Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Cars' "Panorama"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: If you liked the first two Cars albums, you'll like this one. Just maybe a little less.

Panorama was The Cars' third album, released in 1980, following their first two successful releases, The Cars in 1978 and Candy-O in 1979. If you read reviews of the album, two things will strike you. The first is that most of the critiques written when it was first released were significantly more negative than the reviews had been for either of its two predecessor LPs, or for either of the two albums that followed it, Shake It Up in 1981 and Heartbeat City in 1984. The second noticeable thing is that many of the appraisals written years after the fact describe Panorama as more experimental than either of the band's first two albums, and point to this as the reason for the album's initial lack of critical success.

There might be some truth to the first idea. I actually like Panorama better than Shake It Up, but that's a matter of personal taste. The fact is that Panorama is the lowest selling album of The Cars' first five releases, although it still went Platinum in the U.S., which is nothing to sneeze at. So those who view it as the weakest album of the Cars' first five have the sales records on their side. As for the second idea, though, that Panorama was some kind of big change in direction for the band following Candy-O, I just don't hear it. They're maybe playing around more with the synthesizer sounds than they were on the first two albums, and occasionally putting effects on the vocals, but that's about it. The truth is that the biggest difference between Panorama and either of the band's previous albums comes down to one simple difference -- the lack of successful singles.

The Cars were always one of those hybrid bands -- popular in part for their albums and in part for their singles. Their heyday being the new wave period of the late '70s and early '80s, they arrived at a time when the American music scene was in flux, shifting away from bands who made their living off of album rock and FM radio airplay and toward bands who were able to compete in the singles arena. The Cars were normally strong in each of these domains. Much like their first two releases, Panorama featured several songs that got significant FM radio airplay in the U.S., including the title track and the album-closing "Up and Down". It was in the Top 40 realm that the LP fell short.

The Cars' eponymous debut album featured three songs that made the singles chart, and Candy-Ofeatured two. Panorama was the only one of the Cars' first five albums to chart with only one successful single, "Touch and Go", which topped out at #37 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two other tracks were released as singles, "Don't Tell Me No" and "Give Me Some Slack", but neither managed to chart. So as best as I can tell, when critics described Panorama as "experimental", what they really meant was it's stingier with the pop hooks.

In spite of this, there's still plenty to like here. The songs are still imbued with Elliot Easton's impudent guitar bursts and Greg Hawkes' sometimes-strident synthesizers, and feature the same deadpan vocals by Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr that helped to give the group their trademark sound. There are ten tracks on the album, with Ocasek taking six of the leads and Orr the other four. As was usually the case, Ocasek wrote all of the songs. The lyrics still as often as not feature male protagonists getting twisted physically and mentally by capable and alluring women who know how to take control of a situation. 

The single, "Touch and Go" is almost delicate for a Cars song. It's a mid-tempo ballad sung by Ocasek and punctuated by little keyboard bursts, with a chorus that's longer than the verses. It doesn't stack up against some of the band's best early singles like "Just What I Needed" or "Let's Go", but it certainly holds its own with others such as "Good Times Roll" or "My Best Friend's Girl".

Other memorable numbers on Panorama include "Gimme Some Slack" (which sounds in some parts like the answer to the question "What would it have been like if Ric Ocasek had fronted The Rolling Stones?"), and the sometimes harsh title track, "Panorama". Other than the single, though, the highlight of the album is probably "Up and Down". It manages to be both raucous and controlled, somehow precise in its mayhem. And yes, as usual, Ocasek is all "up and down" here (and probably sideways as well) over a woman.

To sum it all up, Panorama is vintage Cars, containing all of the elements that made their first two albums so popular. It's maybe just a little more noisy and a little less catchy. If you liked The Carsand Candy-O, you'll probably like Panorama as well. Just maybe not as much.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars