Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Buyer's Guide To Todd Rundgren





If you own a computer, tablet or smartphone, you will have at some point, scrolled passed or even clicked on the various lists put together by sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork, with clickbait headers like "20 Worst Rolling Stones Songs" or "Every Bob Dylan Album Ranked From Worst To Best." It's not that I don't enjoy a good list. It's that I find these shallow opinions by uninformed thirty-somethings infuriating. Why should I care about what some guy who refers to Dylan's masterpiece as "Blood For The Tracks" has to say about anything, let alone Dylan? And don't get me started on the Who expert who doesn't care for "The Who Sell Out."

That said, I've been wanting to create a "Buyer's Guide To Todd Rundgren" for years. This is hardly click bait material, I know. But I wear my heart for Todd on both sleeves, to quote another favorite songwriter of mine, and TR has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days. Plus, due to the current state of affairs, I have some extra time that needs occupying.

So, why should you care what I have to say about Todd Rundgren?

How about this?

I've been there from as early as "Something/Anything?," and I've seen Todd with and without Utopia more times than any other artist. I think I know what I am talking about. I can be objective. I am a fan, not a fanatic. I don't love everything. My love is conditional. And I sure as hell know his big hit wasn't "Hello, It's Mimi."

I admit, this project is mostly for me and a few others I know who have been with me at shows as far back as 1975, though I do hope some of you will show some interest in both the man and the music. I decided to take the same approach as Mojo magazine, which is to begin with the Top 10 in ascending order, continue with a "Further Listening" list and conclude with the unfortunate few that I don't believe are worth your time. Even Bob Dylan has released some lemons.

Todd Rundgren's solo work is up first, with Utopia's work to follow. My aim is to write about the music in a way that isn't confusing or pretentious. I will not pull key lyrics or random quotes from Rundgren's career, as if I simply read a press release. I want you to know what the records sound like.


And now without further delay...


"Here we go!"




A BUYER'S GUIDE TO TODD RUNDGREN---SOLO

THE TOP TEN







10. ARENA

I bet this causes controversy with some Todd fans right out of the gate, but 2008's "Arena" absolutely slays me.

The premise? A big rock record! Songs that would go over in hockey barns and "arenas."

My intial reaction to this record was hardly love at first spin. But after seeing the record performed live in its entirety, it all made sense to me. My problem with "Arena" wasn't the content but the sound. I actually wrote about that and the performance, for the Huffington Post, which you can read here.

Todd has explained a number of times that it has become logistically difficult and too expensive to have his band fly to his home studio in Hawaii to make records. While that may be so, Rundgren was also the master of making records on his own, long before GarageBand, ProTools and MacBooks. So it is with great frustration that I listen to these one man recordings with drum machines and other synthetic sounds. This is a guy who played everything, including drums and sax, on so many great records in the 70's.

But I digress.



"Arena" is full of rock radio classics...in that perfect and just world we don't live in. There are big choruses and harmonies on songs like "Courage" and "Afraid," and some truly inspired guitar playing, especially on the AC/DC parody "Strike," featuring an absolutely triumphant Rundgren solo and a pretty fine Brian Johnson imitation, to boot. "Weakness" is both gorgeous and fierce, a love song with a filthy blues riff, a sweet chorus, and another great solo by Todd. It is a song that I consider a late career gem.

"Arena" plays like a greatest hits of not only Todd's career, but of classic rock in general. There are generous sprinkles of references all over this record, from a Tom Scholz guitar run in "Mad" to a very Tony Iommi-esque guitar riff in "Mercenary." There's even a bit of 80's-era Rush on "Today" and some slow burn, psychedelic blues a la Jimi or SRV on "Bardo." It's not all about the guitar, as Rundgren's singing is also as strong as ever.

After seeing four shows on the "Arena" tour, the record slowly seeped in. It became an oft-played CD---still would love to see a deluxe vinyl release--- and it remains on heavy rotation. Though I long to hear the organic sound of the live versions, with Kasim Sulton's distinctive harmonies and always on the money bass playing, "Arena" is loaded with great music, so great that the production takes a backseat to the material. And actually, I stopped minding the drum machine years ago...at least on this record.

















9. TODD

Recorded in the summer of 1973 and released in the winter of 1974, "Todd" was a double-LP that took the experimentation found on the previous release, "A Wizard/A True Star" even further out, and left earlier fans of the radio friendly "Something/Anything?" even more dazed and confused.  But TR was also working on another project and touring with a larger band which became Utopia and so what the album "Todd" offers is a hefty sampling of all that we've heard from the man so far, as well as what was about to come, from piano ballads and Philly soul to hard rock, electronica, pop, prog and theatre.

"Todd" is in fact, all over the place and because of that, it could use some editing.

40-plus years later, I still can't decide if songs and experiments like "The Spark Of Life," "In & Out Of The Chakras We Go," "Drunken Blue Rooster," and "King Kong Reggae" are musical speed bumps or the exact reason "Todd" is so much fun. The shorter bits like "Sidewalk Cafe" and "An Elpee's Worth Of Tunes" are silly, but entertaining enough and work as terrific lead-ins to the songs that follow. The upside is, much of what is left has endured.

Songs like "A Dream Goes On Forever," "#1 Lowest Common Denominator," and "The Last Ride" remained concert staples many years on and all three show Todd at his best both vocally and as a guitarist. "The Last Ride" in particular, is worth the price of admission, as it is one of a dozen songs from Todd's career that I believe best represents his work, a slow-brewing soul song, not unlike something found on Marvin Gaye's late 60's and early 70's classics.

Todd tackles Gilbert & Sullivan's "Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" on Side Two with the same passion as his own material and because of his love of musical theatre, it sounds as natural as the hard rocker "Heavy Metal Kids" which closes Side Three.



When Paul McCartney was asked whether "The White Album" would have worked better as a single record, he replied, "It's the fucking White Album." I guess if I had my druthers, "Todd" would have been a single LP and most likely would have ended up a bit higher on my list. But hey, it's the fucking "Todd" album.






















8. RUNT. THE BALLAD OF TODD RUNDGREN

For many years, long before an entire album was a couple of keystrokes away, Rundgren's second solo album was nearly impossible to find, and when you did find it, it had terrible ringwear and scratches and still demanded a hefty price tag. "The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren" was also rarely, if ever mentioned, played, performed or discussed on the radio or in concert, even though its two singles, "Be Nice To Me" and "A Long Time, A Long Way To Go" cracked the Billboard Top 100, though just barely. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that the album itself only peaked at 214!

(214? Is there a Billboard Top 300?)

And just look at that cover.

With help from Soupy's sons, Hunt & Tony Sales, "The Ballad" offers a collection of mostly piano-based, Laura Nyro-inspired ballads. But it's not all a downer, as the opener, "Long Flowing Robe" will exhibit. This is three minutes of pure pop joy, the type of song Rundgren could write in his sleep.




But, let's face it, it is the "ballads" that rule the wax, some haunting like "Boat On The Charles" and "Wailing Wall," and some heartbreaking like "Denny & Jean" and both of the aformentioned singles. For me personally, "The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren" has held up remarkably well.

I know many who gave up on Todd right after the "Todd" album. The lengthy prog rock of the early Utopia records just didn't cut it for them, after loving both the Nazz and the early solo records. This might also be why "The Ballad" is often cited by these friends as a favorite. I guess if I had only listened to the first five records, this might be ranked higher, as well. Still, "The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren" is strong, despite the lousy chart performance.


















7. FAITHFUL

You may be wondering how an album that features one side of covers and one side of originals could place so high?

Simple.

"Faithful" is brilliant.

It also helps that one of the originals happens to not only be my single favorite Rundgren tune, but one of my very favorite songs of all time, the sublimely beautiful "The Verb To Love." One part gospel, some essence of jazz and a very generous helping of soul, this is Rundgren at the peak of his powers both as a vocalist and a composer. 

But there is more...

Recorded and released in 1976, this is a Utopia record in all but name. Side One features "faithful" recordings of 60's classics, all of which are frighteningly good. The first single, "Good Vibrations" fooled many. To an untrained ear, there is little difference between what Rundgren and the band offer and the Beach Boys original. The single reached Billboard's Top 40, and the album hit #54.

Utopia also tackles two by the Beatles, "Rain" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," and though neither are quite as eerily precise as "Good Vibrations," they still boggle the mind. The Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan get faithfully treated, as well.





As for the originals, Robert Christgau called this side of "Faithful" Todd's "clearest and most interesting set of songs since "Something/Anything?" I won't argue. The opener "Black & White" and what follows, "Love Of The Common Man" have pretty much remained in Todd's setlist to this day, with the former showcasing TR the guitar god and the latter, a perfect example of the mellifluous pop Rundgren can toss off like no other. Side Two also contains "Cliche" one of Rundgren's most enduring ballads and most beautiful melodies.

"Faithful" has a lot going for it and I've never tired of it, regardless of how many times our leader has played these songs in concert.















6. NEARLY HUMAN

The latter part of the 80's were difficult years. Utopia had broken up. There were issues with record labels. Albums were delayed. The solo concerts were haphazard, at best. So after 15 years of being spoiled with two albums a year---one solo album and one from Utopia--- the space between the last Utopia record in 1985 (not to mention the oft-delayed solo record "A Cappella), and the "Nearly Human" release in 1989, felt like an eternity. But the return was big. It's fair to say, though he never went away, Todd was back!

"Nearly Human" was a big band affair, recorded live in the studio with members of Utopia, the Tubes, Bourgeois Tagg, Bobby Womack, Narada Michael Walden, Clarence Clemons, horns and strings. The material was some of Rundgren's finest in years.

The album opener is a giant blast of R&B, replete with a call and answer vocal, a dancey backbeat,  strings, and a vocal cameo by soul legend, Bobby Womack. It was also TR's last charting single, hitting #15 on Billboard's mainstream rock chart.



"Nearly Human" has a trio of ballads that are unlike anything Rundgren has delivered since "The Verb To Love" on 1976's "Faithful." "Parallel Lines," written for the off-Broadway production of Joe Orton's "Up Against It" gets a beautiful treatment here and remains one of Rundgren's strongest ballads to date. In a perfect world, "Fidelity," featuring a stunning Rundgren vocal and melody, would have since been covered by any number of R&B artists, taken to the top, and given its composer a steady pay check for years. And "Hawking," written about Stephen Hawking, is simply put, a tour de force. It is an emotionally charged masterwork.

The thrill of hearing a large band, other singers, and daring arrangements from my hero after the spell of 80's new wave and hair bands on MTV felt like a rebirth, and to this day, the tour behind "Nearly Human" remains one of my favorite live experiences, as Todd and the big band gave new "Nearly Human" type arrangements to old faves, like "Real Man" "Love Of The Common Man," "Compassion" and the hit, "Hello It's Me," to name but a few.

It wouldn't be a stretch to call "Nearly Human" an R&B record, even if a couple of songs like the riff-heavy rocker "Unloved Children" or the 9-minute revival tent workout "I Love My Life" push the genre's envelope. But I'll play it safe and call "Nearly Human" Todd's soul record, because even songs that rock have a soul.
















5. THE HERMIT OF MINK HOLLOW

1977 saw the release of two consecutive Utopia records and one of the most elaborate tours of Rundgren's career, which I will get to in detail in the Utopia portion of this guide. But I mention that now because the 1978 release of Todd's solo album, "The Hermit Of Mink Hollow" was a giant sigh of relief. Distinguished by an "easy side" and a "difficult side," "Hermit" played like the son of "Something/Anything?," after two very busy and very different Utopia releases.

Rundgren was back behind the drum kit, he polished up and blew the dust off his saxophone and he delivered some pop rockers, ballads and even a Motown dancer, that rivaled some of his most beloved material from the 1972 double album classic.

This record plays beautifully, from the studio wizardry of the opener "All The Children Sing," with Rundgren recreating a children's choir, to the oft-covered hit, "Can We Still Be Friends," to "You Cried Wolf," which bears more than a little resemblance to "Wolfman Jack" from "S/A?," in both groove and title, and the "easy side" closer, "Determination," a not too distant cousin of the power pop template "Couldn't I Just Tell You," also from the "S/A?" album.




This record is packed with hit singles, at least to my ears, though none would prove as successful as "Can We Still Be Friends."  "Too Far Gone" is a breezy, piano led pop tune with layers of those patented Todd harmonies, and "Bread," which opens the "difficult side" is a perfect combination of sorrowful lyrics over an arrangement full of joy and promise. "Hermit" closes with another of my favorite Todd ballads, "Fade Away," where the composer bears his soul and tears my heart out while doing it. It's a love letter, with honest words and sweeping harmonies, and I bet it would soften even the most cynical souls.

"The Hermit of Mink Hollow" is an easy record to love, no matter what level of Todd fan you happen to be. It only runs about 36 minutes, but they are mostly perfect pop minutes.

















4. HEALING

I'm not sure I can convey in a few paragraphs just what "Healing" does to me. If you gave me a lifetime, I don't think I'd ever be talented enough to find the ideal words to describe the depth of this record and how it's affected me.

Would you take me seriously if I said that "Healing" has healing powers? What if I said that every time I've listened to "Healing" since its 1981 release, I've had an outer body experience, a release, what I imagine witnessing a miracle might be like.

Would you believe that?

I didn't think so.

So, I'll say this.

I love "Healing" and what Todd Rundgren accomplished with his words and music. And whether or not it is as accessible as his pop hits, or as rocking as The Nazz or as freaked out as "A Wizard/A True Star," this record is a masterwork. It is deeply personal. It is astonishingly beautiful. It is impossibly spiritual. And no one song can best represent it or the way it moves me. It needs to be taken whole. And if you're willing to do that, the way you would put your trust in a loved one to catch you as you fell blindly backward, you just might feel it too.

In 2010, I got to experience a full performance of this record, live and up close, with a choir. It did not disappoint. On the contrary, it did the impossible. It made me love this record even more. That live performance is out there, if you choose to go in. DVD, CD, probably YouTube, too. It's okay if it doesn't take. It took years before I could meditate without my mind wandering to thoughts of Tuesday Weld or the clams at Randazzo's in Sheepshead Bay while I was supposed to just be sitting and breathing.  But I wanted it and so I eventually achieved it.

You gotta want it, or don't bother.

Why is it sitting at #4 and not #1, you might ask?

Because you only take out the special whiskey or the Chateau Margaux on special occasions. It's too much, too rich for an everyday experience. But I know it's there, waiting for me.

"Healing."




















3. LIARS

This record could not have come at a more perfect time. The 90's were not a particularly good time for me to be a Todd Rundgren devotee, and I believe this is the period that separates the men from the boys, or as I mentioned in the introduction, the fans from the fanatics.

Between 1992 and the release of "Liars" in 2004, Todd Rundgren had been busy creating interactive software and CD-ROMs, going on tour with a pod that involved audience participation, creating a subscription service for fans to hear exclusive music, label hopping, reworking his material into Exotica, rapping, all of which gave me the twitch. I am all for staying current and ahead of the game...to a degree. But in all honesty, I just wanted a new, proper record. With songs. Words and melodies. Harmony. Singing!

I got what I asked for with "Liars" and just in the nick of time, too.

"Liars" can be called a concept album. Rundgren writes," All of these songs are about a paucity of truth. At first they may seem to be about other things, but that is just a reflection of how much dishonesty we have accepted in our daily lives." But "Liars" is also the strongest collection of songs since 1978's "The Hermit Of Mink Hollow" and all work separately, as well as a whole.

Todd goes full on electronica and still manages to create big songs, full of life and warmth. Songs like "Sweet," "Past" and "Afterlife" harken back to the Philly soul soundtrack of Rundgren's early days, with updated sounds and rhythms for the new millennium. "Mammon" and "Liar" are almost violent in their attack, reminiscent of Trent Reznor's work with Nine Inch Nails, or even David Bowie's mid to late 90's work. They are thrilling, to say the least. Both "Soul Brother" and "God Said" are latter day masterpieces, with the former being a funky groove thing with an earworm of a chorus, and lyrics that call out some bullshit in today's music, and the latter, a stunning mid-tempo ballad that is a trance-like beauty.




Rundgren's vocals on the whole of "Liars" are a powerhouse, sounding as strong at 55 years old as he did at 35. This album gets better and better with every spin. Even Joe Jackson took some time to say a few things about "Liars" on his blog:


"Liars is All Todd Plus Computers, and although I personally miss some of that old lo-fi messiness, it still couldn’t be anyone but him. The songs are consistently both soulful and clever, and need to be listened to a few times. Though this isn’t a ‘concept album’, there is a theme running through it: a search for truth and a frustration with all forms of dishonesty. Many of the songs have a searching, yearning quality; some are sad, some angry, and some funny (for instance Soul Brother and Stood Up, which are not only funny but wildly catchy, and would have been huge hits in a more righteous universe). The whole album sounds surprisingly contemporary, or rather, timeless; Rundgren’s distinctive and very cool harmonic tricks are all over it (the downward modulations in Stood Up, for instance, make me smile every time); and his voice hasn’t aged a day."

I can't say enough about this record. It was incredibly heartening to hear Rundgren this engaged and this passionate, so many years after that 1972 masterpiece, and this is why "Liars" is so high up on my list. 













2. SOMETHING/ANYTHING?

This is the one for most, isn't it? This is the one everyone has. It's the only one that many own, as if just one Todd album is enough. Well, if you could only pick one, "Something/Anything?" is a damn good one!

What can be said that hasn't already been said hundreds of times already? Is there a more perfect pop single than "I Saw The Light?" What about "Couldn't I Just Tell You," an influence on Lord knows how many power pop and rock and roll bands to come? "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," a perfect ballad, covered by many including both Alison Krauss and Johnny Mathis! And of course, the long time bane of Rundgren's existence, "Hello It's Me," his biggest hit and quite frankly, an amazing reworking of the sluggish Nazz ballad.

Those are just the singles! 

Over four sides, Todd lays out his loves and his losses, via pop, rock, blues, showtunes, experiments and more. Would it be sacrilege to say, I'd like to do some editing on this, as well? It's not that there is too much going on. There is truly very little filler. But what is good is so damn amazing, I like to imagine how a single LP of just the strongest stuff would have changed history.




SIDE ONE
I Saw The Light
It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference
Wolfman Jack
Sweeter Memories
Black Maria

SIDE TWO
Couldn't I Just Tell You
Torch Song
Dust In The Wind
Hello It's Me
Slut

Man, just look at that!

"Something/Anything?" deserves all the accolades it receives. It is a document of a young talent, a prodigy, left to his own devices only to come out not only unscathed, but a new rock hero. 















1. A WIZARD/A TRUE STAR

This is the one for me. 

Like "The Who Sell Out," my single favorite record of all time, "A Wizard/A True Star" is jammed with so much music, joy, art, drama, bullshit, and humor, it's almost impossible to tire of it. This is what true art should accomplish--the ability to exhibit something different to each individual, and miraculously, something different with each experience to the same individual. 

Todd cites Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention's "Absolutely Free" as the inspiration for "A Wizard/A True Star," and once you know that, it's hard to ignore. From the psychedelic trip that opens things up, "International Feel," to the immediate about face of Peter Pan's "Never Never Land," to the string of minute long blasts of pop insanity, "AWATS" never lets up. You won't have time to decide what you like or dislike, because before you realize it, you're on your next trip. This is why this record is #1! It keeps offering something new, almost 50 years on.




Todd and the gang seem to tidy things up a bit on Side Two, which opens and closes with two of Rundgren's most beloved tracks. "Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel" is a soulful anthem that is both uplifting and hymn-like, with its catch-phrase "Got to keep on keepin' on" coming to the rescue on every spin. And the finale, what has become the Utopian National Anthem after being slotted as the definitive concert closer since 1975, the emotional powerhouse and triumphant "Just One Victory." Sandwiched between these two Rundgren standards are the metallic rocker, "Is It My Name," the "soul medley," featuring covers of Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson, The Delfonics and The Capitols, and what I find to be one of the most heart-wrenching songs ever written, the short but potent, "I Don't Want To Tie You Down."

There is a lot to be had on this hour long, single LP, and that is what I find so appealing. I've taken something different away from this album each time I listen to it. Something else becomes a favorite thanks to a new sound, or harmony that I seemed to miss the time before.




"Something/Anything?" might be easier to digest, but "A Wizard/A True Star" is the most fun and exciting to eat.


THE TOP TEN

10. Arena
  9. Todd
  8. The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren
  7. Faithful
  6. Nearly Human
  5. The Hermit Of Mink Hollow
  4. Healing
  3. Liars
  2. Something/Anything?
  1. A Wizard/A True Star





FURTHER LISTENING - TOP FOUR





I'll admit I feel a tad guilty about "Runt," Todd Rundgren's solo debut not being in the Top Ten, but I have my reasons. As a matter of fact, 1970's "Runt," 1975's "Initiation," 1985's "A Cappella, and Rundgren's most recent, 2017's "White Knight," his 25th solo release, all have the same thing in common. 

They are uneven.

I love all four records. These are not throwaways by any stretch of the imagination. All are brilliant and very much unlike each other. But unlike the records in the Top Ten, there are as many weak spots as there are strong.

RUNT

What's not to love about the opener "Broke Down & Busted," a slinky blues with a hook that is catchy as hell. And of course, the hit "We Gotta Get You A Woman" never gets old. "Runt" also includes what I think could have been three huge hits, unfortunately they are part of a three song medley. "Baby Let's Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don't Tie My Hands" all have the elements of perfect pop singles, but as a five minute medley, it never had a chance and was relegated to the b-side of "We Gotta Get You A Woman."



So what's wrong?

"I'm In The Clique" is too quirky. "Birthday Carol" is too long at 9 plus minutes. "There Are No Words" is essentially two minutes of spooky. "Who's That Man" is a tossed off rocker. None of these songs are offensive, and there have been times where I didn't mind them at all. But they are the cause of me not always reaching for "Runt."





INITIATION

Side One of "Initiation" has some heavy duty players on board- Rick Derringer, Bernard Purdie, Rick Marotta, David Sanborn, Dan Hartman, Edgar Winter and members of Utopia. And Side One is nearly perfect, from the opening pop/R&B of "Real Man" to the flat out rocker "The Death Of Rock N Roll," to one of my favorite trifectas in the entire Rundgren oeuvre, "Eastern Intrigue," "Initiation" and "Fair Warning," three songs that showcase the diversity of Todd's songwriting, vocal styles and musicianship, running the gamut from musical theatre, jazz fusion and psychedelic soul. I love Side One, and clocking in at a tight 32 minutes, it would have made a fantastic, albeit short, Beatles-length  album.



But then there is a Side Two, an even longer at 34 minutes, self-indulgent, nearly impossible to sit through more than once, spaced-out piece entitled, "A Treatise On Cosmic Fire." Talk about a mood killer.


A CAPPELLA

After myriad delays, and a crappy sounding bootleg that was cut at the wrong speed, "A Cappella," Todd's experiments with only his voice and a sampler called an Emulator, finally sees the light of the day, and it was indeed, worth the wait. Some of Rundgren's strongest material of the 80's can be found here. Both "Johnee Jingo" and "Honest Work" are powerfully hypnotic and moving. "Lost Horizon" was so very Marvin Gaye, that it was later incorporated into a new soul medley that included Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me" and "I Want You." One of Todd's most beautiful creations, "Pretending To Care" takes your breath away about halfway through Side One. And "Something To Fall Back On," another pop gem, as only this wizard could churn out, opens Side Two.




So what's wrong?

The record as a whole, suffers from the novelty. And the songs that don't work, a relentless cover of the Spinners "Mighty Love" and "Lockjaw," a clanking nerve-shredder for starters, just mar the experience. As I have already mentioned, I love this record, as I do the other three in this section. But the imperfections keep them from the side to side spins that are needed for truly consistent records.




WHITE KNIGHT

Like all collaborations, "White Knight" is hit or miss. And truth be told, what misses doesn't miss with a whiff. It's more like a sac fly. But the hits go out of the park!

What works best?
Moe Berg, Joe Walsh, Donald Fagen, John Boutte and Robyn

What doesn't?
The misuse of the great Bettye Lavette

What disappoints?
The Daryl Hall and Trent Reznor tracks, both of which should have been standouts.



A solid, late career entry from the man.





FURTHER LISTENING- THE REST 




Todd's 1982 release "The Ever-Popular, Tortured Artist Effect" is the first record that comes to mind that did not age well for my ears. A one man recording, "TEPTAE," as it has come to be known, has a number of wonderful songs. The opener "Hideaway" is pure pop bliss, with layers of harmony, gorgeous counter-vocals and a huge finish. "Drive" has become a concert classic, with a powerhouse vocal and forgive me, a driving guitar riff that will remain in your head for days. It also includes, for better or worse, "Bang The Drum All Day." But the record sounds like a collection of demos, with synths and drum machines adding a very cold vibe to the whole thing, especially to the misguided cover of the Small Faces "Tin Soldier."





The follow-up to 1989's wonderful "Nearly Human," was 1991's "Second Wind," also recorded live, but this time in front of a dinner crowd in California. It was a big band, utilizing many of the musicians from the "Nearly Human" sessions and it was a hodgepodge of styles. Opening with a typically sweet Rundgren ballad, "Change Myself," it continues with a white boy funk called "Love Science," and another small epic in the lovely "Who's Sorry Now" that unfortunately gets bogged down with an aimless bridge. Then comes two of three songs from the Joe Orton musical, "Up Against It," which are lovely, but out of place on this album. 

Side Two has a riff heavy rocker called "Public Servant," before yet another slow-burner in "Gaya's Eyes." It's not just the varied styles and moods of this record that overwhelm me, it's that many of the songs just aren't very strong. This coming only less than two years after one of the best records of Todd's career. And since I referred to "Nearly Human as a rebirth, maybe it's not so strange to call "Second Wind" a sophomore slump, even if it was released over 20 years after Rundgren's debut. The album's moments are few and far between and I just never took to it.







In 1997, Rundgren was asked by EMI to record new versions of his old singles and he obliged, with a twist. They would be done in an exotic, bossa nova style, complete with sounds of birds chirping and cawing. Guess what? "With A Twist" is damn good. There is no piss taking here. It's serious and it's well done. The problem for me is, I would just rather hear the originals, so this rarely gets taken out for a drive. It's a curious piece, and I imagine there are many who would love it more than "A Wizard/A True Star." But for me, it's still a one shot bit of novelty.




THEY'RE WRITING SONGS OF LOVE, BUT NOT FOR ME



Prior to 2017's "White Knight," Todd released two records which were essentially EDM, electronic dance music. "State" and "Global" each had successful tours and during this spell, Rundgren reached new ears and gained new fans. Todd Rundgren was hip again, even creating remixes for hot shots Tame Impala and Nine Inch Nails. In many ways, these records were the catalyst for the resurgence of Todd's popularity and I couldn't be happier for him.



But the truth is, I find "State" unlistenable and "Global" slightly less unlistenable. It's not my aversion to EDM, so much as what I am hearing just isn't very good EDM, or to be more frank, what I am hearing just aren't very good songs, regardless of the BPM behind them. The melodies are mostly stiff, two or three notes, smothered in beats and claps and rhythms. Even the songs on "Global" that are most reminiscent of Todd Rundgren's best work are second and third rate rehashes of much better earlier material. 


This is the same problem I had with the two records Rundgren released as TR-I--Todd Rundgren Interactive. 1993's "No World Order" and 1995's "The Individualist" found Todd experimenting yet again, this time peppering many of the songs on both with rap. I have no problem with hip hop, and actually love a number of classic rap records, including most of the Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. & Rakim and Beastie Boys catalogues. But I'm guessing I wouldn't love a new Public Enemy record if Chuck D was singing Beach Boys songs instead of what he does best. 



Both "No World Order" and "The Individualist" have their moments, because Todd can't help it. He's smart and innovative and musical. But I never go back to these records because they are sabotaged with inferior rapping, that quite frankly, makes me angry. Did anyone enjoy watching Michael Jordan play baseball? Or Dane Cook do stand-up? See my point?


I hope the information contained herein is taken with the same love and passion that went into writing it. My criticism comes from years of devotion. Todd Rundgren's music has been as important to me as The Beatles, The Who, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and Prince, among many other musical heroes. I don't believe everything these artists have given us has been perfect. It's impossible. There has to be bad if there's going to be good, though some of what is imperfect for me, might be right in the wheelhouse of others.



Keep on keepin' on!

(Stay tuned for "A Buyer's Guide To Utopia" coming soon."








 


















































22 comments:

cjbennett said...

Thanks for this. Has piqued my interest, and I will go back and listen to what I have with your insights in mind.

cmealha said...

I'm on board with you for most of the list but I would have replaced "Arena" and "Liars" (could you have seen that coming?:-) ) with "Runt" and "A Cappella" although I do understand your point on the latter if not the former. "Runt" just imprinted itself on me when it came out so it'll always hold a special place for me. As far as order is concerned, depending on the day we may be close or for apart. The only switch I'd make is to move "Something/Anything?" to the top. Great list, especially for someone without a deep familiarity of Todd's catalog. Superb job.

P.S. Surprised that "Global" didn't make the top 10 (Ha, ha, ha, ha!)

A walk in the woods said...

Yeah! Now we're talkin'!!

I want to take a little time to digest this before replying in any detail. First impressions - glad to see "Liars" and "Nearly Human" in the top 5. And "Something/Anything" is actually my favorite album ever, by anyone, but good to see it in the Top 2.

I need to take some time to read your reviews of each... more reply early this week.

Eric said...

I have learned a lot from you, not least about all things Todd, even if I am still not there. But my appreciation for the time, energy, and effort is immense and many/most days I learn stuff here that I didn't even know I didn't know. Thank you.

Noam Sane said...

Enjoyed this immensely, Sal. Beautifully written and quite insightful. I think A Capella is more solid than you do - I'm cool with Lockjaw - and Ever Popular is way up there for me, love that record and never tire of it (well, Bang on the Drum, yeah...). I think State has some good stuff that i've set to pop up in my shuffle occasionally...like Something In Mouth, f'rinstance.

But for the most part, we think alike, as great minds are said to do. Thanks.

Michael Giltz said...

The ONLY reason I don't feel clueless about Rundgren is your passionate enthusiasm for his work over the years. Which prepared me to start seriously tackling his work and being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of A Wizard/Something Anything/Hermit et al. The chunk I've listened to has been so rich I haven't really dug further yet. It's almost like a treat I've been saving for myself. Now your roundup/analysis has me ready for more. Very few artists have even created enough music to make a Top 10 albums anything other than silly. Top 5 is asking a lot of most. But Rundgren is there w Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and McCartney and Ray Charles and Ella et al with that much great work that you have to pick and choose. One question: why didn't you make it a master list? Do you see Utopia as that distinct from his solo work? Or is it just so much material you broke it down this way to keep it more manageable? Once you've done Utopia I hope you'll consider combining and making a master list Top 10 so we can see how you rank them all together. Hell, I've just been working my way through John Prine. Is this the year I just ignore new music to keep diving into the classic stuff? Thanks for sharing.

Partygal Marcia said...

Oh Sal! You have outdone yourself on this! I loved loved loved it. I would initially have placed Tortured Artist instead of A'Capella but then I went back and decided you were going with consistency, and as much as I love the first 3 tracks on Tortured Artist, there are too many that I don't like. (Bang and Emperor). I had intended to be asleep long ago, but instead I wisely spent my time reading every word and listening to every track you posted. Cannot wait to share this with my Todd-lovin' friends. And then I'll read it again. ♥️

neal t said...

Wizard has been desert island since it came out for me. everything you say about it is dead on. Did you get to see a few years back when he toured it? I didn't even know about it till I found a show on the web.

Sal Nunziato said...

@Michael Giltz

The reasons for keeping Utopia separate are everything you said and more.
I've always thought Utopia's records were distinctly different even from each other, as the lineups changed, and the records were consistent with the times in terms of sound. But also, there is just too much and it was easier to tackle the solo work first.

DrNecessitor said...

You're thoughts on 'Healing' mirror mine so closely that I felt like I was writing it as I read it. This beautiful work of art has has meant so much to me and helped me through more tough times than I can count in the nearly 40(!) years since it's release. It's probably the main reason that, no matter how many EDM albums he decides to make, I will always love Todd and buy anything with his name on it. I only wish I was able to see one of the 2010 live performances of it (but of course I own the CD and DVD).

The rest of your top ten might not be mine, but I still agreed with every choice. Well done...fantastic post.

soundsource said...

Pretty much agree with your list plus the plus four but personally i would have to add Runt. I pretty much love every minute of it. Also it was first. I knew the Nazz but that didn't prepare me for Runt.
Not as familiar with the later work so I would probably knock off Arena or Liars only cause i don't know them and i agree with all the other choices. So I guess for list making if your batting 90% your Hall of Fame material. Who ya gonna do next. Lists are fun and when its from someone who's taste you respect even if you don't always have to agree you get exposed to some good stuff.

soundsource said...

Not a direct comment as per Todd but as lists go I'd like to see your top ten Box Sets. being a big fan of the Box Set I'd be curious as to where you weigh in and would be interested in the feedback and other peoples thoughts..

Anonymous said...

Yeah, boy - a lot to digest here. Quite a post, indeed. I say this in sincere jest, but I wish we had a nationwide shutdown more often so we could get more posts like this. Being a huge Todd fan (not as big as you, Sal, but not that far behind), I loved your take on his catalog and have to say that in general, I agree with your rankings and thoughts on his albums, especially Healing and Wizard.

I could easily go into my own personal preferences and song favorites but suffice it say that when I get into a "Todd groove", there aren't many artists that can satisfy these ears like he can.

I do wish that before he hangs up his musical wizardry, he would give us one last "acoustic album" sans synthesizers & computer programming) in the style of Ballad and Something/Anything.

Looking forward to Utopia!!

Randy

FD13NYC said...

A brilliant piece on one of our heroes. I totally agree on every word and song choices. Thanks for taking the time and effort to write all this, you should be paid handsomely in doing so. But no money takes the place of sheer enjoyment.

Shriner said...

I've listened (or owned) to almost all of these albums. I find I keep going back to "The Ballad..." more and more often. Something about that one speaks to me in ways the others haven't as much. Maybe I'm getting older, I dunno. I remember playing the shit out of "Nearly Human" when it came out, though.

"The Ballad..." and "Utopia" (the three sided album) seem to be my go-to Todd albums these days. And sometimes "Redux '92: Live In Japan" when I want a lot of Utopia "hits".

hpunch said...

Hard to dispute your standings. One of these days I'm going to feel the way you do about Liars. I sure hope so.

Cleveland Jeff said...

Great post. Obviously from a true fan and aficionado. I was surprised that you didn't mention the live "Back To The Bars" from 1978. I don't know if I'd call it top ten, but I always liked the live best-of, and it seems to deserve some mention at least. Not a great record, but lots of good songs and performances.

Sal Nunziato said...

You know, it was just a slip. I don’t ever play it but that’s not even the excuse, I just forgot about it.

Gene Oberto said...

Bravo! A tour de force. Epic undertaking done with love and honesty. I really am in awe.

elroy said...

Sal, a little late to comment here, but that was extremely entertaining and informative to read. As someone who has not listened to a lot of Todd Rundgren, it made me want to dig much deeper than I have. Thanks for that!

Michael Giltz said...

See my post album for how Sal turned me onto Rundgren, got me to dive in chronologically and then I stalled because the first five albums were so rich I felt like I had to live with them and get them under my skin before moving on. Plus his discography is pretty overwhelming and a tad spotty, plus Utopia versus solo stuff. I was whelmed, if not overwhelmed. So I mostly kept hitting the two biggest Something/Anything and A Wizard because I was still a newbie and they never failed to surprise. I'm glad I didn't continue chronologically because I think I might have faltered amidst some of the lesser stuff, just as others might falter when working their way through the many, many Richard Thompson solo albums I care for more than most (song about a drunk? check. songs about broken hearts? check and check. Brilliant but easily taken for granted guitar solos? check check check. Ho hum).

So here I am, returning to this post six plus weeks later after working my way through Sal's Top 10, saving Healing for last because I was afraid I might not like it and after Sal's deeply personal take on it, I'd feel terrible if I didn't. (Spoiler: I liked it and can easily see coming to love its positive, beautiful sentiments, despite my having a pebble where my heart should be.) P.S. My first knowing exposure to Todd was Utopia's "Love Is The Answer," which I heard sitting in my car parked somewhere and recognized as white boy gospel and yet it worked so well and just flipped me out and I loved it...and typical of the era w no ID by deejay, I had no idea for years what it was called or who performed it.

I revisited the four (not five!) albums I already knew -- Runt (1971) and Something and Wizard and Todd. Runt was great, Todd was solid and of course Something and Wizard are so expansive and nutty I don't quite give them four stars but they are classic examples of albums that deserve to be seen as four star classics despite not being "perfect."{ Screw perfect!] They're just great and weird and wonderful. Then I went chronological instead of in Sal's ranking just to get a sense of how he evolved. Faithful was a little mixed for me while Hermit was solid, though I've always for some weird reason looked forward to listening to it (the name just made it sound awesome to me) and it wasn't the solo piano masterpiece I wanted.

Part 1 of 2 (or 3)

Michael Giltz said...

Part 2 of 2 (or 3)

Nearly Human, Liars and to a lesser degree Arena all pleased me. Sal's descriptions of the albums and putting them in context of Rundgren's career really helped me appreciate them and what they meant to fans at the time. Despite not loving the arrangements at first blush on Liars, Sal did help me appreciate what a solid collection of songs it was and how welcome it was after some years of a dry spell of sorts. And reading Wikipedia I gathered what a nutty life Rundgren has had and really enjoyed his comment that synths should sound like bloody synths, not strings or woodwinds or anything else. That made me love the sounds on Liars more.

Arena was very fun if mixed. To me it sounds like the comments you often hear from wildly talented superstars. You often hear Prince and others say, Oh I could write a hit anytime I wanted, meaning big dumb obvious songs. And sometimes they toss off a tune on a B side or in concert that does indeed sound like a ready made radio hit. It's both egotistical and true and dismissive and cocky and the sort of talk one expects from hugely talented geniuses. "I could conquer the charts but that's so boring!" To me, Arena sounds like that joke taken to an album's length. And damned if it doesn't sound like arena-friendly rock. Rundgren obviously undercuts that sonic attack with smart lyrics, quite often actually. Other times he's just delivering the heavy rock goods, tongue in cheek only a little. "Mountaintop" is pretty awesome in that respect. Which is a compliment. Still, it felt like proving a point taken to less interesting extremes. I actually enjoy it when artists reach for the brass ring and create a world-beating blockbuster like Purple Rain or Faith or Like A Virgin or Rumours or Born in the USA etc etc. But you have to deliver on a dozen levels (big tour, big tie-ins, media, etc) and Rundgren wasn't about to play that game. This is a lot of talk about an album I was a little mixed on, but it was a very interesting idea and most of the other good to v good albums, I can't offer much insight except "I liked seven songs and was less thrilled with these three...." It's a lot of fun. And who knows? Maybe I'll keep playing it and it will go from an elbow in the ribs into a should-a-been monster hit in my book. The guy of course really did deliver the world beating album at least as producer with Bat Out of Hell! Which I enjoy the hell out of unreservedly.

And thank god I appreciated Healing, which is lyrically lovely and inspiring and positive and everything we can use more of in the world. I can imagine returning to it again and again and finding more to love in it. And while I always know musical taste is personal it's sometimes hard when something you love isn't at least appreciated by someone whose taste you think doesn't suck. I'd be bummed if Sal didn't like ANYTHING by Richard Thompson. (He's allowed to be indifferent to Teddy Thompson because I'm pretty sure Sal's never wanted to kiss Teddy and so that can color how one feels about an artist's work.) But Richard, thank god he appreciates.

Maybe some day I'll tackle the Thompson body of work the way Sal tackled Rundgren. I can't wait to see his take on Utopia since I've ignorantly always thought that was lesser stuff. Will any of it rank as high as the best of Rundgren? Will a combined Top 10 include a Utopia albums? In the Top 5? Top 3? (God knows #1 and #2 won't budge.) I hope Sal reposts this every year on Rundgren's birthday or the release dates of Something and/or Wizard.

Yours in music,

Michael