Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab shakes it up once more by remastering and reissuing The Cars' fourth album on the black medium. Recorded in Boston in their -then- newly acquired Intermedia Studios and rechristined Synchro Sound, Shake It Up would be the first and only Cars album to benefit from these facilities. Slowly moving away from their New Wave roots, the LPushers in the emerging 1980s synthpop while retaining just enough of that earlier spark to keep it interesting. If one were to make a case for taking parallel musical directions, one could be found in another four letter American band. Are we not talking about Devo? We are indeed! Both bands burst onto the scene in 1978 with an original debut, releasing one album per year and by the time their fourth LP hit the charts in 1981, the keyboard became the dominant instrumental force. This 'transitional' period brought a breath of fresh air to the music industry but alas was short-lived. By the end of 1980, this New Wave was no longer making waves.
Like so many of the New Wave pioneers, The Cars had to adapt to the changing decade by pushing the electronic percussion and keyboards ahead of the drums and guitars. By doing so they furthered their distance from rock while embracing the more commercial offsprings of German-based visionaries Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. Those that did not comply, simply disappeared from the scene when 1981 came knocking at the door. Interestingly the group's drummer, David Robinson, was far from being a newbie. He cut his teeth with the often forgotten but seminal protopunk Boston band The Modern Lovers.
With this reissue MFSL have improved considerably
upon the original artwork. First off they took the pains of making a gatefold
jacket when none existed at the time. By integrating the original 'waxed paper'
inner sleeve inside a sturdy heavy carton of superior quality, it not only
insures long term protection but adds to higher value and personal satisfaction.
Apart from their signature green band at the top and the barcode on the reverse,
the front and back cover are faithful to the original. Inside the record is
housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original
Master Sleeves'.In addition, a folded light carton with 36 album
covers and various products brings further record protection. The 180 gram
heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was flat and black and
shiny. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the
original (in this case Elektra) but instead is plain black with silver writing.
The original U.S. and Canadian pressings are typical of 1980s' low standards,
fitting in the cheap 'floppy disk' 100-120 grams category. Visually there is no
contest. Simply put, the MoFi makes a mockery of the original Elektra.
Mastering and cutting engineer Rob LoVerde chose a groove spacing coverage of approximately 3 1/4 inches on side one and 3 inches on side two - compared to 3 3/8 and 3 1/4 respectively for the original lacquer cut by George Marino at Sterling Sound, N.Y. Thus the remaining 'dead wax' should be sufficient not to aggravate the usual high frequency loss but it is pretty much at the maximum, radius wise. With roughly 20 min./side, there should not be too much compromise regarding adequate cutting level and bandwidth for the chosen speed. MFSL's half-speed mastering/cutting will also help in keeping things clean in the highest frequencies.
I did not have the original U.S. Elektra 1rst pressing on hand so I settled for the above Canadian pressing which I believe is an early pressing. Generally pressings of that era were not that far appart in sound but there's no guarantee that a different stamper was not used this side of the border.
Contrarily to The Cars' 1978 debut album which I knew held promise for good sound, I was more skeptical regarding this later release, fearing the usual '3D syndrome': the dreaded digital decade. Then again, it was recorded in 1981 and not 1984 when the full onslaught 'flourished'.
I started out my evaluation with the Elektra (the original from now on) cueing the first track "Since You're Gone". As expected it was lousy; sounding thin, compressed, lacking weight, poor vocals pushed up in the mix, peaky low treble, lack of refinement, overtly cool and hints of early digititis. In other words quite typical of the first and mid part of that decade. Having to rate the original, I would be hard-pressed to give it more than a 2 out of 5.
Switching to the new reissue by MoFi was a
revelation. Cut a good five decibels lower than the original, l turned up the
volume to better match levels on my trusty sound meter. All of the negative
aspects noted earlier were favorably addressed. Gone was the cheap cold limited
bandwidth, replaced instead with a wide warm bassy but refined tonal balance. I
was stunned that such a non-fatiguing warm sounding palette was coming from a
1981 recording. Putting aside the various musical stylistic cues; on a purely
sonic basis this new equalization shared more the aesthetics of the 1970s than
any other era. Sure the dynamic range remained somewhat limited but the 'mix
compression' sounded analog and in line with this type of music.
The title track displayed the same major improvements on the MoFi, discovering anew this oh so familiar hit. To partially paraphrase an old standard: 'What a Difference a remastering Makes'. Same goes for "I'm Not the One" which oddly was posthumously released as a single after being included on their 1985 Greatest Hits album.
"Victim of Love" recalling "My
Best Friend's Girl" from their debut LP, had great warm punchy bass - again
very surprising for this music/recording period. The original sounded boring
right after and this pattern was consistent throughout the album. Once you've
heard the difference you will not want go back to the original.
"Cruiser" being the last track of side one shows some restriction in bottom and top compared to the previous ones but still comes out better, less 'middy' and compressed than the original. On this song, Rick Ocasek adopts a vocal style close in delivery to Rough Trade's Carole Pope who was at her peak at this point in time.
Side two simply reaffirms the pleasant sound
balance with "A Dream Away", followed by "This Could Be
Love". This song could easily pass for a Gary Numan composition a la
"Cars" (no pun intended) or even "Are 'Friends' Electric?"
but with Bowie taking charge of the vocals. It is probably the most New Wave
track of the album, closer to "Good Times Roll" from their debut and
perhaps the best sounding track of the LP.
"Think It Over", a faster paced New
Wave has double handclaps that reminds me of The Tourists' "I Only Want to
Be With You" from 1979's Reality Effect (Logo)
and Altered Images "I Could Be Happy" from 1982's Pinky
Blue (Epic). In the end it segues from the right channel panning left
into..."Maybe Baby", the closing song. Good bass and an energetic
rambling rhythm support vocals resembling The Cure's Robert Smith.
Both sides played perfectly noise free, devoid of any ticks and pops; this despite the lower cutting level that could have proven more problematic than the original had the pressing not be flawless. On the other hand, the rather constant levels encountered on this type of recording are more forgiving in nature than Beethoven's Fifth.
Summing up, it is one thing to reissue a fifty (plus) year old 'Golden Age' recording that always impressed audiophiles with incredible warm sound and invite never-ending debate on the merits of remastering such a classic - nothing original there. It is quite another to take the gamble of remastering a 1980s New Wave-synthpop recording that never showed any sign of promise and then disproving categorically the saying "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". Mobile Fidelity has and kudos to engineer Rob LoVerde for finding the appropriate equalization settings to produce this worthy 'make-over' full of warmth and zero listener fatigue; now that's something I rarely encounter in current recordings and CD's even more so.
Now this begs the million dollar question: how
many other hidden gems of this '3D period' await a proper resurrection?