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When Genres Collide: Car-Themed CDs Lose Control in the Curves "Hot Rods & Custom Classics," various artists (Rhino Records: $69.98; 87 songs on four CDs, 1946-98; [800] 432-0020).

May 27, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, the open road. There's nothing like the prospect of an endless highway and some free time. Toss some food and drink in the back, pile up some tapes or CDs and hit escape velocity. What could be better? Freed from the gravity of the urban freeway, the world is transformed. Every little landmark and distant mountain range, every shift in the weather and all the little towns and big-city glimpses seem fresh and fascinating.

For a time anyway.

After a while, though, those buildings and farm belts start to look alike, and less and less interesting. If you're out there long enough without a clear destination and a good map, you might start feeling a little bored.

That's pretty much the experience provided by Rhino Records' "Hot Rods & Custom Classics," a set of four CDs whose subtitle--"Cruisin' Songs and Highway Hits"--tips off the project's conceptual confusion. This baby goes from zero to 60 in nothing flat, then just as quickly slows to about 20 for the duration.

It's no revelation that rock 'n' roll and the automobile are tightly bonded. In fact, it's the stuff of cliche that both the music and the mode of transportation encompass such themes as freedom, danger, escape, independence, excitement, sexual promise and so on.

But this oddly sputtering collection misses the opportunity to make a vivid statement of these ideas. By whatever combination of questionable choices and licensing obstacles, the list of songs is ultimately inconsistent and arbitrary, just one of many possible sets of car tunes--and arguably not the best.

It might be pointless to start gathering the songs that should be in a definitive highway compilation, since virtually every rock-related act that's survived through two albums or so has a car song. Here goes anyway.

Maybe the most glaring omission from the company that just released an Alice Cooper boxed set is "Under My Wheels." There's not a Bruce Springsteen auto allegory on the horizon, no Beatles' "Drive My Car"; the very basic "Route 66" is among the missing (though Nelson Riddle's "Route 66 Theme" is here). The Kinks' "Drivin' " would add the dimension of the car as opiate of the middle classes. How about Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" . . . the Clash's "Brand New Cadillac" . . . Steely Dan's "Midnight Cruiser"?

Some mix of these and others, please, instead of the Doobie Brothers, or another surfer stomp with a road-related name plastered on, or Rod Stewart's "Gasoline Alley," an indisputably fine song that has absolutely nothing to do with cars.

*

There's some fine music here, no doubt, though a little of the surf-style hot-rod music goes a long way, and the rockabilly emphasis is liable to trigger twang fatigue.

The more obscure R & B selections, in particular, are a revelation. (Two standouts, both from 1955, are "Radar" by Mr. Bear & His Bearcats and "I Gotta New Car" by Big Boy Groves.)

But the broad spectrum represented by this music grinds against what looks like the project's primary goal. If the selections stuck to the theme of the title and the thrust of the album booklet--which includes a reprint of Tom Wolfe's essay "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" and material on the writing and making of some of the L.A. car records--you might have a nicely focused disc or two on a cool subculture.

But that genre is just a slice of the material on the four discs, and the booklet's information on the music itself is frustratingly slim, especially by Rhino's usual high standards--no artist biographies, no background on the song and the recording, just a year and a label.

It's like being in a strange place without a Thomas Bros. guide.

Well, at least you get some decals and a set of fuzzy dice.

*

Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for The Times' Calendar section. He can be reached at richard.cromelin@latimes.com.

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