6/22/2010

A Wizard, A True Star


TODD RUNDGREN
Runt
[Ampex-1970]
The Ballad of Todd Rundgren [Bearsville-1971]
Something/Anything? [Bearsville-1972]
A Wizard, A True Star [Bearsville-1973]
Todd [Bearsville-1974]
Initiation [Bearsville-1975]
Faithful [Bearsville-1976]
Hermit of Mink Hollow [Bearsville-1978]
Back to the Bars [Bearsville-1978]
Healing [Bearsville-1981]
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect [Bearsville-1983]
A Cappella [Warner Bros-1985]
Nearly Human [Warner Bros-1985]
2nd Wind [Warner Bros-1991]
No World Order [Rhino/Forward-1993]
The Individualist [Digital Entertainment-1995]
Up Against It [Pony Canyon-1997]
With a Twist [Guardian-1997]
One Long Year [Artemis-2000]
Liars [Sanctuary-2004]
Arena [Hi-Fi-2008]

Since he formally began his music career with [The] Nazz in 1966, Todd Rundgren has been one of the hardest-working artists in rock and roll. Considered a genius and visionary by those permanently impressed by the monumental talent of this songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer--his many clients include Badfinger, Cheap Trick, Grand Funk, Hall & Oates, Meat Loaf, The New York Dolls, The Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, The Tubes, XTC--Rundgren has, however, been a bit erratic through the years: records of brilliant, prodigious genius occupy space in his catalog alongside incomprehensible, baffling, and in some cases, downright mediocre ones. Of his dozens of albums as an artist we have chosen to focus on those which bear his name and left his work with Utopia and the aforementioned Nazz, respectively, for another time.

The first 3
discs, strongly influenced by legendary songwriter Carole King, are probably the best known by casual listeners and cemented his reputation as a master of pop craft. Runt is a very promising start, in which then 22 year old Rundgren clearly shows he can hang with the big boys. He also managed to reach the Top 20 with "We Gotta Get You A Woman." In their review of the album, Rolling Stone ranked The Ballad of Todd Rundgren as "the best album Paul McCartney never made". And while that description is a tad hyperbolic it's no less thrilling a record and even better than the debut. "Bleeding" and "Chain Letter" are the mark of an accomplished guitarist and rocker, while "Wailing Wall" is a beautiful piano ballad that is among the best ever written by the man.

If you've listened to FM radio sometime in the last 40 years you are surely familiar with the biggest hit off Something/Anything?, the unforgettable rock/soul classic "Hello, It's Me". But the album to which it belongs is itself considered the top artistic and commercial achievement of Mr. Rundgren's career, ranging from power pop ("I Saw The Light") and soul ballads ("Dust in the Wind"), to pseudo show tunes ("Song of the Viking"), hard rock ("Black Maria") and everything in between. Originally released as a double album on vinyl and later re-released on 2 CDs, Rundgren played every note and sang each word over three sides, while Side 4 is a pseudo operetta involving a number of stellar musicians, including brothers Randy and Michael Brecker on trumpet and saxophone, respectively; famed guitarist Rick Derringer, and John Siomos of Frampton Comes Alive! fame, on drums. Something/Anything? is a dazzling tour de force, highly influential, and one of the crowning achievements of '70s popular music.

However, right on the verge of superstardom, Rundgren changed course and released A Wizard, A True Star, a dense, experimental, futuristic, synth-dominated album indeed, but one that still retained his gift for melody, as "International Feel", "Tic Tic Tic It Wears Off ", "Sometimes I Don't Know How To Feel", "Does Anybody Love You?", "I Don't Want to Tie You Down" and "Just One Victory" can attest to. It is notable, moreover, for its influence on artists like The Flaming Lips, Hot Chip, and MGMT.

Some 11 months later, and turning further away from his brand of pop, Rundgren released the baffling double album
Todd, confusing many of his followers and causing a conflict with his label Bearsville, which did not understand the decidedly uncommercial direction in which their golden boy was now heading.

For his sixth album, Rundgren--who by this time was under the strong influence of British prog rockers Yes--decided to ride the prog wave and got members of Utopia to accompany him on the adventure known as Initiation. Swayed by new influences ("Treatise On Fire" consists of 4 parts and lasts a total of 30 minutes) and bearing a strong spiritual motif in its lyrics, the album is the starting point for the music he would make with Utopia for more than a decade.

The first half of Faithful is almost identical reinterpretations of songs by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Yardbirds released around 1966, the year
Rundgren launched his career. While impressive in theory, the execution leaves much to be desired, as there is very little of his own stamp throughout. The second half, however, is comprised of his own songs, including "Love of the Common Man", "Cliché" and "(The Verb) To Love".

In 1978, following the breakup of a long romantic relationship, Rundgren returned to the pop of his first three albums, with The Hermit of Mink Hollow turning out to be one of his very best. This is where the monumental "Can We Still Be Friends?" resides. At the end of the year, with his label clamoring for a best-of package, Rundgren agrees somewhat: Back to the Bars is a double live album that includes many of his great songs recorded over 3 different shows.

The last two albums for Bearsville, Healing and The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, could not be more different: the former is somewhat experimental, but slightly subdued and imbued with a prominent spiritual sensibility; the latter, a grab bag/clearing house of sorts, which is home to arguably the man's second best known song: the insufferable "Bang on the Drum All Day". (The
Healing re-issue includes the non-album single "Time Heals", its video among the first to air on MTV.)

Rejected by Bearsville but released by Warner Brothers, A Capella is exactly what its title describes: Rundgren created an entire album using only his voice. An impressive demonstration of his undeniable talent, no doubt, but not much else there. Recorded live in the studio with a full band, on Nearly Human he returned to the soul music he'd always loved and occasionally explored, yielding a positive response from both fans and critics alike. 2nd Wind, the last of his 3 albums for Warner Brothers, was recorded in the same way as the previous one, but failed to garner the same type of reaction from either camp.

It seems ironic that an acclaimed producer could release albums of questionable, demo-sounding fidelity as Rundgren has in recent years. But even sadder still, is the equally lackluster songwriting. Worth taking into account are two exceptions: With a Twist, a collection of many Rundgren favorites ("I Saw The Light", "Hello, It's Me", "Can We Still Be Friends?"), a Marvin Gaye cover ("I Want You") and a better version of "Influenza" (originally on The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect), convincingly recast as lounge tunes ("Hello, It's Me" is reworked to sound closer to the original, inferior Nazz version); and Liars, a solid electronica record whose highlights include "Future" and "Past", among others.

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