling in.  It’s a combination of choppy guitar hooks, keyboard candy, and plain ol’ songwriting ability.

The Cars were also consistent.  There is no dry spell for hits, not until we get to 1987’s Door to Door.  When you listen to a cross section of material in chronological order like this, it’s quite noticeable when Robert John “Mutt” Lange takes over production duties.  Heartbeat City and its synthetic drums are the prototype for Def Leppard’s Hysteria album.  The backing vocals, the bass tones, and impeccable production all foreshadow the sound of things to come in Mutt-ville.  Roy Thomas Baker didn’t put so much of his own fingerprints on the Cars (although you can definitely hear a Cars influence via Baker on Alice Cooper’s Flush the Fashion).  Mutt sounds like Mutt, for better or for worse.  The album sold four million copies.  Whatever Ric learned from Mutt and Baker, he put to good use as a producer himself.

There are some songs that are just special.  Even though their fellow tunes are unique, important and classic, some rise even higher.  One is the legendary ballad “Drive”, written by Ric and sung by Benjamin.  Soft and gentle, “Drive” has been our companion for decades now, through lonely nights and happy days alike.  Another immortal song is the aforementioned “Just What I Needed”, for all it’s pop-punk perfection, before that was even a term.  I believe they just used to call it “New Wave”.  Finally “You Might Think” must be remembered as not only an important video, but also an ageless pop song that still grabs you today.

Rarities in this set include single B-sides, demos and previously unreleased songs.  Some have since found homes on the Cars’ deluxe reissue CDs, but some seem to still be exclusive to Just What I Needed.  One interesting outtake is a bang-on cover of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime”.  The liner notes are also exemplary, as Rhino usually do.  You could consider this to be a miniature box set for all the care put into it.  While buying The Cars by the album will not lead you astray, there is much to be said for a really good anthology.  You’re looking at one right now.

5/5 stars

Rest in peace Ric, rest in peace Benjamin.