There are moments when Move Like This, the first new album by the Cars in 24 years, sounds so much like a Record by the Cars that you find yourself laughing out loud. Take "Sad Song," on which the opening salvo — a terse guitar strum set against the machinelike thwack of snare drum and hand claps — is such a note-perfect evocation of the band's vintage attack that it almost plays like winking self-parody. Ronald Reagan was mired in the Iran-Contra scandal when Ric Ocasek and Co. released their last studio album; Benjamin Orr, the Cars' bassist and co-lead singer, died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. But the Cars haven't moved their music an inch. This is the sound of a band picking up a conversation in midsentence.
Can you blame them? Their hits are still radio mainstays, and their influence is audible in successive generations of pop-savvy rockers, from Weezer to the Strokes. Listen back to "Just What I Needed" or "Drive" and you'll hear where many of today's young bands learned their tricks: how to mix guitars and synthesizers, how to make rock that's as tuneful as bubblegum, and pop that's as stylishly sinister as rock. Move Like This is a reminder that New Wave can still sound new, especially when the Cars do it. Produced with skillful restraint by Ocasek, his bandmates and the dependable Jacknife Lee (the Hives, Snow Patrol), the album calls to mind adjectives long associated with the Cars: taut, sleek, seamless, efficient. It's a record that whizzes past — 10 songs in less than 40 minutes — leaving behind a dark gleam.
It opens with a socko one-two punch: "Blue Tip" and "Too Late," textbook Cars songs that place Ocasek's deadpan atop Elliot Easton's tensile lead guitar and Greg Hawkes' blipping, squealing keyboards. The Cars have been called post-punk pop classicists — what Buddy Holly might have sounded like had he lived long enough to trade in his Strat for a Roland synthesizer. But the thing that has really set them apart is groove, and Ocasek is at his best in songs like "Keep on Knockin'," singing a jittery version of the boogie blues.
Ocasek's lyrics can be hard to parse, whether about sex ("Your waxy face is melting on your lap/I sat there trying to crush a gingersnap") or politics ("Sanctuary in the heartland/Black-and-white TV/Stroking all the gunheads/ To the ninth degree"). But for Ocasek, the sound is more important than the message — in fact, the sound is the message. The Cars have always been mood-music specialists; their cold, brittle, shiny songs evoke long nights, jagged nerves, frustrated longings.
Orr added some warmth, a touch of daylight, to the proceedings, but with him gone, Ocasek has burnished the group's music to a glossier shade of noir. "Your eyes are dim, your heart is blue/'Cause nothing ever lasts," Ocasek croaks over chiming guitar arpeggios in "Take Another Look"; on "Sad Song," he sings, "It's just a sad song that pulls you along." Long after we thought we'd heard the last from them, the Cars have made their darkest, most romantic album. It pulls you along.