it beats a sharp stick in the eye

From CAKE to Cars

December 11, 2020 — Gideon Mayhak


This time, we have two bands from the collection. One I have a little, one I have a lot. Don't be fooled by the CDs that I've got: I'm still, I'm still avoiding disc rot.

The Cs, part 1


CAKE is sort of like Blur to me (see earlier). I really enjoy their music, but I only own a couple CDs: Fashion Nugget and Comfort Eagle. They had the hits "The Distance" and "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" that got my attention in my tweens/early teens. I was sort of reintroduced to them by online friends sharing tracks in my mid-teens.

The draw of "The Distance" ought to be enough to justify possession of Fashion Nugget, but that's not why I finally bought it. It was "It's Coming Down" and "Nugget" that were shared and subsequently played over and over that cemented CAKE's place in my musical mind. If you've heard "Nugget", you might understand why it's stark profanity would be appealing to youths on the Internet.

And then there's "Italian Leather Sofa". This first came to me in instrumental form as the theme song for Mission Hill, an animated series I watched late at night on Adult Swim. I later took it upon myself to play this on the jukebox any time I'd go bowling. It was a nice break from all the schlocky pop country and hip-hop that would normally play, and its longer running time made it good bang for the buck.

The title track from Comfort Eagle was another track that was shared online and much-loved. I remember playing that song as loud as my little PC speakers could handle whenever I had the house to myself.

For our first Valentine's Day as a couple (while we were living 1,000 miles apart), Sarah included Nugget's "Stickshifts and Safetybelts" on a mix CD. That's been a favorite during long roadtrips, even if our car has safetybelts and bucket seats.

I won't say much about CAKE the band because it would just be regurgitation from other sources--I haven't followed them closely. But I will say I'm a big fan of what I've heard. The lyrics, the music, and the performances: it's all top-notch. While I'm sure I will survive if I don't get any more of their albums, I may add some more titles eventually.


The Cars

Sure, I've said this about other bands, but: I grew up with the Cars. Probably more than any other band from my childhood, they were one of the first groups I knew by name when a song came on the radio. Songs like "Shake It Up" and "Magic" had this mix of synth, guitar, and irreverence that pricked up my ears at 5 years old as much as fifteen.

This led me to acquire their Complete Greatest Hits when I was starting to really care about CDs. (I think my dad bought it for me, but that point's fuzzy.) I literally wore the disc out: at some point, it got scuffed around the outer edge and made the last couple tracks unplayable. I had listened to it multiple times a day for I-don't-know-how-long before that happened; and not wanting to live without "Tonight She Comes" and "You Are the Girl", I had the disc repaired.

Eventually, I realized "the hits" weren't enough, and the Cars became the first band I really intentionally collected. I proceeded to buy every album, along with the compilations that would get me the most bonus tracks. Looking back at old order histories and e-mails, I guess this was back in 2009. I see some additional recordings have since surfaced on more recent reissues, but I have almost every song they've released on CD. Because of all this, I plan to write a bit about each album.

The Cars is like Boston in that nearly every song showed up on the radio at one time or another, and most of it made its way onto Complete Greatest Hits. The only track I wasn't totally familiar with when I first got it was "I'm in Touch With Your World", but even that I had heard on vinyl. "My Best Friend's Girl" is one that my dad would (and still does) play at open mic nights. "Just What I Needed" might be my all-time favorite, but how can one choose such a thing? Regardless, I have sung it doing karoke at a wedding reception (completely sober!).

I have the two-disc "deluxe edition" of The Cars, which includes several early demos. It took a while to find a copy because it was out of print by the time I started looking for it. The demos of some of the album's songs are surprisingly similar to the final release, but obviously less polished. It's fun to hear what changed and what stayed the same. There are also songs that you won't hear anywhere else, and to me they provide a glimpse at a young band figuring out their sound. For someone who was born after their last studio album was recorded (well, more on that later), it's a special treat to hear something from their early days.

While true for their first album, it wasn't until Candy-O that I started to notice how good the Cars were at opening and closing an album. Really, I think it was because of them that I started to hear this at all; and it's something I've come to appreciate when a band puts that extra thought into track order. Just as The Cars opens with a strange synthesized beat at the beginning of "Good Times Roll", Candy-O opens with a cymbal crash and a catchy synth lick in "Let's Go". Just as The Cars closes with the bombastic "All Mixed Up", Candy-O closes with the equally epic "Dangerous Type". But tracks in the middle stand out to me the most, "It's All I Can Do" and "Double Life" topping the list.

Another tradition that started with the Cars was that of listening to a new album daily for at least a week. This practice was cemented by the fact that Panorama, which started as my least-favorite Cars album, became a contender for first place after repeat listening. It's not like I didn't like the album in the beginning; it was just less familiar. After all, The only song that made it onto Complete Greatest Hits was "Touch and Go". But those driving synth beats and the album's darker tone got to me in time, and I came to appreciate what they put together.

I put on Shake It Up and "Since You're Gone", one of my top favorites, starts to play. Once again, they know how to open an album to perfection. The title track takes me right back to younger days. An instrumental version of "This Could Be Love" would be right at home in the Mortal Kombat soundtrack. Not much else to say: it's a great album, but maybe not in my top three.

Heartbeat City, on the other hand, is in that top three (if I even had to choose). Notice that it is beaten only by The Cars in the number of tracks that showed up on Complete Greatest Hits, and you might think that influences my decision; but look at all the hits that it produced, and it's clear it made up a significant chunk of the radio broadcasts of my childhood. Tracks like "Hello Again" and "Magic" definitely fueled my early fascination with synthesizers. The whole thing feels like the perfect soundtrack for a summer in the '80s, and I'm sure it was just that to many when it was released in 1984.

I think it's also worth pointing out another strength of the Cars: not only their knack for opening and closing an album, but even each side of the original vinyl release. Side two of Heartbeat City opens just as well with "You Might Think" as side one does with "Hello Again".

Recorded shortly before and released shortly after my birth, Door to Door was to be the Cars' last album (again, more on that later). Maybe it's the knowledge of that fact, but the recording feels somehow bitter at times. I think another aspect of the "feel" is simply due to the fact they returned to a slightly less programmed and polished production style compared to their previous two albums. Whatever it is, this ranks up there near the top for me. Opener "Leave or Stay" is perfect, and "You Are the Girl" is an easy favorite. The title track closes the album with a huge blast of punk energy, followed by a shutting door that to me always felt like the band leaving the studio for the last time.

Another thing that increases the importance of Door to Door is the inclusion of two of its tracks on a mix CD I gave to Sarah while we were dating: "You Are the Girl" and "Coming Up You". Sure, it could be argued that it was primarily due to their titles starting with the words I needed for my secret message; but they won out over other options because I specifically wanted to have some Cars tracks on there.

Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology is more than a greatest hits compilation, but I didn't get it right away. It was when I realized "Tonight She Comes" wasn't from any album but rather 1985's Greatest Hits that I started looking deeper for extras. In addition to a great cross section of Cars hits, Anthology also brings quite a few B-sides and previously-unreleased tracks. This makes it a must-have for fans and passersby.

Thus I concluded my Cars collecting in 2009, safe in the knowledge I had basically every recording they'd released on CD. What timing, considering the band decided to get back together and release a new album less than two years later! Move Like This came out in 2011, and I snatched up an exclusive Best Buy edition with bonus tracks as soon as I could. Original co-lead vocalist and bassist Benjamin Orr passed away in 2000, but Ric Ocasek did his best to channel a similar style on tracks where Orr would've normally taken the lead.

Surely from a combination of Orr's passing and the general aging of all the band's members, Move Like This feels a little more somber lyrically; but it's still very much the Cars. At times, it picks up right where they left things in '87; but then you hear plenty to demonstrate how much they've all grown as musicians and people. "Soon" was another Cars track that made it's way onto that secret message mix CD, and I was all too happy to share something from their newest output.

I may have some more discs to buy to pad out my collection of songs, but with Ocasek's passing in 2019 it's sad to think there won't be another reunion. The door that was shut in 1987 had reopened at just the right time. Please forgive the obvious, but it's all I can do: reminiscing about this band that's meant so much to me was just what I needed.

Tune in next week...

Look forward to a "band" named after a line from This Is Spinal Tap along with an incredible jazz pianist.

"Of the first of your dough you shall offer up a cake for a wave offering."

Numbers 15:20a, WEB

Tags: cd-listening, meet-the-mayhaks, music