[16 May 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you’re looking to like Move Like This, the Cars’ first album in nearly a quarter century, the album offers enough to suit you. First of all, and this is the main thing, it sounds like the Cars. The Cars you love for their string of unforgettable early-to-mid 1980s hits, not the band that petered out in 1987 with the half-hearted Door to Door. The snappy rhythms, the eighth-note staccato guitar, the analog synths, the handclaps—it’s all here.
There are some good songs, too. “Blue Tip” takes that familiar sound and adds an extra layer of twitchy nervous energy. “Too Late” gives you a tour of the entire Cars oeuvre, while adding something worthy to it. The track starts as a spacey, cosmic ballad, and then that whip-smart rhythm kicks in. David Robinson’s booming drum fill introduces the chorus, which features the rich backing vocals and heavier power chords that are also Cars calling cards. “Free” hits you with the herky-jerky chord changes that launched 100 indie bands’ careers. Even the drippy, synth-heavy ballad “Soon” is a worthy sequel to “Drive”, as Ric Ocasek does a great job paying homage to late Cars bassist/co-vocalist Benjamin Orr, who died of cancer in 2000. You could argue Move Like This is the most purely Cars-sounding Cars album since Shake It Up in 1981.
The Cars have been described as an American version of Roxy Music, a comparison that doesn’t make much sense until you realize that both bands’ brands of future-retro romanticism could have been developed in a laboratory, and that this was not a condemnation but a good thing, indeed. It allowed for the classicism of the songwriting to exist without sounding self-serious, and for the experimental, even devious nature of the bands to exist under cover of that very same songwriting. In other words, it made for easy singalong fun that was just too elegant to be throwaway. This brand of music, though, is by its very nature youthful. That’s just the sound the Cars and early Roxy Music produced. Bryan Ferry realized and accepted this fact, and gradually remade Roxy Music into a more traditionally romantic, adult-oriented pop band. Ocasek, who like Ferry wrote almost all his band’s material, seemed to realize it too, and split the Cars up.
The Cars were actually seasoned veterans when they began, but they had no problem looking and sounding a lot younger than then were. With Move Like This you have four men in their late 50s and early 60s tackling this naturally youthful sound. Age in itself isn’t a problem. But with the youth seems to have gone a lot of the fun. True, it’s harder, though far from impossible, to be coy when you’ve grown up and lived. Yet without the fun, on Move Like This the clinical element of the Cars is emphasized by default. No way is this album a cash-in. It’s just that on several songs Ocasek literally sounds tired, and his songs don’t wink at you nearly as much as they used to. So if you want to label Move Like This a disappointment, there is your evidence.
Also, the songwriting. Ocasek is still the same songwriter who has been putting out solo albums since the Cars’ split, to increasing degrees of public indifference. He is buoyed immensely by his old bandmates’ presence and playing, and, on half the album’s tracks, by producer Jacknife Lee. Lee is known for lending a sharp, radio-ready bluntness to Snow Patrol and U2, among others. He’s actually a great choice here, because his sound naturally fits with the Cars’. Not coincidentally, the tracks he helms are the best ones. Ocasek, though, too often falls back on half-spoken phrasing rather than vocal melodies. The bluesy trudge of “Drag On Forever” is all too accurately titled. The claustrophobic new wave of single “Sad Song” would be a revelation if the verse didn’t sound so much like Billy Squier’s 1980s cock-rocker “Everybody Wants You”.
If there’s anything on Move Like This worth making a big deal over, it’s the lack of Robinson’s imprint. On “Too Late” he resembles his old self, but apparently he forgot or was not allowed to bring his distinctive toms to the rest of the sessions. At least he’s playing live, unlike on most of the last couple Cars albums. Why has such a great, singular drummer been kept down? Maybe it’s just that, as he’s admitted, he hasn’t really played since 1987. When you release one album in 24 years, everything bears scrutiny.
Move Like This isn’t a failure by any means. It’s not the resounding triumph you might have hoped for, either. Yet, as Ocasek has pointed out, there’s still no one who’s as good at sounding like the Cars as the Cars are. That’s something, for sure.