The music made by Todd Rundgren between 1968 and 1989, dominated my world. All of it spoke to me for different reasons. But being a Todd Rundgren fanatic wasn't easy. The moment you latched onto something, he would take it away from you. It's hard to find any successive trio of records during that 20 year period, that has anything in common with each other, other than the artist. I learned to make lemonade from the lemons, by whiling away the hours that might have been spent on the most recent release, going backwards and trying to understand what went wrong with the previous release. I was rewarded almost every time. This is why almost 30 years later, I refuse to give up on Todd Rundgren. I may not have always gotten what I wanted, but I tried...and well...you know the rest.
Things changed in the 90's, and like many musicians who had been around since the 60's, making records was no longer a basic, yearly practice. Musicians struggled to be heard, struggled to be seen on MTV, struggled to stay signed, and struggled to compete with the changing times. So, Todd made his move by creating interactive music CDs and videos, and dabbling in hip hop and electronica. I was lost. I couldn't blame my hero for trying, but I likened it to a midlife crisis guy, wearing a bad toupee and sporting a Speedo. None of it looked or sounded right. I didn't get off the bus, so much as hung on while being dragged downtown.
This period of uncertainty lasted until 2004, when inspiration knocked Mr. Rundgren upside the head. "Liars" was a record that seemed to unite the old with the new. Todd was singing again. Todd was writing again. "Liars" was a critical success and remains, somewhat impossibly, in my Top 5 from the man.
There has been a Rundgren renaissance over the last 5-7 years, with his 1973 psych/metal/pop/soul masterpiece "A Wizard/A True Star" getting new appreciation, and a younger generation of artists and DJs, embracing his catalogue. This is a great thing, except...Rundgren tried on the Speedo again, no doubt inspired by the current spate of kudos from the kids making EDM, and his last two releases, 2013's "State" and 2015's "Global" left me cold. Only this time, after the initial disappointment of "Global," going back to "State" proved fruitless. I still hated it. So, I returned to "Global," and still hated that. It wasn't the attempt at dance music that bothered me. Quite frankly, I thought the music and lyrics were weak. I wasn't convinced.
On Friday, Todd Rundgren drops "White Knight," a record of new material with an all-star cast, and I am happy to say, like 2004's "Liars," "White Knight" nails it. Rundgren blames logistics for not using a band on any of his records since 1997's "With A Twist," the surprisingly wonderful bossa nova reworking of his catalogue. I have to believe him. He lives in Hawaii, and I imagine flying his band over would add to an already slim budget. But there is something to playing with others, especially seasoned pros like Donald Fagen, Joe Walsh, Daryl Hall, Trent Reznor and long time cohorts Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince, that raises the stakes a bit. All involved want to rise to the occasion and the presence of so many wonderful artists, even if the parts were e-mailed in, makes this record the best thing in years.
Rundgren hadn't had an idea for a new record, but cited the loss of both David Bowie and Prince as one of the reasons he thought he should get serious. He didn't want this record to be a duets collection, with one person singing over the other, but a true collaboration. It really is the best of both worlds. It's been years since Todd Rundgren has produced artists as a regular paycheck, so on many of the tracks on "White Knight," Rundgren's presence is felt, even if he is not front and center.
Tracks like "Fiction" and "I Got Your Back" both stick with the EDM found on the last two records. These are simple rhythms and melodies that Rundgren can write in his sleep. But what makes "I Got Your Back" so infectious is the presence of Dam Funk, whose rap is smooth as silk, sexy and hip. It raises the stakes from parody to hit, and Todd leaves the rapping to a pro.
"Chance For Us" feels like it's all Daryl Hall, both lyrically and musically. I don't have credits to confirm this, but this track would have fit nicely on a late 80's Hall & Oates record.
The real highlights:
"The Beginning (Of The End)," is one of the most unlikely collaborations on the record. I've been singing the praises of New Orleans born and raised John Boutte for almost 20 years. With a heartbreaking voice that often gives Sam Cooke a run for his money, Boutte takes the lead on the closest thing to a classic 70's, Philly soul ballad. I'd love to hear how this meeting came about, because it is really my two worlds colliding.
"Sleep," with a distinctive Joe Walsh guitar pattern, might be the most beautiful melody on the record. A little less than three minutes long, this track with its layered harmonies, feels like "Healing" territory.
The one track that feels most like a true collaboration is "Tin Foil Hat." The combined sarcasm, dry wit and intelligence of Todd Rundgren and Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan, for those who need a scorecard) create a nasty and hilarious takedown of "The Donald"--"He puts the Pluto in plutocrat."--and this track grooves along in classic Steely Dan style.
"Buy My T" is an homage to the Purple One, a three minute rewrite of sorts of Prince's "U Got The Look," just slowed down a bit. This is a fabulous track that is just slightly sabotaged with its silly lyric, but I can't deny loving it anyway.
The first single, "That Could Have Been Me," with Swedish singer Robyn taking the lead, did not do what it needed to do for me on first listen a few weeks ago. But in the context of the record, this is a spectacular ballad, that in a perfect world, would give Rundgren a monster hit.
The only disappointments are the Trent Reznor and Bettye Lavette tracks. The forner, "Deaf Ears," ends before it begins. There was potential here, for a massive Nine Inch Todd collaboration, but it all feels unfinished. The latter, "Naked & Afraid" simply wastes the talents of the soul legend, as she is relegated to screeching, trying to be heard over a frenetic house beat.
"White Knight" plays beautifully. The vinyl omits both the Lavette track and another throwaway, "Look At Me," three minutes of atmosphere made with avant garde artist Michael Holman, which would make the flow even better. This is a fantastic return to form and I couldn't be happier.