ric ocasek

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

#784: Black Leather

GETTING MORE TALE #784:  Black Leather

In my earliest memories, watching television with my mom and dad, I remember thinking greasers in black leather jackets looked so cool.  And I think that single impression had a cascading impact through my life.

It probably started with the Fonz.  Arthur Fonzarelli.  Happy Days was one of the most popular TV shows of the 1970s and it was on in our house all time.  At least until Chachi showed up.  My dad did not like Chachi.  But we all liked the Fonz and his pals, Ralph Malph and Richie Cunningham.

I remember discovering rock and roll thanks to TV.  Shows like Happy Days and The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.  Similar to Fonzie was Bowser from Sha Na Na.  It had to be the black leather and black hair.  That and the low voice.  I was obsessed.  I’d go nuts every time Bowser was on.  Along came John Travolta in Welcome Back Kotter.  I loved Vinnie Barbarino.  The black hair and black leather jackets are the only common thread.

The next black hair, black jacket dude to come into my life was Ric Ocasek.  The Cars were “Just What I Needed”, but the song that hooked me (like everyone else) was “You Might Think”.  There was a music video TV show that was on WUTV Buffalo 29 in the early 80s:  The Great Record Album Collection.  It was on right after my after-school cartoons.

I would have seen my first Van Halen and Quiet Riot videos on The Great Record Album Collection, but I absolutely fell for The Cars thanks to that show.  Everybody loved “You Might Think”, but for me it was also the singer.  He had that look that I thought was the absolute pinnacle of cool.  Black hair, jacket, glasses, the works.  Plus he was in a band!  It couldn’t get any cooler.  If you used the most advanced lasers to freeze every atom in your body to the point of absolute zero, you still couldn’t come close to Ric Ocasek’s state of cool.  He was a dominant force in the music video, the visage towering over the beautiful object of his affection.  I didn’t think about how it was creepy that he was watching her from the windows and mirrors, no.  Didn’t occur to me at all.  Put on a black leather jacket and I guess you could get away with anything.

The death of Ric Ocasek has hit me pretty hard.  I’m trying to figure out just why his passing has impacted me more than the usual.  I think it has to do with the very young age I first encountered him, thinking absolutely nothing could be as cool as that guy in the video.  But look at him — he’s not handsome in the classical sense.  He was awkward looking, skinny and gangly.  Kind of like I was.  If that guy could become so cool by singing a song…could I too?

At least this depression has led me to a rediscovery of The Cars, who I haven’t played in a long time.  Hearing their brilliance, song by song by every damn song, reassures me that Ric was anything but just an empty jacket.

And you know what?  I’d still like to be as cool as Ric Ocasek.  I’d rather be him then, say, David Lee Roth.  Ocasek’s cool was effortless.  It was natural.  And that’s what made him the coolest of all.

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.

 

R.I.P. Ric Ocasek (1944-2019)

Sad news this morning, as we wake to find Ric Ocasek of the Cars has passed away at age 75.  Hard to believe the tall, jet-haired singer was in his 70s at all.  He always looked like a punk misfit.

The Cars formed in 1976 and had a steady stream of hits through the late 70s and early 80s.  When the cars folded he moved on as a producer and solo artist.  Ocasek produced such diverse albums as Bad Brains Rock for Light, and two of the most popular Weezer albums, Blue and Green.  Through these productions, his impact on modern rock cannot be overstated.

I always liked the Cars best, and so we’ll remember Ric today with one of his catchiest songs ever:  the summer anthem “Magic”.

Rest in peace Ric Ocasek.

REVIEW: Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End (2014)

NEW RELEASE

WEEZER1WEEZER – Everything Will Be Alright in the End (2014 Republic)

I’m not a Weezer hater, but I definitely have said that their best days were behind them in the past.  The first two records (particularly the second) were great.  The third had some good stuff on it, but they really lost me on the fourth.   This new one Everything Will Be Alright in the End is their first with Ric Ocasek producing since Green (2001) and the first single “Back to the Shack” seems to proclaim that Weezer want to return to their indy garage rock roots.

I do love the lyric, “Let’s turn up the radio, Let’s turn off those stupid singing shows.”  Weezer and I may not always see eye to eye, but that’s something we agree on.

Leader Rivers Cuomo wrote the opening song “Ain’t Got Nobody” himself, but on at least half the album he is sharing co-writing credits.  It tricks you at first into thinking it’s a new Linkin Park single by it’s heavy guitar and keyboard riff, but the vocal is unmistakably Weezer.  I find the lyrics annoying:  “Ain’t got nobody to kiss and hug me?”  Come on Rivers, put on some balls and let’s rock.  The song straddles a line between pop-punk and 80’s rock, something overdone in my opinion.  The aforementioned single “Back to the Shack” is second up, but something about it annoys me.  I think it’s the simple repetitive nature of the song.  It is catchy, admittedly, but I don’t know if it’ll have much longevity.  “We belong in the rock world,” sings Rivers, but he hasn’t proved it to me yet.

Another great Weezer music video

“Eulogy for a Rock Band” sounds like a 90’s song, so if going back to the shack was Weezer’s quest, I think they succeeded.  I don’t think too much of this song.  I like when the vocals homage the classic rock n’ roll of the 1950’s, but that’s about it.  It’s indy pop sticky taffy with loud n’ proud drums, but it ain’t my cup o’ java.  Something of the edge that Weezer had back in ’94 is missing here, though I’ll be damned if I can put my finger on it.  “Lonely Girl” on the other hand is awesome.  It has a real toughness and drive that the other songs so far had been missing.  Though the caveman guitar solo is extraneous, the song is a keeper!

Justin Hawkins of the Darkness co-wrote “I’ve Had it Up to Here” with Rivers, and you can absolutely hear that.  Rivers’ falsetto echos Justin’s.  It sounds in fact that Rivers is singing along to a Justin guide vocal, so obvious is the influence. This Weezer-meets-Darkness track is another keeper.  Maybe The Darkness should record it for their new record, too.  Then “The British are Coming” starts with swampy acoustics, before it turns rock.  I didn’t like the song to start, but it grew on me fast.  It has a genuine epic rock quality, like a Styx song.  I like the guitar solo a lot.  But something I dislike about Weezer is their tendency to glue catchy, rocking choruses to goofy soft pop bits, like on “Da Vinci”.  I don’t think the choruses can make up for the limp verses.

I like the guitars on “Go Away”, which sounds like a natural “side two” opener.  Appropriate since we’re halfway through. This 50’s homage is a duet with Bethany Cosentino, and it’s absolutely awesome.  “Cleopatra” is an expected country rock jaunt and another standout.  Then it transforms into Weezer-metal with a suitably Maiden-inspired guitar solo.  Great song.  “Foolish Father” is strong, and then it’s into a three part “Futurescope Trilogy”.  This too is excellent, with shimmery anthemic guitars to start with on “The Waste Land”.  “Anonymous” is the stuff that rock operas are made of.  I like when bands dig out their Queen albums for inspiration.  This mini-suite ends the album on a stellar note, leaving me with a hankering for more.  That’s a good way to end an album.  Too bad it didn’t start like it finished.

3.25/5 stars

1. “Ain’t Got Nobody” Rivers Cuomo 3:21
2. “Back to the Shack” Cuomo, Jacob Kasher 3:05
3. “Eulogy for a Rock Band” Cuomo, Daniel Brummel, Ryen Slegr 3:25
4. “Lonely Girl” Cuomo, Joshua Berman Alexander 2:49
5. “I’ve Had It Up to Here” Cuomo, Justin Hawkins 2:49
6. “The British Are Coming” Cuomo 4:08
7. “Da Vinci” Cuomo, Joshua Berman Alexander 4:05
8. “Go Away” Cuomo, Bethany Cosentino 3:13
9. “Cleopatra” Cuomo 3:11
10. “Foolish Father” Cuomo, Patrick Stickles 4:31
11. “I. The Waste Land” Cuomo 1:56
12. “II. Anonymous” Cuomo 3:19
13. “III. Return to Ithaka” Cuomo 2:17

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