The Nation's Pulse

The Cars Ride a New Wave

So how does a band that hasn't released an album since 1987 sound so 2011?

By 5.17.11

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If you married a Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover girl, you might ditch your multiplatinum band for a quarter century or so, too.

The last time The Cars made a record a wall divided Berlin, cassettes outsold CDs, and NBA MVP Derrick Rose didn't exist. So it is remarkable that "Move Like This," the band's new album, sounds at home both on contemporary radio and within The Cars' genre-bending oeuvre.

The Atariesque blips and bleeps that begin album opener "Blue Tip" hit the listener as a sonic invitation to the 1980s. But the party therein is less Reagan-era reunion than modern hipster house party. Greg Hawkes' keyboards are more Crystal Castles than Flock of Seagulls. Lyrical references to bellybutton rings announce that we're not in 1982 anymore. The sing-along single, "Sad Song," would feel out of place on a weekend radio nostalgia program.

That's an accomplishment. Nobody apparently told The Cars that revival acts mail it in, don't dare incorporate musical developments beyond their golden age, and essentially become cover bands of their former selves. Unlike so many offerings from retread rockers, "Move Like This" is not an advertisement, or an excuse, for a summer-shed tour.

"Move Like This" won't change the world or revolutionize music. It will make the 37 minutes and 45 seconds that you listen more pleasant than the 37 minutes and 45 seconds that you don't. In that unpretentious aspiration, it is like so much of the music from the band's heyday. But it is on present-day playlists because it aurally fits the here and now and not the then and gone.

So how does a band that hasn't released an album since 1987 sound so 2011?

Singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek, a sought-after producer for Weezer, No Doubt, and Guided by Voices, evidently remained current through his behind-the-curtains work in the music industry.

Current also caught up with The Cars. The vampire vocals of The National's Matt Berringer, the retrofuturistic keyboards of The Killers, and the catchy hooks of The Strokes all pay homage, wittingly or not, to The Cars. Everything old is eventually new again -- even New Wave.

It's also probably true that bands subscribing to the New Wave ethos believe it obligatory to sound like the future. Fidelity to this ethos paradoxically confined the futuristic music to its era. That which made it fresh now makes it terribly stale.

Nothing appears so dated to today as yesterday's vision of tomorrow. When Gary Numan and the Human League represented the sonic future, you couldn't blame the 1980s throngs who retreated to the classic-rock-radio 1970s refuge. The ubiquitous Led Zeppelin t-shirt was at least as much protest fashion in these years as wearing Che Guevara upon one's chest.

The synthesizer was anathema to the guitar gods Hendrix, Clapton, and Page -- at least that is what their worshippers believed. But keyboards and guitars peacefully coexisted in The Cars. The band embraced the synth-happy trends without being overcome by them.

New Wave boasts an inordinate number of permanent residents of One-Hit Wonderville. Ocasek and company transcended that fate by transcending the genre. The Cars, like, well, cars, offered a variety of models. There's New Wave Cars ("Moving in Stereo," "Since You're Gone"), Adult Contemporary Cars ("Drive," "Magic") Pop Cars ("Shake It Up," "You Might Think"), and Album Oriented Rock Cars ("Best Friend's Girl," "Let the Good Times Roll"). Their arrival, slightly before New Wave's, helped ensure a career beyond the brief lifespan of New Wave.

Popular music issues a constant challenge to hit the ear in a way that it has never been hit. Acts habituated to a sound (AC/DC being the sole exception) find fewer and fewer interested ears. The Cars' longevity -- 1976 to 1988 is a century in popular-music years -- stemmed from its ability to adapt and overcome. The success of its comeback, being of the rare kind that works in practice as well as in theory, owes much to the band's ability to roll with the pop-culture punches.

"I don't relate to the things they say and I don't want to be like them today," Ocasek sings on "Hits Me," the album's coda. "I gotta just get through these changing times." That's just what The Cars have done on "Move Like This."

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.