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Music Reviews

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February 28, 1996


CarsThe Cars, Just What I Needed: The Anthology (Rhino 1995) - For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Elektra remains reluctant to tap into its vaults. Instead, it has turned over the reissue keys to some of its biggest acts to Rhino.

And Rhino scores big with Just What I Needed, a new 40-song, two-CD career overview of Boston rockers, The Cars.

All the hits are featured on Just What I Needed, together with a dozen non-LP B-sides and previously-unreleased demos and masters. To my ear, the best material comes from the first albums, when The Cars were hot and fresh, and when producer Roy Thomas Baker was at his peak.

Although The Cars released only six albums, the band scored a huge measure of chart success. Singer and guitarist, Rik Ocasek, wrote all the band's early material, and his tongue-in-check approach came through loud and clear on songs like "You're All I've Got Tonight" and "My Best Friend's Girl."

Ocasek was joined by Elliott Easton on lead guitar, Greg Hawkes on keyboards, Benjamin Orr on bass, and David Robinson on drums. While all played together in other Boston bands (including Milkwood and Cap'n Swing), none anticipated the success of The Cars, which slid effortlessly from punk to pop to rock, all buoyed by Ocasek's great songs.

Following The Cars' debut on New Year's Eve, 1977, the band quickly became darlings of the Boston club circuit and was recruited by many major labels, including Elektra and Arista (whose head, the legendary Clive Davis, took the band to dinner to try to woo them to his label).

Recalls Easton, "The capper was probably when we played Max's Kansas City for Kiss manager, Bill Aucoin, and some other industry types. What they told us was, 'You guys have some great songs, there's some good playing. But one guy looks like he should be in the Velvets, and another guy looks like he's in the Grateful Dead, and it doesn't make a lot of visual sense.' We came home with our tails between our legs, and all of us did some hard thinking."

debut albumAfter signing with Elektra, the band was teamed with producer Roy Thomas Baker (best known for his work with Queen) and recorded, in the space of two weeks, one of the greatest debut albums ever - The Cars (1978).

In fact, the entire first album should have been included on this set (the collection includes only six of the nine songs), just like Rhino did with Love's first album on the new Love Story double-disc (another great new reissue from Elektra's vaults). The first songs have an amazing vitality and a great pop sense, and deserve to be heard as originally presented.

With three chart-topping singles ("Just What I Need," "My Best Friend's Girl," and "Good Times Roll"), The Cars launched the band into the pop firmament, only to be followed by 1979's Candy O, which featured frontcover art by pinup maestro Alberto Vargas. [And it's sad but true that this kind of artwork loses its luster when reduced for CD packaging.]

Like many groups, The Cars' early material was their best: in their final six years, the band released only two albums (1984's Heartbeat City and Door to Door from 1987).

Candy-OWhile the band later developed a reputation for being sullen stage performers, they continued to achieve pop success with such radio-friendly cuts as "Touch and Go," "Shake It Up," and "You Might Think" (all included on this set).

Credit must be given to the outstanding remastering job by Bill Inglot and Dan Hersch. Listening to this set made me miss the first album, so I bought it separately. However, the tracks on Just What I Needed sound much better; fuller, deeper, and brighter. In particular, the opening bars to "Just What I Needed" and "Don't Cha Stop" reveal sounds I've never heard before.

And I finally understand why. Old-time studio engineers used special techniques to compensate for vinyl's inherent limitations. A 12-inch spinning disc has inherent flaws (for example, the needle tracks differently at different points on the album): a CD doesn't have similar limitations.

When albums that were mastered for LP are transferred directly to CD, the CD doesn't sound as good as the album, because the CD can't duplicate the harmonic effects created by the vinyl. And that's what happened with Elektra's version; it wasn't remastered for CD.

However, when Rhino did the job (and they always do it right), they remastered the tracks expressly for CD, eliminating the rolloffs and accentuations needed to make vinyl lively. And that explains why some LPs still sound better than their CD counterparts - the albums were mixed for vinyl and never cleaned up for release on CD.

Just What I Needed sounds great, and will get you running in the red line. Now if Rhino would only reissue all the CDs, with remastered sound, we'd really have something.

-- Randy Krbechek

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