Ben Vaughn is listed as the producer of "Rambler 65," the latest offering from the New Jersey-cum-Los Angeles rocker, but he could just as easily have credited himself as head mechanic. Not content simply to name the CD after his favorite automobile, Vaughn converted his 1965 Rambler American into a recording studio, forever altering the meaning of "car song."
Normally, releasing a gimmick-based CD is a bad idea; listeners quickly tire of whatever novelty is involved and the only remaining consideration is whether the songs are any good. Neil Young's use of a computerized voice synthesizer on "Trans," for example, is interesting for the first 10 minutes, but only the most hopeless Neil devotee would point to that album as a masterpiece. There's no telling what sort of lemon the 40-year-old Vaughn would have released had he favored Corsairs or AMC Pacers. But the Rambler is a reliable, dependable, close-to-the-ground, straight-ahead machine with just a hint of rebelliousness hidden in its boxy frame -- not unlike Vaughn himself, who, on the catchy opening track, "Seven Days Without Love (makes one weak)," consistently delivers melodic, poppy, guitar-driven songs with a raised-eyebrow wit.
Combining the reverential approach of Marshall Crenshaw with the quirkier touches of Jonathan Richman, Vaughn fits renegade sensibilities into conventional forms. While his affection for early rock 'n' roll is evident throughout (he even offers special thanks to longtime Philadelphia oldies jock Jerry "The Geator with the Heater" Blavat in the liner notes), his real skill is in mingling styles and sounds with wizard-like creativity. A Tex-Mex organ spices up "Boomerang," while on "Levitation," the crunchy, buzzing guitar riff is joined midway by the mesmerizing strains of a sitar that float above the mix. Other noteworthy effects include a jet taking off on the achingly beautiful "The Only Way to Fly" and an engine-revving introduction to "Heavy Machinery." It is the sonic gong and fuzzed-up vocals on "Perpetual Motion Machine," though, that provide "Rambler 65's" biggest delight.
Echoes of the Velvet Underground can be heard on the somber "Beautiful Self Destruction," an eerily transcendent song about heroin addiction that is disturbing in its directness: "It's a style you've grown accustomed to/Your lips form a smile even when they turn blue." Vaughn also slows things down on "Song for You," a universally compassionate ditty that directs sympathy toward anyone who has ever been hurt, lost or lonely. As Vaughn puts it: "Fill in the blank, and this song's for you."
Vaughn's wide range of musical knowledge has benefited
several other projects as well as his own -- he has
produced a country album for Ween, two CDs by the surf
band Los Straitjackets and "Lonely Just Like Me," the last
release by the late, influential blues singer Arthur
Alexander. His songwriting has always been noted for its
comic cleverness -- "Jerry Lewis in France" and "I'm Sorry
(But So is Brenda Lee)" are hilarious. But all jokes, after a
while, have a way of wearing thin. There's some funny stuff
on "Rambler 65," but it isn't the focus -- and that's what
makes this album stronger than Vaughn's previous efforts.
One-liners, it turns out, are still more obtrusive gimmicks
than recording in a car could ever be.