Starting in 1978 and running through most of the 80s, there was a new sound in popular music. Prior to that, your standard pop-rock band had drums, bass, and rhythm and lead guitar. There was a lead singer who sang sincere and heart-felt lyrics of the vicissitudes of love. A fifth member of the band, if there was one, played piano or organ or both, and sang back-up. But in 1978, a new band arrived, with great hooks, a lead singer who sang with ironic detachment, although the subject matter had not changed, and with a keyboard player who played synthesizer. The band had great writing, with some of the best hooks anyone had ever heard, and with lyrics that began with tales of teenage lust, and progressed to more mature tales of love as the band matured. The band was The Cars, and you may have guessed that they were favorites of mine. So I’m going to be touchy when someone covers one of their songs. Kris Delmhorst has covered an entire album of them.
The album is Cars. I have to believe that this project started back in the 80s, with Delmhorst learning each new Cars album by heart, and singing along with the records in her bedroom when she thought no one was listening. I say that because her phrasing throughout is perfect, just the way I remember the originals. Now, I don’t go for people who cover a song by reproducing the originals note for note. But, what saves Delmhorst’s vocal performances here for me is the fact that she understands that she is not Ric Ocasek. The notes and the phrasing are here, but the tone is new. Delmhorst does not come off as ironic at all, but the lyrics can support a sincere reading as well, and Delmhorst projects a wonderful warmth that works beautifully. The fast songs, like You Might Think and My Best Friend’s Girl have a playful quality that really works. But Delmhorst especially shines on the ballads. Drive was a big hit in the original version, but it was one place where I always thought that the ironic approach didn’t work. Here, Delmhorst gives a completely sincere reading, and I hear what I was missing.
But I have saved the best for last. Those great hooks are all here, but Delmhorst has arranged the songs for a sort of folk orchestra. On top of a solid foundation of drums and bass, there is an army of mostly acoustic instruments. Those synthesizer line from the original songs might be played here on accordion, fiddle, penny whistle, or even clarinet. On Drive, the original had a wash of synthesizers as the key to the sound of the song, but here it’s a combination of accordion with some bass clarinet added as the song progresses. This really warms the song up, making it more emotionally resonant. Delmhorst also loosens up the arrangements at times. The cello parts on Why Can’t I Have You add depth to the song. Listen closely to the bass line on My Best Friend’s Girl, and you will hear the wonderful playfulness of this album. And the banjo part in Hello Again is a great touch. The background vocals are a mix of high female voices and low male ones, and the push and pull between the two is a device that is used here to great effect, especially on Shake It Up.
In sum, Kris Delmhorst shaows that she loves these songs, and the album gives me fond memories of when I first heard them. But the songs have been revoiced, both vocally and instrumentally, which makes Cars an album that is full of delightful surprises.
Kris Delmhorst: Why Can‘t I Have You
Kris Delmhorst: Drive