Friday, February 26, 2016
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TODD RUNDGREN - THE COMPLETE BEARSVILLE ALBUMS COLLECTION
Rundgren is, was, one of these unstoppable one-man studio marvels. He could, and did, do everything. He wrote, sang, played every instrument, engineered and produced. Several of his works feature no other performers. When he was on, he was brilliant. But he was also easily bored by the normal and popular, and had a habit of shooting himself in the foot commercially, just when he was clicking with the public. He had a fabulous, blue-eyed soul voice, and his best love songs were top hits. He had the golden touch for making pop-rock records, and not just his own. His productions include Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell, Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band, XTC's Skylarking, and even Ian & Sylvia's classic Great Speckled Bird album. But just when you start to love the guy, he'll put out something infuriating, which turns you off for a time.
Perhaps this warts-and-all, very reasonably-priced set ($75!) is the best way to approach him. There's something great on every album here, but a couple only have one or two excellent songs. Most are very good, and a couple of certifiably brilliant. You can have it all, and ignore the crazy bits.
Rundgren came out of the band Nazz at the end of the '60's, influenced by great studio 45's of the day, Philadelphia soul, and British prog-pop act The Move. After he left Nazz, he formed Runt, with Hunt and Tony Sales (Bowie, Iggy Pop). Runt quickly become just Todd though, and essentially marks the start of his solo career here. The first album, Runt, contained the quirky Top 20 hit We Gotta Get You a Woman, and saw him delve into well-executed and intricate pop cuts. The next album, 1971's Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, saw him play almost all the instruments, and is a piano ballad-heavy set, a little too lush at times, so busy with changes and complications it made your head spin. But repeated listening brings out the brilliance.
With all this music spilling out of him, the next step was a sprawling double album, 1972's Something/Anything. It's his masterpiece, the one you want if you only get one. It's home to his biggest hits, Hello It's Me, I Saw The Light and It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference. There's also the grand power-pop number, Couldn't I Just Tell You, the equal of anything Big Star or Badfinger produced. With enough room over two records, Rundgren was also able to explore his oddball character on a few cuts, including Piss Aaron, kind of a gross version of Smokin' In The Boys Room, and Wolfman Jack, a tribute to the D.J. For now, the wackiness was under control. Some harder rock was heard in Black Maria, and all together it was tour de force.
The success went to his head, or gave him freedom to do what he wanted, depending on your point of view. Up next was A Wizard, A True Star, which was a sprawling mess, almost an hour in length on one album. Many of the songs were short, piling into one another, with strange lyrics and attempts at humour. There's a cover of Never Never Land from Peter Pan, and a growing interest in synthesizers, which still sounded like crap in those days. He was also developing his progressive side, which would soon blossom in his side band, Utopia. Apparently the album has been influential on new psych bands such as Tame Impala and Hot Chip, but they are a lot more accessible.
A year later came another double album, just called Todd. It continued the synth obsession, with several instrumentals, and goes down the prog path further as well. Rundgren seemed bound and determined to turn his back on pop numbers, but luckily he counted help himself, and there are a couple of cuts of note, A Dream Goes On Forever and Izzat Love? He does a Gilbert & Sullivan cut, and more bizarre lyrics. During this time, Rundgren was becoming more and more like Frank Zappa, part perverse, part maniacal genius.
Am I being harsh? Not yet. That's for 1975's Initiation. This time, Rundgren also added his fascination with spirituality, and did an entire side of Eastern religion-inspired synth rock with titles about cosmic fire and such. This is the one that lasts over an hour on one slab of vinyl. Side two is torture. Side one has a couple of interesting cuts, but Born To Synthesize is not one of them.
Perhaps the flagging fortunes of these mid-'70's albums pushed him back to more accessible sounds, or maybe he figured that he could put the other stuff into his Utopia albums. Whatever the cause, 1976's Faithful saw him return to easier-on-the-ear music, but still with tons of tricks and turns. It was also quite the concept: side one saw him choose six big hit records by others, and essentially remake them in the exact same way as the originals. This was a lot harder to do back then, without all the sampling and such, and it took a brilliant producer as well as artist to copy the intricacies of the songs here. He chose the best of the best productions: Strawberry Fields Forever and Rain by The Beatles, Good Vibrations, If Six Was Nine by Hendrix, plus Yardbirds and Dylan cuts. His Good Vibrations even made the Top 40, mostly because it sounded just like the #1 hit of 1966. Side two was all new cuts, but this time he was ready with his best rock songs, and this is one of his best albums.
Buoyed by that success, and the parallel interest in Utopia, Rundgren followed with another pop-oriented album, which proved his biggest success since Something/Anything. The Hermit of Mink Hollow featured the medium-sized hit Can We Still Be Friends, later covered by Robert Palmer, and a little bit of everything there is to love about Todd. There was some decent humour in Onomatopoeia, some hard-hitting social commentary on Bag Lady, lots of made-for-radio work on side one, and more adventuresome play on side 2, but all within reason for a broader audience. The results were widely appreciated. With that success in tow, everybody smelled opportunity, and in 1978 that meant a double-live album. Everybody did them in those days, they sold great and made big profits. Todd made a big deal out of it, coming up with the concept of recording in small clubs in three different cities, and inviting lots of special guests, calling it Back To The Bars. And of course, it flopped. That's despite the presence of Stevie Nicks, Hall & Oates, Rick Derringer, Edgar Winter, Utopia and others.
Here's why: Todd's complex studio music is so precise, it's hard to reproduce and capture in a live recording. So it was a pretty heavy listen, and he refused to doctor it in the studio (as most live albums were, even from the most respected of acts, like Little Feat). There were no hit singles pulled from it (such as The Eagles did with Seven Bridges Road), they didn't use Stevie Nicks in a duet, it was really for hard-core fans at best. Now, after listening to this whole box, that may indeed be you, but your average rock fan of 1978 went back to Fleetwood Mac.
Utopia took most of Todd's attention for the next couple of years, and when he returned in 1981 with Healing, the pop excitement of Hermit of Mink Hollow was gone, and he was back to synths and spirituality. It's similar to the Initiation album, with a lengthy side two examining a healing path, if you're interested in that kind of thing lyrically. Side one had a couple of okay cuts, the title track and Golden Goose, which might be about his tendency to sabotage his sales figures. With that in mind, easily the most commercial cuts were the two included with the bonus single, especially Time Heals, which deserved but did not get big radio play.
After more Utopia came Todd's final Bearsville effort, 1983's The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. The title speaks volumes of course, and it did feel like a kiss-off of sorts to his foundering label. Mr. 30-minutes-a-side now came in at 35 total for the whole thing. But if he was tossing them off, it sure didn't show, as almost by accident he created another of his best. The novelty number Bang the Drum All Day was tailor-made for The Muppets, and just as fun. Influenza and Hideaway were both catchy cuts, and his cover of The Faces' Tin Soldier matched the original. To this day, Rundgren remains an enigma, capable of producing fine new works, or cynically going out as the Ocasek-replacement in The New Cars. Never quite popular, and seemingly too smart to be tortured, you don't have to like it all, but there's probably something, anything here that you'll love.