THE CARS: SHAKE IT UP (1981)
1) Since You're Gone; 2) Shake It Up; 3) I'm Not The One; 4) Victim Of Love; 5) Cruiser; 6) A Dream Away; 7) This Could Be Love; 8) Think It Over; 9) Maybe Baby.
Back to basics — after the somewhat exaggerated gloominess of Panorama, The Cars return with arguably their most lightweight and unpretentious release to that point. If The Cars were all about a smooth, symbolic transition from the age of «classic rock» into the modern era, Candy-O was all about how to handle girl problems in that modern era, and Panorama was about finding a good balance between hooks and atmosphere, then Shake It Up is just a collection of pop hooks, period. The album has almost no personality whatsoever, as Ocasek and Orr either deliver the lyrics without any particular vocal expression or, for some reason, borrow elements of alien vocal styles (on ʽSince You're Goneʼ, Ocasek seems to be giving us a Dylan impersonation — with all that rising pitch on the shouted parts), not to mention how the vocals are regularly obscured in the mix, starting a tendency that would eventually reach its peak on Heartbeat City.
With albums like these, writing reviews is no fun because it all ultimately comes down to the overall number of hooks per song — these tunes are catchy all right, but so slight that it's easier to come up with useful insights about a jar of mayonnaise. The title track, which was also chosen for the album's first single, truly does nothing except incite you to "shake it up" (or, if you need more detail, "dance all night, play all day, don't let nothin' get in the way"), with a fun guitar melody and an appropriate set of woo-hoos to carry the day; its B-side, ʽCruiserʼ, is much better, particularly its odd two-part riff that begins with brawny arena-rock power chords and ends with a lighter bluesy flourish (people usually prefer the reverse order), but there's little else to the song: it does somehow manage to convey the grimy atmosphere of nighttime cruising through the seedy parts of the big city, but that is hardly enough for a great song — decent, nothing more.
As far as sonic evolution is concerned, Shake It Up clearly pushes forward into the electronic age, although in 1981 mainstream production standards had not yet propelled bands high up in the air: electronically enhanced drums, with elements of drum machine programming, and synthesized dance-pop loops reflect the possible influence of Prince (something like ʽThink It Overʼ could, in fact, very easily have fit in on Controversy), but the sound is still very much «in your face», with a high quotient of pure fun. On the other hand, it does hurt with the occasional ballad like ʽI'm Not The Oneʼ, where Easton's melodic lead guitar lines are almost wasted on a bleepy melody that seems more suitable for a soundtrack to some early Japanese hentai game than for your respectable speakers — meaning that the then-fresh, now-ridiculous sonic textures of the decade are already beginning to corrode the musicianship.
In the middle of it all comes ʽA Dream Awayʼ, a tune that is seriously out of place on the album: a grim, slightly industrialized soundscape, with Ocasek's voice run through some serious effects and now somewhat similar to Lou Reed's in its gloomy commentary on a world that cannot satisfy the protagonist, because "the good life is just a dream away". The song is almost like an outtake from Panorama, and although thematically it is not too far away from the many other pessimistic statements on this record, musically it is far darker than the title track or ʽVictim Of Loveʼ — showing that, once the initial impression is over, there's at least a little more to the album than just the hook-stuffed singles.
But still, not enough to shake off the feeling that Shake It Up is about as lightweight a record as its cover suggests — as The Cars return to the old tried-and-true practice of putting glitzy supermodels on their slightly decadent album sleeves (and this time armed with a cocktail shaker at that). A nice listen if you like simple and direct early Eighties pop, and a well-earned thumbs up all the way, but the fact that the title track actually earned them their first Top 10 hit on the Billboard charts (ʽGood Times Rollʼ only hit No. 41, in comparison) is hardly a positive testimony in the face of humanity.