Critic's Notebook

The Cars get back in gear

The band revs up for a reunion with a new album, and it’s just what we needed

The Cars recapture their classic sound on their new album without sounding like retro rockers. The Cars recapture their classic sound on their new album without sounding like retro rockers.
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / May 8, 2011

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You could be forgiven if you were skeptical that the first new album from the Cars in nearly 25 years was actually recorded in this century.

Listening to “Move Like This,’’ out Tuesday, produces an odd boomerang sensation.

It sounds so definitively like the Cars — with all the cushy harmonies, infectious handclaps, hitching guitar riffs, percolating rhythms, whizzering synths, enigmatic lyrics, and laconic vocals that implies — that it could transport longtime fans back to the Boston-spawned band’s late-’70s-to-late-’80s skinny-tie heyday, a time when singer-guitarist Ric Ocasek, singer-bassist Benjamin Orr, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, guitarist Elliot Easton, and drummer David Robinson poured out of radios with their hard-candy dance rock, sported zig-zag shirts, became MTV darlings, and asked if they could brush our rock and roll hair.

And yet “Move Like This,’’ co-produced by the band and Garret “Jacknife’’ Lee, manages the impressive feat of being evocative without sounding retro in a self-conscious, grasping-at-our-youth sort of way. Ocasek, who returns to Boston with his bandmates for a sold-out show at the House of Blues May 26, has written a batch of songs that are less like carbon copies of their ancestors and more like kissing cousins. It’s like being able to revisit a time of great musical joy with none of the un fortunate hair and wardrobe guilt.

If anything, the new album emphasizes how simultaneously futuristic, timeless, and influential the band’s earliest releases were, especially that near-flawless, self-titled 1978 debut that gave us classic rock staples like “My Best Friend’s Girl’’ and “Just What I Needed.’’ The Cars’ sleek, sometimes icy, power-pop sound — what Easton once referred to as the group’s “random bleeps and fizzles and blaps’’ — has been handed down widely and consistently since the band’s breakup in 1988, from acts as varied as Fountains of Wayne to the Strokes to Kanye West. As a result, “Move Like This’’ feels at once classic and contemporary.

Why is this band not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Such new wave contemporaries as Blondie and Talking Heads have been enshrined there, but the Cars no longer seem to share the same hipster patina. We hear them on the radio constantly. Do we simply take them for granted?

We shouldn’t. That the music still sounds so good is what makes the new album’s biggest void — the voice and bass playing of Orr — that much sadder. Orr, who died of cancer in 2000, sang some of the Cars’ best-known songs — including “Drive,’’ “Just What I Needed,’’ “Let’s Go,’’ “Candy O,’’ and “Moving in Stereo’’ — and is sorely missed here. (Hawkes and producer Lee handle the bass duties.) Luckily, Robinson is on board to hold down the beat and keep the core intact. (Like Ocasek, he passed on the bizarre hybrid “New Cars’’ experiment of 2006 — in which Easton and Hawkes enlisted the talents of Todd Rundgren for a tour and live album that included both Cars and Rundgren material.)

“Move Like This’’ opens with “Blue Tip’’ setting the familiar mood, with its needling keyboard zings, courtesy of the always inventive Hawkes, who is as fidgety as ever throughout, counterbalancing frontman Ocasek’s ability to work a hummable melody within the confines of his affectless sing-speak croon.

“Keep on Knocking’’ is a bracing reminder of Easton’s nimbleness with both a brawny riff and an economical solo, and proof positive that the Cars rocked harder than you might remember under Hawkes’s layers of spacey keyboard drones and fillips.

A few spectres of the Cars’ own influences hover, as on the lush, McCartney-esque ballad “Soon,’’ a sweet, simple (and honestly kind of corny) pledge/apology/ode to a longtime companion which catches Ocasek mid-swoon: “You’re my lover, you’re the one I depend on/ with one another we don’t have to pretend.’’ And the punkier strains of the band’s past rear up in the dirty chop and stomp of “Drag on Forever.’’

Ocasek — he of the inky black shag and perpetually aloof cool — remains a master of making even the most absurd, oblique, or sappy couplets sound like dynamite truisms handed down from rock ’n’ roll heaven, especially on the free-associating “Free.’’ He even (presumably?) winks a bit at himself on the album closer “Hits Me,’’ singing, “I was looking like Ichabod Crane.’’

At 37 minutes, “Move Like This’’ doesn’t overstay its welcome, keeping things tight and zippy. The band sounds reinvigorated, a new energy replacing the sometimes palpable fatigue of its last two albums. Every track may not be able to stand up to a classic forebear, but there’s no descent into forgettable filler.

Considering his track record as a producer over the last 25 years — working behind the scenes with artists like Weezer, No Doubt, Brazilian Girls, Suicide, Bad Brains, and D Generation — it’s safe to say Ocasek has had plenty to do. As the primary reunion holdout over the years, it’s heartening to hear him give such a full effort here. “Move Like This’’ could’ve easily been a lazy, cash-grab, but the Cars still have some of that old magic.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at