It seemed pretty unlikely that a good song, never mind a whole album, could be written anymore about cars (Elastica’s “Car Song” being the exception). It would either come across as an overly contrived nod at a classic rock ‘n’ roll theme or as just too simple-minded and lazy. Sally Crewe defies common sense with Drive It Like You Stole It, practically a whole album of car songs that sport a bit of Elastica’s sneering sexuality with a flat admittance that some of us are getting to the age where the prospect of dropping everything and hitting the highway is becoming increasingly fraught with second thoughts.
Crewe is no Justine Frischmann, but her come-ons are surprisingly confident; she never lets on that she may doubt herself and I don’t think the album would work if she did. “See me here in the kitchen getting ready to meet you / Did I catch you by surprise / Television in your eyes / Should I walk away or give you a preview” she asks on “Tonight”, and the result is a sexier take on Yo La Tengo’s introspective domesticity. On “Got A Car, Got A Job” you can hear the wheels turning in her head as she weighs her options: “I’ve been thinking about leaving London / I’ve got friends in Austin that I know / But I got a house and got a dog / Got a car and got a job / Yeah you know”. Yeah, Sally, I do know, and the choices are never easy.
Her road metaphors are all on the surface; driving is its own reward and while a fast car might be a ticket to a better life for some, for others it’s enough just to get off on the thrill of burying the speedometer. Her pleasures and preoccupations are stated so single-mindedly (even the biggest difference between being in England as compared to the United States is having to drive on the left) and with such simplicity that lyrically she could be picking up where Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” left off. Her “0-60” (“Got high on the hill now you’re over”) is every bit as effective as Elvis Costello’s “45” at playing the age game — even if they take different routes, with Crewe’s employing considerably fewer verses — to get to pretty much the same place.
A bit slight if you like your rock to be, you know, obviously serious, Crewe makes her songs work by playing to her strengths. The Village Voice compared her work here to the Cars’ first album and that’s hilariously on (the guitar line from “Friend of the City” even sounds a bit like “Best Friend’s Girl”). Still, giving a quick re-listen to that particular Cars album as a point of comparison shows how much Crewe gets out of her sparse instrumentation. With Drive It Like You Stole It‘s twelve songs clocking in at just over 26 minutes, and with the two best (“Wake up the Heroes” and “Got A Car, Got A Job”) adding up to under three, there’s little time or room for a solo to push things over the top or for one more chorus to really drive things home. She errs on the side of brevity, and while you might hope that one day she gives herself the chance to be overblown even a little, her songs hardly suffer for her musical conservatism.
Plus, she gets backup from Spoon’s Jim Eno on drums and Britt Daniel on bass and piano. This could make Crewe lucky, I suppose, or good, depending on where you’re looking at the situation from, but I’ll take good based on the fact that Eno and Daniel don’t bury her on her own album. It speaks to her understated strengths. She pushes the best parts of their contribution right up to the front and makes her decision seem painfully obvious; why else would you want the two guys from Spoon on your album anyway unless you wanted them to do what they’re best at? Judging from the songs where their parts are the most distinctive (Daniel’s backing vocals on “Forget It”, his piano line on “Friend of the City”), she could have perhaps played up their role even more.
Crewe consciously keeps things simple; the instrumentation varies little from song to song and as a result, unless you’re paying attention, much of what makes the album work is likely to slip past. Depending on your mood, the album can either zip right along or get bogged down in repetition. With the disc’s slower songs (“Silver” and “Lying about My Age”) faring the worst, you have to wonder about Crewe’s versatility. Still, “Wake up the Heroes” is the new-wave update song that all of those East Coast kids in their skinny ties and tight jeans have been trying to write (best line: “If my car had a back seat we’d be in it”) and that’s not so bad.