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The Cars
The Cars Anthology: Just What I Needed
(Elektra/Rhino)

Back in the late Seventies, when record executives and rock critics alike used the term "new wave" to describe the more accessible groups that spun off from the planet of punk, the Cars were the rulers of the new-wave hemisphere. The Boston quintet's quirky, slightly arty rock -- introduced in 1978 with their eponymously titled debut album -- was melodic and tuneful enough to fit nicely between the AOR hits of FM titans such as Journey and Foreigner, yet weird enough to make people feel as if they were expanding their horizons when they cranked up "My Best Friend's Girl" or "Good Times Roll."

The Cars were a marketing man's dream come true: a group that not only drew considerable critical praise early on but also established the commercial viability of a new strain of rock that had previously languished in bargain bins. As the hits kept coming, the critics would eventually lose interest, yet the foundation of the band's sound A detached but oddly engaging vocals, crisp synthetic drums, gimmicky sound effects, and tasty hard-rock guitar A remained basically the same from their early hits to their 1984 breakthrough album Heartbeat City. By the time they released Door to Door, their lackluster 1987 swan song, the Cars had inspired a host of mostly unlistenable groups (Bugs Tomorrow, anyone?) and helped usher in the electronic dance-pop boom of the early Eighties. Nonetheless, they are remembered today primarily for a handful of hits, their innovations banished to half-baked new-wave compilations and VH1 retrospectives.

If anything, Just What I Needed is the Cars' posthumous bid for legitimacy A a two-disc overview that pulls together a whopping 40 tracks, including all the singles, key album tracks, some forgotten B-sides, and the outtakes and demos common to these coffee-table collections. It's a lavish set, with a spiffy metal-flake slipcover and an info-packed 28-page booklet. If you think the package smacks of excess, too much hubbub over what was essentially a singles band, surprise -- Just What I Needed is about as fun as new-wave nostalgia will ever get. Only a pop-hating curmudgeon or a punk-rock elitist would deny the simple and sublime charms of the best music here.

Chief songwriter Ric Ocasek was never a master of grand rock and roll statements. He could be infuriatingly obtuse, even when confessing true lust ("Candy-O") or lamenting a broken heart ("Since You're Gone"), and both Ocasek and co-vocalist/bassist Benjamin Orr spent too many years studying the icy mannerisms of Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry. Ocasek was an inspired craftsman, though, who wrapped his baffling lyrics around clever melodies and razor-sharp hooks ("Moving in Stereo," "Double Life" ) and put new spins on age-old riffs ("My Best Friend's Girl," "Let's Go"). And though the group's growing obsession with synthesizers would eventually obscure his contributions, Elliot Easton was the perfect guitar hero for the era A flashy in a tasteful and traditional sort of way (check out the squawking break on "Candy-O"), but also inventive (ditto the soaring one-string solo on "Since You're Gone"). His work here holds up much better than the sound-effect doodlings of keyboardist Greg Hawkes, whose boings, bings, and blips on "Dangerous Type," "Candy-O," and "Panorama" sound dinky in comparison.

Although it's vastly superior to the band's skimpy hits package from 1985, Just What I Needed at times delivers more than you need. The three B-sides are pleasant but hardly essential, and of the eight outtakes and demos, only "Cool Fool," a crunching rocker recorded in 1977, is worth salvaging. And though their later hits were among their biggest, "Drive," "You Might Think," and "Tonight She Comes" are robotic and slick to the point of distraction. Better to focus on the meat of the set -- almost all of the first disc, and maybe a quarter of the second -- for the ultimate taste of new wave's sonic concepts.

-- John Floyd

Ennio Morricone
Ennio Morricone with Love: Original Soundtrack Recordings
(DRG)

Is there a film composer who's cooler than Ennio Morricone? If you're cruising down Ocean Drive in your red Ferrari with a Campari in one hand and a beautiful Gauloise-smoking stranger at your side, Morricone has already written the soundtrack for that. He's also written it if, at the next light, you spill your drink, have the cigarette stubbed out on your forehead, and have your fingers slammed in the car door as the stranger, who turns out to be one of America's Most Wanted, runs out on you. Whether Morricone is pouring a spicy, blood-red sauce on a spaghetti Western or throwing missionaries over a waterfall in an epic, he is a master of irony and distancing, of the lonely whistler, of the woman's disembodied voice floating over the mesa, of the twanging banjo and the paralyzing electric guitar riff, and of the quirky little twists and jabs that seem to mock both the film and its audience. Even in his easy-listening mode, Morricone can make you feel uneasy.

Morricone's body of work has received a lot of attention over the past year. A Fistful of Film Music, a two-CD anthology on the Rhino label, is a good overview of his work, as is DRG's recent Ennio Morricone Anthology and two earlier compilations on Virgin Movie Music. Since his many scores for romantic dramas and comedies have not received the attention that his scores for other genres have, this DRG release is welcome. The clever, outlandish effects that characterize his scores for Westerns such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, for example, are absent here, but Morricone's signature Muzak-from-Hell persists. The 21 film scores covered in this release span the years 1968 through 1991; they will be unfamiliar to most Americans, with the exception of 1989's Cinema Paradiso. Each film is represented by one track, usually a main title.

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