One Track Mind: The Cars, "Blue Tip" (2011)

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“Blue Tip” is tensile and itchy then soaring and romantic — the closest this new record, the Cars’ first in 24 years, gets to approximating its own career-making mixture of Ric Ocasek’s weirdo aloofness and Benjamin Orr’s sun-drenched pop warmth.

Orr, of course, passed in 2000 after a bout with cancer, and his absence is sometimes deeply felt. It was, after all, this nifty balance that made the Cars such an intriguing post-punk amalgam. They were new wave, boasting all of the shiny quirks associated with that, but with a keen sense of musicality. That helped the Cars transcend that era’s funny hair cuts and print pants, a recipe that’s harder to cook up on Move Like This, out today on Hear Music/Concord. Orr’s absence, quite frankly, echoes across the album. Ocasek’s noirish flippancy, as it always did, can start to wear thin. The ballads also cry out for his fallen singing partner’s tender way with a lyric.

But go back to this, the album opener, as Greg Hawkes starts plinking on the keyboard, smartly mimicking one of those room-sized old-school computers sorting out a new groove, and then Elliot Easton unleashes a sleek, punchy guitar lick. On tracks like “Blue Tip,” the Cars’ new record — produced in part by Garret “Jacknife” Lee (Weezer, R.E.M., the Hives) — crackles with intensity, sounding uptempo and yet darkly sensuous. Sounding, quite frankly, better than it has any right to.

For all of its plucky synth bounce, for all its nervy idiosyncrasies, for all of the ways it seems like the Cars have reemerged as if they never left, the cold and intriguing “Blue Tip” — and much of Move Like This, starting with the advance tune “Sad Song” — is darker, is stranger than just about anything we heard from the original incarnation of this band. That seems to be a nod both to the way the Cars’ influence has played out in the music of next-gen bands like Weezer, the Killers and the Strokes — “what can you do, you say,” Ocasek chirps; “they owe me a few!” — but also to the one thing, the one person who’s missing.

Ocasek and Co., I think notably, didn’t officially replace Orr. (His bass parts were reportedly handled either by other band members or were programmed.) They just couldn’t.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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