Sunday, August 09, 2009

Kill Yr CD: The Cars, Candy-O

*See Kill Yr CD: Intro

I really, really liked the first Cars album. It came out when I was about 12. I played it until it started to skip from the scratches in the vinyl, and then I played it until the needle wore the scratches down and it didn't skip anymore.

That album, along with the first Police album, was the first "new" music that I listened to. We were all, then, into the rock gods of the 1960s, the heroes of our (figurative) older brothers. The Who. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd. The Beatles. Bands that were either dead, broken up, or -- worse -- still limping along.

The first Cars album was new. Not just New Wave, which it was, sort of, but new. It had synthesizers. It had some nerdy guy yelping about nuclear boots and drip dry gloves. It was -- just a little bit, and in a good way -- weird.

It was also familiar. With its songs about letting good times roll and moving in stereo and bye bye love, it had a stoner vibe that the long-haired dazed and confused crowd could nod along to. There were guitar solos. All in all, it wasn't a million miles distant from Foreigner or even Boston, who were the hot new rock acts of the day.

Candy-O, their next album, took a sharp left turn away from all that. [Note obligatory "cars" reference to describe the musical direction of "The Cars." Clever, huh?] It wasn't mellow at all, like some of the first album was. There wasn't any stoner vibe. It buzzed. It clicked.

The Cars always made a virtue of being shallow, or at least ironically appearing to be, so it's appropriate that the big change between their first and second albums should be perfectly reflected in something seemingly insignificant and insubstantial. On the sleeve of the first album, Greg Hawkes, the keyboard player, has standard issue rocker guy long hair and macho man mustache. On the second, his hair is still long, but it's trimmed and stylish, and he's completely clean-shaven.

It's not just the hair, either -- his synths are more prevalent on the second album. It's a lot less rock and a lot more New Wave.

They also brought the drums forward, and sharpened them up. I really like the way David Robinson plays on this album and the next one, Panorama. I liked the drums on the first one, too, but they sounded a little muffled and conventional. Here, they're bright and banging. Candy-O came out a few months before the first Joy Division album, which is famous for its inventive use of drums, but the Cars and their producer, Roy Thomas Baker, rarely get the kind of raves for their innovative drum sound that Martin Hannett did for Joy Division.

Another thing I loved about Candy-O was how soon after the first album it came out. I was still wearing through the scratches on the first album when the second one came out, and it was cool to have them to play off each other.

I had the vinyl, which I later replaced with CD, which I've subsequently ripped to mp3. At one point I also had the 8-track version. This album is best as a CD. The iconic cover art, and design, are a little much in an LP-sized package. In a CD case, it's much more discreet and tasteful. It's so clean! All that white, and the perfect straight lines. It's all shiny surfaces and sharp, straight edges. Just like the music.

The 8 track actually had a slightly different running sequence, which wasn't unusual for 8 tracks back in the day. The particular order of the songs didn't matter as much as the overall feeling. There are three important moments, and they are all there no matter what the format.

The first is the opening song, "Let's Go," an anthem written sideways. It opens with a climactic crash and then tears off with the matching guitar and synthesizer lines that was the signature sound of these guys at their best.

The next is the bubbling, gurgling, weird, "Shoo Be Doo," building a tension that resolves in the perfectly-timed segue into the dark, dangerous title track, "Candy-O," one of the best things they've ever done.

The third is the extended intro to "Nightspots," a blurping synthesizer workout that sounds like some sort of logical arcade. The juxtaposition of fun and danger clears the decks for the remaining songs, most of which sound like the soundtrack to a morning after a night on the town where the singer isn't quite sure whether he had a good time.

The rest of the album is full of little pop gems and calculated Top 40 fare. What makes it work so well is the production. It's so clean, like they were playing under glass, like in one of those laboratories where the workers stick their arms in vacuum-sealed sleeves and reach into a box to do their work.

The songwriting and production on the early Cars albums, especially this one, built bridges to more adventurous contemporary fare like Roxy Music, Kraftwerk and even Joy Division. Even if many listeners, myself included, did not venture across those particular bridges for many more years, just having them there made all kinds of other music so much more accessible than if there had been nothing but wide chasms to leap across.