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The Cars' 'Anthology' Can't Sustain First Album's Drive : THE CARS: "The Cars Anthology: Just What I Needed" Elektra/Rhino ** 1/2

February 02, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN

The Cars was a band that quickly ran out of gas, leaving us with a body of work that fell so far short of the group's initial promise that it's easy to dismiss it altogether. That's what much of the pop world has done--is there any other quality rock band from the late '70s that is mentioned less prominently in today's pop dialogue?

In releasing this two-disc set, Elektra and Rhino Records are hoping for a rediscovery.

Don't bet on it.

It's surprising how the tunes from the Cars' debut album hook you all over again. Indeed, the set opens with the first six songs from that album, and they sound as if they could still be radio hits today--from the moody, bittersweet, Lou Reed-ish coloring of "My Best Friend's Girl" to the playful dynamics of "Don't Cha Stop."

Led by singer-songwriter Ric Ocasek, the Cars combined in their most powerful moments solid songwriting and musicianship with a flair for lyrics and arrangements that delighted in surprising, unexpected twists.

The Cars offered enough accessibility to appeal to mainstream fans and enough bite to sometimes connect with the new-wave/punk audience.

"We were walking a fine line, and it contributed a great deal to the success of the band," lead guitarist Elliot Easton suggests in the album's 28-page booklet.

"The Cars would have that one record in a punk rocker's collection that was just a little right of center. And it might be the one record for mainstream fans who thought they were being really punky."

Ultimately, however, the Boston-based outfit--which also featured singer-bassist Ben Orr, keyboardist Greg Hawkes and drummer David Robinson--was unable to keep up artistically with the more daring and imaginative forces in the new-wave camp, including the Talking Heads.

In fact, the group's hold on you starts slipping before you get to the end of the first of these two discs. It's not that songs such as "Let's Go" and "Dangerous Type," from the band's second album, aren't listenable. They--and even such previously unreleased numbers as "Take Me Now" and "Cool Fool"--simply don't move beyond the boundaries of the debut album. It was a band that was never able to change gears. A one-disc survey would deserve three stars.

* New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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