“Endings of A New Kind,” Taken By Cars’ debut album, torpedoed into one song after another. It was like an urgent declaration for the last of these New Wave riders who seemed to be performing in a bomb shelter.
“Dualist,” the sophomore release propelled by its use of synthesizers, saw the band channel their inner Human League.
Now six years after that last album, the ominously titled third release, “Plagues,” finds Taken By Cars stepping off the gas pedal in favor of a more pensive, insightful record. The result is the band delving into more shoe-gazer territory that has you staring into the night sky while deep in thought.
It is obvious that the long gap (read: life) between albums has had a profound effect on the band and the new record. I’d hate to hang that tag of “mature” so instead I’ll use “progression.”
If you look at many bands that came up during the New Wave era, many of them, for their third album, ditched the old sound in favor of something different yet was arguably their best.
Tears for Fears’ “The Seeds of Love” was born out of the relentless touring following the huge success of “Songs from the Big Chair.” It saw the band changed by their tour of America. And for good measure, they brought in American singer Oleta Adams whose pipes added a soulful voice to a psychedelic and jazz-influenced first side of the album. It’s second side returned to the darker hue adding some menace to the effort.
Depeche Mode’s third outing, “Construction Time Again,” saw the band embracing a more industrial sound wrapped around deeper lyrics. Songs like “Everything Counts” and “Love In Itself” changed the band’s sound forever.
“Dare” by the Human League saw the band eschew its avant-garde leanings into more synth and danceable pop. The result too was their best album.
So you get my drift. I’d like to throw in a couple more in Ultravox’s “Vienna” and China Crisis’ “Flaunt the Imperfection” that saw both bands break from the mold.
I’ll proclaim it now. “Plagues” falls into that same category. Taken By Cars doesn’t live in their past and strikes into a different sound without sacrificing their identity. It’s an introspective album where lyrically, the band is at a crossroads.
It revolves around themes of conflict, faith, and life. Lead singer Sarah Marco sings of wanting to be free of something ("Soothsayer"), wanting to belong ("All Nighter"), wanting to get somewhere ("Nomads"), and looking to have more faith ("Turn of the Tide").
Musically, the band doesn’t deviate from its Alt-New Wave roots. “Soothsayer” reminds me of something out of Slowdive’s majestic “Souvlaki.” “Crowes” takes me back during my New York City days frequenting the rain-swept streets of the Bowery with the music of an early Interpol playing in my head.
From left field, “Neon Dream” seems to have stepped out of a time warp that is Fleetwood Mac’s “Mirage.” Furthermore, any song that makes use of a tasteful hand-clap has to be all right with me.
Taken By Cars has always a knack for the pop hook. Atmospheric or not, they’ve got it down pat with “Plagues.”
The new album forces you to listen more to the songs and appreciate the musicianship. The time between albums and following their brief hiatus, the returning to gigging has allowed the band to hone their craft. The slower tunes allow us to see a more soulful and mournful side to Marco’s vocals. She gets to express herself in different ways and when bassist Isa Garcia joins her in harmony, it gets more atmospheric not to mention delectably lovely.
I love how Garcia has integrated herself well laying down her bass lines that gets the melodies going. I felt that previously, all the guitars, synths, and effects diluted her. In “Plagues”, she shines (and so does everyone who has really honed their chops).
In line with their change in sound, the band has opted for a limited digital download release followed by a vinyl record. I think that too is brilliant. Digital for everyone and the vinyl for the die-hards. There’s something for everybody.
So is “Plagues” Taken By Cars’ best album yet? I’ll say this: the album is a daring departure from the more danceable sound, but give credit to the band. In the deliberate pursuit of pop perfection, Taken By Cars lands somewhere in that territory.