by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
It may seem a bit silly on the surface to ask whether or not a band that would ultimately – and very deservedly – end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could have been even bigger, but in the case of The Cars (finally inducted in 2018), there are nonetheless several “what if” questions worth pondering in regards to the career trajectory of the band during its last five years together. For starters, the band strangely failed to build much on the momentum generated by its most commercially successful album, 1984’s #3-peaking, quadruple-platinum Heartbeat City, which gave the band an astounding five additional Top Forty singles, including two Top Ten smashes in “You Might Think” and “Drive” and another two Top Twenty hits in “Magic” and “Hello Again.” Instead, the band’s next move was to release a greatest-hits disc with one new song (“Tonight She Comes”) and go on an extended hiatus before finally reconvening in 1987 and going out on a highly anticlimactic note with the commercial flop Door to Door, which is almost universally recognized as the worst album the band would ever release. [Wisely, Ocasek and his surviving bandmates would rectify that decades later and make a much more respectable farewell disc from the group in Move like This.] There’s also the question of whether or not the band might have lasted longer – and the long hiatus been unnecessary – if not for the imbalance of media attention given to the band’s two lead singers, Ocasek and the less-well-known Ben Orr, who had taken lead on “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go,” “It’s All I Can Do,” and “Drive,” to name just a few of his most popular vocal outings with the group.
But just as puzzling is the fact that Ocasek’s enormous extracurricular success outside of the group would come largely not as a solo performer (and not for lack of trying, either, Ocasek ultimately releasing seven full-lengths on his own) but, rather, as a producer for the likes of Weezer (it’s Ocasek who oversaw the “Blue” and “Green” albums, as well as Everything Will Be Alright in the End), Romeo Void, Bad Brains, Guided by Voices, Suicide, and Bad Religion. Surprisingly, neither Ocasek nor Orr were ever able to rack up more than one solitary Top 40 hit each as solo artists. [Orr’s would come in the form of the sleek, synth-heavy adult-contemporary pop of the #24-peaking “Stay the Night” from 1986’s The Lace.] Ocasek, perhaps not surprisingly, was a bit more successful, reaching #28 with his first solo album, 1982’s experimental Beatitude, and #31 with the follow-up, the lighter and more accessible This Side of Paradise, which arguably comes the closest of any of Ocasek’s solo albums to replicating the charm and the pop immediacy of the Cars’ most famous singles.
Considering the influences of Roxy Music that were audible in the Cars’ earliest records (not just in the arty flourishes of cuts like “Good Times Roll” or “Moving in Stereo” but also in the way that the handclap-laden chorus of a single like “Let’s Go” mimicked the sound of “Street Life”), it’s only fitting that This Side of Paradise (released, like Beatitude before it, on Geffen, and not via the Cars’ longtime home of Elektra Records) should seem comparable in several ways to Bryan Ferry’s first post-Roxy Music solo discs like Boys and Girls and Bete Noire, not in the least in the way that Ocasek similarly surrounds himself with an all-star cast of friends here. Whereas Ferry’s Bete Noire brings in such luminaries as the Smiths’ Johnny Marr and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Ocasek recruits two guitar heroes himself in longtime Billy Idol sidekick Steve Stevens (who plays guitar on much of the record and steals the show on the cut “True Love,” where he unusually gets to solo for a change on a nylon-stringed acoustic) and Television frontman Tom Verlaine, who solos on the song “P.F.J.” [The initials, in case you’re wondering, stand for “Pink Flag Joe.”] SNL’s then- house-band leader G.E. Smith also pops up on guitar and King Crimson’s Tony Levin on bass, while the drumming on the album is entirely handled by the disc’s co-producer, Chris Hughes, formerly the drummer for Adam and the Ants. [If Hughes seems an unlikely choice of co-producer, there’s a good reason Ocasek recruited him: Hughes had just helmed one of the biggest albums of the mid-‘80s, Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair.] The disc also features appearances from all of Ocasek’s Cars bandmates save for drummer David Robinson, and the contagious “True to You” is nearly a Cars record in everything but name, featuring Greg Hawkes (who plays on the majority of the album) on keyboards, Elliot Easton on guitar, and Ben Orr on backing vocals, and the equally catchy opener “Keep on Laughin’” similarly sounds as if it would fit in effortlessly onto a latter-day Cars disc like Heartbeat City or Door to Door.
Though a small handful of cuts might have benefitted from a bit of editing (namely, the title cut and “Look in Your Eyes”), that’s a minor complaint to what’s otherwise a highly appealing disc, one that’s also boosted a great deal by the presence of Ocasek’s lone major solo hit single, the Top Twenty hit “Emotion in Motion,” a lovely and surprisingly straight-forwardly romantic ballad from Ocasek that’s much stronger in its unedited album version than it was on the 45, which inexplicably chopped off the lovely keyboard motif that begins the track. Some critics scoffed at the simplicity of the song’s melody and lyrics alike, but that very simplicity is a large part of what makes the song so instantly charming and fun to sing along to, and the song’s production touches (like the countermelody that crops up during the song’s second verse) help to fill up the gaps with all kinds of atmospheric ear candy for those listening especially closely, not in the least a guest turn on guitar from Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal.
Ocasek would sadly never have another solo record perform quite so well on the charts (though 1997’s Troublizing, co-produced with Billy Corgan, garnered some strong reviews), but then, he also never made another solo record quite as unapologetically fun and playful as this, either, and fans of such pop-oriented Cars platters as Heartbeat City are likely to gravitate to this disc more easily than nearly any other of Ocasek’s extracurricular outings.