Monday, May 8, 2017

Todd Rundgren's White Knight: HUZZAH!

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 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.



Funny -- with no knowledge of this new record I've been listening to Todd, Utopia and Nazz of late.

Great minds!

snakeboy said...

Would love to know your feelings on the "Johnson" album.

Sal Nunziato said...


I really don't like the "Johnson" album and it's only because I hate the fact that a blues record has a drum machine. The idea was fine, and Todd's playing is great. The record sounds like shit.

Anything Should Happen said...

Fantastic Sal. Great Review!

buzzbabyjesus said...

I tried really hard to find anything likeable on "State". Not only was I unsuccessful, it actually made me mad.

After seeing Todd on Daryl's House, I thought those guys should work together again.

I was knocked right out by "Tin Foil Hat", in spite of the awful digital piano sound at the top(inexplicably Todd loves awful keyboard and drum sounds).

Nice reveiw, Sal, and I'm glad Todd finally made another real record.

shteeve said...

Glad to hear this; I wasn't wild about either the Robyn or Satriani tracks, but it's Todd so I'm buying it anyway. As for Global, wondering if you saw him on that tour. I thought it was a teriffic show and really turned me around on that record, which I listen to regularly.

Sal Nunziato said...


In 40 years, I missed two tours- 1993, because I was on my honeymoon...though I swear, I tried, and "Global," because I really disliked the record. I just couldn't bear seeing him with machines and back up singers. Friends I trust, say what you said, but they liked the record, so I'm confused.

tinpot said...

Great review. Interested in your take on the Sleaford Mods CD also.

Sal Nunziato said...

I'm digging the Sleaford Mods!

buzzbabyjesus said...

"Johnson" sounds a little too much like "Blues Hammer"* for my taste.

*Ghost World

tinpot said...

Yes, Sleaford Mods are amazing. And important, unique, and funny, but very serious.
Love their videos, but find their albums rather exhausting and scary. Maybe I'm getting old.
And oh yeah, love the Todd also!

A walk in the woods said...

Very excited to see this - first I'd heard. I'm a little different in that I like almost all phases of Todd - and especially loved the "Global" tour Shteeve references. I thought it absolutely kicked ass - kicked the moss off, and was just a ton of fun to see in person.

That being said, since "Something/Anything" has long been my fave LP by anyone, I'm glad to hear about any "return to form" by Todd as well.

I'll be at my record store on or near the day it comes out to check it out!

cmealha said...

You know how I feel about Todd. I love him although he does disappoint me at times. We also have had our disagreements with regards to ‘Liars’ (You love it; I’ve come around somewhat) and ‘Global’ (I like; you don’t), although we’re on the same page with ‘State’.

I’m afraid we’re not in agreement again with ‘White Knights’. There are truly terrific songs on this album but there are more that I simply can’t connect with.

My favorite song is ‘Sleep’. I love it and the combination of Todd and Joe works great here.

My 2 other favorites are ‘Beginning (Of The End)’ and ‘That Could Have Been Me’. Classic Todd ballads. Beautiful but I think they both suffer from Todd not doing the vocals as he is one of the most emotive singers ever and would have brought an additional dimension to both. If you get a hold of live versions of these songs send them my way.

‘Chance for Us’ is what I imagined a Todd/Daryl combination to be except I wish the production had been a bit more organic. The glass bell keyboard pads and robo-drums are one of the things I irk me on this album. Some of that stuff worked on ‘Global’ because of the type of album it was but a song like this needs a band. I know you’ve touched on the budgeting issue but Todd knows how to play real instruments. They would have worked better. It was pleasure to hear the sax on this. May have been the only ‘real’ instrument. At least it sounded that way.

‘Tin Foil Hat’ was fun and ‘Let’s Do This’ had that earlier Todd/Utopia sound which I enjoyed very much.

The rest of it left me cold. I re-listened a number of times especially after your review. Maybe it’ll grow on me.

All in all it’s an okay album but I can’t say I love it or that it’s a return to form in my opinion.

A walk in the woods said...

Todd's coming to Atlanta on May 30 and I'm SO bummed I can't make this particular show - apparently he's playing a lot from the new LP on this tour!