(with The Nazz)
Nazz Nazz (with The Nazz)
Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren
A Wizard, A True Star
Todd Rundgren's Utopia (with Utopia)
Ra (with Utopia)
Oops! Wrong Planet (with Utopia)
Hermit Of Mink Hollow
Back To The Bars
Adventures In Utopia (with Utopia)
Nazz (SGC Records '68, Rhino '88) Rating: B+
Fittingly taking their name from the Yardbirds song "The Nazz Are Blue," The Nazz are best remembered today for being the first band led by Todd Rundgren, and for the song “Open My Eyes,” mostly because it was included in Lenny Kaye’s classic Nuggets compilation. Since Todd was not yet secure in his singing abilities, lead vocals on this debut album from this Philadelphia band were actually handled by Robert "Stewkey" Antoni (also keyboards), though Todd does assist with the band’s prominent “schoolboy harmonies,” while bassist Carson Van Osten and drummer Thom Mooney filled out the lineup. Unsurprisingly, Todd writes almost all of the songs, but his raw, blistering guitar hero-like playing is perhaps his most notable contribution to the album, elevating otherwise unremarkable rockers like “Back Of Your Mind,” “Wildwood Blues,” “Lemming Song,” and “She’s Going Down.” The influence of British Invasion bands like The Beatles, The Yardbirds, and The Who are omnipresent on these unoriginal but hard driving and often-exciting garage rockers, while Cream and Hendrix are also hard to miss. Although “See What You Can Be” is a melodic mid-tempo number, most of the other songs here are lush ballads that sound almost like a different band. The least impressive of these, “Crowded,” is the lone song not at least co-written by Todd, while “If That’s The Way You Feel” is the most “Philly soul” of the bunch as Todd starts getting his feet with with regards to string arrangements. The most famous song here is actually “Hello It’s Me,” only this version is rather dreary, lacking the spit shine studio glisten of Rundgren’s later superior remake on Something/Anything, though you could argue that this version better fits the song’s sad lyrics; anyway, this version is still good if not nearly as good. As for “Open My Eyes,” it’s easily the albums high point, starting with its introductory riffs that shamelessly rip off The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” The rest of the song has nothing to do with that song, however, delivering Yardbirds-y power poppin’ garage rock with phased guitars all over the place in addition to a catchy chorus. I suppose it’s the hooks on this song that make it stand out; after all, “When I Get My Plane” has phased guitars too but like too many of the other tracks here it fails to distinguish itself. Still, despite some sappy lyrics, an overall lack of originality, and the band’s schizophrenic identity, I do like almost all of these songs, it’s just that they rarely rise above their influences, plus Todd would go onto better things on his own.
Nazz Nazz (SGC Records '69, Rhino '88) Rating: B+
The last Nazz album in which Todd Rundren was actively involved, this was originally intended to be a double album called Fungo Bat that was to include several songs heavily influenced by Laura Nyro. Unfortunately, the other band members were much less enamored with Nyro than was Todd, and the record company agreed, so this album became the compromised end result. Adding insult to injury, after Todd left the band those songs were included on Nazz III, with Antoni replacing Todd who had originally handled lead vocals on those songs. Anyway, none of that matters now when listening to Nazz Nazz (creative title, huh?), which is perhaps slightly less consistent than Nazz but which shows more of Rundgren's own personality; this album is less garage-y and closer in spirit to Rundgren's subsequent solo work. Like the last album, the best song here is album opener "Forget All About It," a melodic power pop number with crashing drums and a catchy chorus. The best of the rest among the rockers is probably the bass-heavy "Rain Rider," with its fun high-pitched harmonies, while the album also contains a pair of strong ballads in the pretty tearjerker "Gonna Cry Today" and "Letters Don't Count," a low-key ballad with layered vocals (vocal arrangements always being a major Todd strength). "Not Wrong Long" also delivers good power pop, "Hang On Paul" is raucously up-tempo and has more high-pitched harmonies, and "Kiddie Boys" is notable for its bluesy big band feel. Elsewhere, a couple of tracks on the weaker side two kinda come and go, and "Meridian Leeward" stands out mostly due to its sheer goofiness. As for the 11-minute album closer "A Beautiful Song," parts of it is just that, and it also rocks out successfully at times, but it's also a song where Todd and the guys bite off a bit more than they could chew, though I do appreciate the song's elaborate ambitiousness. Anyway, this was a solid second album on the whole, one that's certainly worth getting if you're a big Todd Rundgren fan, though you might want to skip both Nazz and Nazz Nazz and simply buy Open Our Eyes: The Anthology, a 2-cd set that collects everything the band ever released, though the song resequencing is not an improvement (but that's what programmable cd players and playlists are for, right?).
Runt (Bearsville, Rhino ’70) Rating: B+
After leaving The Nazz Todd Rundgren began his long and idiosyncratic solo career as a highly respected but often deliberately difficult cult artist with Runt. Not to slight the contributions of the rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales (sons of comedian Soupy Sales both of whom later joined David Bowie in Tin Machine), but, despite the appearance of this being an actual band named Runt, this was a true solo album in that many of the instruments were performed by Todd, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and skilled producer (he later would compile notable production credits for a variety of artists, including the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, the Psychedelic Furs, and XTC) who was able to seamlessly integrate multiple instruments into a mix that sounded like everything was being played at the same time. All of which is extremely impressive, but as with most albums this one is only as good as its songs, most of which are impressive as well. A simple overview could divide this album into piano-based ballads and guitar driven rockers, with several additional left turns along the way. Though his honey dipped voice typically works better on the ballads, two-minute efforts such as "Believe In Me" and "Once Burned" seem underdeveloped, coming and going all too quickly, though the former in particular sounds pretty while it sticks around, while Todd's vocals on the latter sound oddly nasal. The more straightforward rocking efforts are all good, with Rundgren's underrated guitar heroics highlighting tracks such as the surprisingly bluesy and atmospheric (but still hooky) first track, "Broke Down and Busted," as well as the hard-hitting, sorta funky "Devil's Bite." Elsewhere, "Who's That Man?" (later the inspiration for Bowie's "Watch That Man"?) is an energetic barrelhouse rocker that enjoyable but a bit on the generic side. As for those left turns I previously mentioned, the appropriately titled "There Are No Words" is a boring ambient filler, but the Zappa-esque "I'm In The Clique" is much better. Featuring fiery riffs, bustling percussion, blaring trumpets, and Todd's strangely repetitive (at times robotic) vocals, this fast-paced song has a jazzy, jam-based vibe that's very unique and interesting, as are its biting record industry baiting lyrics. The 9-minute "Birthday Carol" takes the jam-based aesthetic to an extreme, alternating pretty ballad sections with more rocking parts (with some blistering guitar, naturally), the meandering end result of which shows Todd's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink capabilities as well as his tendency to be inconsistent. That word definitely describes this diverse solo debut, which was a strong if unfocused first step that more than anything served as a warm-up for the even better things that soon followed. Yet in general Runt is reliably entertaining on its own, and certainly the "Baby Let's Swing/The Last Thing You Said/Don't Tie My Hands" medley saw Todd the Laura Nyro loving pop maestro at his very best. Still, stellar though this medley is, and enjoyable though some of the other songs are (like "Broke Down and Busted," "Believe In Me," and "Devil’s Bite"), the album's absolute highlight is the minor hit "We Gotta Get You a Woman," a breezy, upbeat, and memorable pop song that sounds like it could've come straight from the Brill Building several years back.
Runt: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren (Bearsville, Rhino ’71) Rating: A
After showing off a bit on his debut (a little of this, a little of that...), Todd got back to basics on this aptly titled second album, which keeps the focus on Todd's stellar songwriting. Truth be told, ballads are always what Rundgren has done best, as they provide a suitable format for Todd's fragile voice. This "singer-songwriter" album has a bunch of fine piano-based ballads, though oddly enough the very best songs here are non-ballads, beginning with "Long Flowing Robe," which showcases Rundgren's storytelling skills and has a great pop melody, including a chorus that's all but impossible not to sing along to. Elsewhere, I'd say that the album ranges from merely decent (the fun and energetic but generic "Parole") to very good (most of the album) to outstanding, as this is probably the most consistent, filler-free album in the entire Rundgren catalogue. Plus, in addition to the aforementioned track there are several others that would be slam dunks for my own personal “best of Todd Rundgren” playlist. "Bleeding," a melodic riff-based rocker whose lyrics provided a cynical look at the Vietnam conflict, is the least great of these, though it certainly is really good, in large part due to some exciting guitar playing from Todd. Better yet is "Chain Letter," maybe my favorite Todd Rundgren song of them all, primarily due to its gloriously anthemic “carry on” ending and great lines like “there are precious few things worth hating nowadays, and none of them are me,” while "Be Nice To Me," probably the album's best known song along with "Long Flowing Robe," is a modest pop ballad that's all the more effective for its fragile simplicity. Another absolute winner is "Hope I'm Around," another moving piano ballad that's both singable and subtley anthemic; I love the way the vocals are mixed just ever so slightly back, as Todd the production maestro shows why he's able to obtain those lucrative production fees. As for the rest of the album, you get a pair of soft, lovely piano ballads ("The Ballad (Denny & Jean)," "Wailing Wall"), a Neil Young-ish number with another nice melody ("The Range War"), a "soft soul" ballad with some nice falsetto singing from Todd ("A Long Time, A Long Way To Go"), and surprisingly earnest lyrics like "I can't spend another day without hearing from you" ("Boat On The Charles," another melodic piano ballad with multi-tracked harmonies, though this is more atmospheric and jazzy than the norm). Yes, the lyrics are generally angst-filled, if often in a humorous way, and the "nice" melodies sometimes veer into pleasant adult contemporary blandness, but on the whole this was a consistently sparkling collection of songs with some real standout performances. The end result was a marked improvement over Runt as Todd began in earnest the remarkable run of seventies albums on which his reputation as a solo artist primarily rests.
Something/Anything? (Bearsville, Rhino ’72) Rating: A
I've always loved the ever-so-fitting photo insert for this album, which shows Todd striking a rock star pose alone in a dimly lit room, surrounded by musical instruments and a general mess. It's fitting because Todd plays and sings every note on the first 17 songs (or the first three sides) of this ambitious double album, and also because it demonstrates how humor has always been an integral part of Todd's music. As such, many of these whopping 25 songs have a bit of whimsy to them or are tongue in cheek. It's not all fun and games, of course, as clearly this was Todd's bid at stardom, which he briefly achieved due to a couple of brilliantly slick yet soulful and quite beautiful pop ballads ("I Saw The Light" and "Hello It's Me," the latter a remake of the earlier Nazz song). Other major highlights include "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," a deeply affecting, heartbroken piano ballad, and "Couldn't I Just Tell You," an early power pop gem that has rarely been bettered. This song has all the trademarks of classic power pop: high-pitched, yearning vocals, a rocking energy, a melodic tunefulness, an earnest innocence, and most of all a gorgeous, crystal clear, flat-out radiant guitar tone that countless future power popsters would emulate. Todd unleashes his ever-underrated guitar heroics elsewhere as well, most obviously on "Black Maria," "Little Red Lights," and "Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me," all of which bring forth some serious guitar heat. Of course, Todd's bread and butter remains singable pop songs ("It Takes Two To Tango (This Is For The Girls)," "Saving Grace," "Dust In The Wind") and airy, soulful pop ballads ("Cold Morning Light," "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down," "Marlene," "One More Day (No Word)"), sometimes with a moody twist ("Sweeter Memories") or largely unadorned ("Torch Song"), with those famous left turns all over the place as well. For example, though it's not especially strong from a compositional standpoint, "Breathless" is a tour de force of Todd's all around musical abilities (as is the album itself), and it also shows how these songs are almost always winningly melodic even when Todd is showing off or they're overly filler-ish. Alas, as with most double albums, there are several songs here that could be called filler ("Song Of The Viking," "I Went To The Mirror," "Overture - My Roots: Money (That's What I Want)/Messin' With The Kid)"), and the loose, more spontaneous songs performed with a studio band (songs 6-12 on disc 2) can be quite a contrast to the rest of the album. You could argue that some of these songs are too silly for their own good (though I for one largely enjoy the puerile humor on songs such as "Piss Aaron," "You Left Me Sore," and "Slut"), and "Hello It's Me" and the less obviously glorious but still stellar "Dust In The Wind" don't really fit in with the other songs on side four. Still, though hardly highlights, most of these songs have a good energy and a scruffy "boys will be boys" charm about them, and the album as a whole is so impressive and fun that it's easy to forgive its imperfections. Maybe less would've been more and this should've been a stellar single cd, but that's what programmable cd players and playlists are for, and despite its flaws Something/Anything? is a major artistic statement and the quintessential Todd Rundgren album.
A Wizard, A True Star (Bearsville, Rhino ’73) Rating: A
This is probably my favorite Todd Rundgren album, though it's not the best place to start with him. Heck, I didn't even like it the first few times I heard it, or at least I didn't like the first half of the album (songs 1-12), which is comprised of the "International Feel" suite/song cycle. Containing short songs that seamlessly segue into one another, many lasting little over a minute long, I've certainly never heard anything even remotely like it. Adventurous in the extreme, Todd throws together psychedelia, prog (my beloved Moog is all over the place!), ballads, soul, show tunes, opera, children's music, jazz, funk, and metal, while an absurdly grandiose and elaborately overstuffed production alternately hampers and enriches the experience, ultimately proving an asset by revealing hidden details with each successive listen. Really, this album sounds as fresh and ahead of it's time today as the day it was released, and even the silly filler-ish songs (for example, "You Need Your Head," "Rock And Roll Pussy," "Dogfight Giggle") come and go fast enough and usually contain choice bits (i.e. Todd's guitar playing). On the first song Todd says "here we are again, the start of the end, I only want to see, if you'll give up on me," and indeed the album asks a lot of its listeners, many of whom jumped ship once it became obvious that Something/Anything? Part 2 wasn't in the cards. Then again, the fans who stuck around formed a hardcore cult that exists to this day, and had his previous fans stuck around they would've found that the far more straightforward second half of the album could actually pass for a continuation of the previous album. Highlights on this superior second side abound, starting with "Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel," which sees Todd singing straight from the heart, accompanied by a magnificent soul melody. Speaking of soul, the obvious high point of the album is song 15, a sumptuous 10-minute soul medley of songs by The Impressions, Smokey Robinson, The Delfonics, and The Capitols. OK, the last part of it is as wacky and over the top as the rest of the album, but in a good way, and most of the medley works as a delightfully sincere homage. The short but sweet "I Don't Want To Tie You Down" is exactly the type of pretty piano ballad that Todd excels at, and "Is It My Name?" delivers convincingly energetic power pop, while "Just One Victory" ends the album with a classic anthem. Back to side one, I'd pick out the two versions of "International Feel," his cover of "Never Never Land" (originally from Peter Pan), which segues perfectly into the upbeat piano melody "Tic Tic Tic It Wears Off," as additional highlights along with "Zen Archer," which starts as an operatic show tune before expanding into an epic, highlighted by David Sanbourn's spectacular saxophone wailing and some airy vocal harmonies. Yet naming songs is almost pointless, for A Wizard, A True Star was conceived as a complete entity, where the cumulative whole of the colorful music is what makes it so special. Rumor has it that chemical ingestion would further enhance your enjoyment of this album as well (Todd was certainly influenced by illegal substances while making it), but I really wouldn't know since I don't do drugs. Besides, being out of ones head might cause you to miss aspects of Todd's complete mastery of the studio as instrument, and though this one-of-a-kind album forever hurt Todd at the box office (remember Something/Anything? had made him a star) and was poorly received upon its release, it has since won belated acclaim, as Todd's decision to follow his own singularly eclectic vision proved to be the correct course.
Todd (Bearsville, Rhino ’74) Rating: A-
I can see why this album is often written off as a pretentious mess by certain close-minded critics. It is a pretentious self-indulgent mess, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t really good in a White Album kind of way. No, it’s not that good, but this album likewise has a dizzying array of styles, from futuristic electronica, trippy psychedelia, hard rocking glam, jokey show tunes, jazz fusion, and of course soulful, well-crafted pop, prog, and many more points in between. Todd doesn’t pull everything off, and I can especially live without the jokey show tunes (“An Elpee’s Worth Of Toons” and the Gilbert and Sullivan cover “Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song”), though in the latter case perhaps that’s because it brings back bad memories of when I played the captain of the H.M.S. Pinafore in 5th grade (my voice always cracked on the high notes). But I digress; this album is extremely long and challenging and is therefore more for hardcore Rundgren fans than beginners, but Todd takes you on a real trip that's worth persevering through if you’re a patient listener with adventurous tastes. After a short, futuristic intro, the album begins in earnest with “I Think You Know,” a sleepy Bee Gees-like ballad but with a guitar solo. In fact, despite the increased use of synthesizers, one of the album’s primary attributes is what a good guitar record it is, as several longer songs let Todd stretch out and flex his guitar chops, which are considerable. Continuing, “The Spark Of Life” is a moody, spacey instrumental that’s occasionally quite rocking and features loads of electronics, while “A Dream Goes On Forever” is the type of modest pop song that’s always been Todd’s best style, with heartbroken, yearning lyrics like “you’re so far away and so long ago, but my dream goes on forever” being an added selling point. “Drunken Blue Rooster” is one of several solid instrumentals interspersed throughout the album, only one of which (“In And Out The Chakras We Go”) really misfires, while the excellent “The Last Ride” starts as a sparse ballad but gets more expansive and intense as it goes along, including some superb sax work and climaxing with a screaming extended guitar solo. The hard charging fusion chug of the two-part “Everybody’s Going To Heaven/King Kong Reggae” (echoes of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”) reaches a frenzied, metallic fervor, that is until its silly but fun reggaefied fadeout, while the ghost of Jimi Hendrix’s wild spirit is omnipresent on the slowly grinding “Number 1 Lowest Common Denominator,” and “Heavy Metal Kids” is another flashy mid-album hard rocker. In between, “Useless Begging” is an appealingly soft ballad and “Izzat Love?” is a short but extremely catchy (if repetitive) upbeat pop tune, while Todd later ends the album with two of its best tracks. “Don’t You Ever Learn?” is another pop gem that features a long intro and is far from straightforward, while “Sons Of 1984” is really different, with a huge chorus featuring not one but two choirs integrated from two different locations. But that’s Todd, who's willing to try anything once, and for all its patchy, overly long faults most of this album ranks as a successfully enjoyable experiment. I also like how, after song upon song of often angry, bitter, and sarcastic lyrics, “Sons Of 1984” provides an epic, upbeat ending to the album, leaving me with positive feelings about the whole experience. That said, Todd is an experience that isn’t for everybody, but if you decide to open up your mind and take the plunge I’m sure that you’ll find at least a few songs here that'll tickle your fancy. The wary among you should start with “I Think You Know,” “A Dream Goes On Forever,” “The Last Ride,” “Useless Begging,” “Izzat Love?,” “Don’t You Ever Learn?,” and “Sons Of 1984” if you must, but eventually try to dig into Todd in its gloriously messy entirety, as no two songs here sound the same and there’s no other album quite like it.
Todd Rundgren's Utopia (Bearsville, Rhino ’74) Rating: B+
In addition to Todd, 1974 saw Rundgren taking some of the players from Todd to form the progressive rock band Utopia, which for this album consisted of drummer Kevin Ellman, bassist/cellist John Siegler, and three (!!!) keyboard players: Mark "Moogy" Klingman, Ralph Schuckett, and green haired Jean Yves "M. Frog" Labat (really a sound manipulator a la Brian Eno rather than a proper keyboard player). Part of it was probably that prog was trendy at the time, part of it was likely that Todd was attracted to playing challenging, complex music and wanted to be part of an actual band again, but regardless of his motives, Todd Rundgren's Utopia is a largely enjoyable if considerably flawed progressive rock album. Containing a mere four songs, three of which top 10 minutes and one of which runs on for a whopping 30, the album offers lots of "look at me" flash and plenty of genuinely innovative and exciting playing from a group of strong musicians, though you also have to put up with too much pointless noodling and some stuck in the '70s cheesiness. Cut live in Atlanta, Georgia on November 8, 1973, "Utopia's Theme" (14:30) is probably my favorite track, as it contains loads of fiery guitar leads from Todd, plenty of percussive fireworks, and assorted flurries from their arsenal of keyboardists. Although largely instrumental like much of the album, the song contains a brief poppy vocal section as well, and it's always melodic despite its showiness and amazingly enough doesn't seem too long. I'm much less enamored with the Zappa influenced "Freak Parade" (10:14), which has more of a fusion-y feel and is a bit slow going at times. The funky section in particular seems forced, but the song still has its moments even if it's something of an unstructured wankfest. Fortunately, "Freedom Fighters" (4:03) is far more manageable, being a conventional song proper like what you’d expect on one of Todd's solo albums; this one is moody yet satisfyingly melodic and rocking, with multi-part vocal harmonies that hit the spot. Of course, it could be argued that all three of those songs are mere warm-ups for "The Ikon" (30:24), which has more sections than I can count. It's pretentious as hell (what 30 minute song isn't?) and its length isn't nearly justified, but it has its fair share of spectacular moments as well; for example, a glorious pop song appears from seemingly out of nowhere at around the 17-minute mark. True, it sometimes seems like random jamming in place of an actual song, and it doesn't know when to stop, but again you could say that about most 30 minute songs, and by and large "The Ikon" is still a lot of fun. The same could be said for most of this album on the whole, though the innovative three-keyboard lineup of Utopia would only last for one more live album, 1975's Another Live (which I don't currently have so I'll refrain from commenting on it for the time being).
Initiation (Bearsville, Rhino ’75) Rating: C+
Todd Rundgren's Utopia paved the way towards Initiation, easily the most proggy of Todd’s solo albums to date. Unfortunately, if you thought Todd was a mess wait until you get a load of this one, as words such as “overblown,” “pretentious,” “eccentric,” “egocentric,” and “indulgent” were created seemingly to describe this album, which by and large lacks the stellar songs of Todd as well. This is the album where Todd really started getting into synthesizers (at the expense of the guitars, alas), and clearly this album is a case of an ego run amok, as Todd’s lack of discipline and self-restraint sabotages what could’ve been a solid album. It still has its moments, as “Real Man,” a catchy, synth-laden soft rocker, and “Initiation,” a briskly paced, brightly upbeat 7-minute rocker with a rare memorable melody plus superb sax, guitar, and keyboard solos, are highlights, and the energy on the hard rocking “Death of Rock 'N' Roll” is likewise highly admirable even if the song itself is nothing special aside from Rundgren's rip-roaring guitar soloing. However, I’ve listened to “Eastern Intrigue” several times now and I still can’t think of anything to say about it other than it kinda comes and goes despite being rather odd, while “Born To Synthesize” is a gimmicky, show off-y a capella effort that’s all about Todd showing everyone what a “talented genius” he is. That may well be the case, but the song is still a patience testing annoyance that's best heard once and skipped thereafter. “Fair Warning” (great Van Halen album!) is much better but at over 8-minutes is much longer than it needs to be, though the moody, soulful ballad is more than merely solid, bolstered as it is by Edgar Winter’s stellar saxophone work. Which brings us to “Treatise on Cosmic Fire,” the 35-minute synth-heavy instrumental that will either cause you to claim that this album is a masterpiece (raise your hand you Tales From Topographic Oceans loving freaks!) or make you throw up your arms in exasperated frustration. If you noticed the C+ rating I gave this album you probably already know which position I’m going to take, though I admittedly like certain sections of the song. Alas, the endlessly meandering wankery on the majority of the song is the problem, as Todd first plays with his synthesizer toys, repeatedly hits repeat, multi-tracks additional layers, and generally bores the living shit out of me. Again, parts of it are perfectly listenable, and he does add some guitar and eerie keyboards at the 16-minute mark, which makes things interesting if only for a brief moment. But then it’s wank, wank, wank all over again, this time on guitar and (synth-based) percussion, as things get too busy, in direct contrast to earlier when not enough was happening. Anyway, do I really need to go on? Suffice it to say that the song is an ambitious failure (as 30+ minute songs go "The Ikon" is much better), as is the majority of Initiation on the whole, which was something of a head scratcher as Rundgren had been on such a roll. After losing himself so completely in Todd-land, clearly it was time for Todd to come back down to Earth.
Faithful (Bearsville, Rhino ’76) Rating: B+
And what better way to return to Earth than to ever-so-faithfully revisit classics by the likes of The Yardbirds (“Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”), The Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”), The Beatles (“Rain,” “Strawberry Fields Forever”), Bob Dylan (“Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”), and Jimi Hendrix (“If Six Was Nine”)? Apparently Todd's inspiration for recreating these classic songs was to pay tribute to songs that he liked from back when his music career first started, ten years previously (or happenings ten years time ago, if you will). Recorded with a pared-down Utopia (Roger Powell, keyboards; John Siegler, bass; Willie Wilcox, drums) but released as a Todd Rundgren solo album, the results of this exercise are undeniably impressive (not many bands could so capably recreate the complex studio magic of “Good Vibrations” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”) and generally enjoyable. That said, these note-for-note recreations (aside from Todd’s vocals, of course) unsurprisingly fail to live up to the inspired originals, and side one therefore seems rather unnecessary; after all, isn’t the whole point of cover versions to improve upon the originals and make them your own? Todd fails at the former and doesn’t even attempt the latter, yet props are still due I suppose for being able to so faithfully pull it off, though in truth I rarely play side one. Side two is another story altogether, though, as Todd and Utopia deliver one of Todd’s very best sides, on which the band’s obvious chemistry (dig those multi-part harmonies) and Todd’s strong pop songwriting step to the fore. “Black and White” and “Boogies (Hamburger Hell)” bookend side two with two really good riff rockers, the former highlighted by Powell's distorted Clavinet and Rundgren's raw guitar, the latter boogie-based tune being especially eccentric as Todd extols his vegetarian ways, though as usual I'm more interested in his excellent guitar playing. “When I Pray” is an early foray into World Music, with catchy “ya ya yo”’s and an insistent, groovy beat, while “Cliché” is a breezy, delightfully light acoustic number with many highlight-able characteristics throughout, in particular Todd's impeccable lead vocals and more terrific multi-part harmonies from Utopia. However, the highlights of side two are “Love Of The Common Man,” a melodic, singable pure pop pleasure, and “The Verb “To Love”,” a brightly epic (7:25), lush soul pop ballad with passionate vocals and yet more wonderful harmonies. So there you have it, a strangely constructed album that plays more like two separate EPs than as a cohesive whole (and truth be told I usually only listen to side two). Still, flawed concept aside, Faithful is something of a sleeper album within the Todd Rundgren catalog, as side two is refreshingly conventional and it contains some of Todd and Utopia’s most infallible material.
Ra (Bearsville, Rhino ’77) Rating: B
Bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton replaced Siegler for the second Utopia studio album, Ra, on which poppier tendencies begin to be integrated within the band’s more “out there” ambitions. “Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise/Communion With the Sun” is a good example of the way the band mixes epic prog with a pop friendly tunefulness; they simply don’t make music like this anymore (not that I’m aware of, anyway), and fans of Queen or Yes should be mighty pleased, though the rest of you will likely complain about how overblown, dated, and corny it all sounds. Both sides would have a point, but I believe the band’s considerable talent and chemistry largely wins out over their pretentious faults. After all, the song has a dramatic intro courtesy of legendary composer Bernard Hermann, good galloping grooves and colorful keyboards, plus impressive layered harmonies and guitar playing as per usual. Continuing in a much more modest manner, “Magic Dragon Theatre” is an enjoyably playful pop song, a children's ditty almost, albeit a sophisticated one, while Todd’s ferocious guitar solo salvages the otherwise average (and rather cheesy) hard rocker “Jealousy.” “Eternal Love,” a Powell/Sulton co-write as Utopia was becoming an increasingly democratic proposition, is a big ballad with a unique a cappella mid-section (which obviously nods to The Beach Boys) and passionate singing by all involved (the guys sing their hearts out especially Powell who sings lead), is probably the album’s most easily memorable song, but the riff heavy, hard rocking, Queen-like “Sunburst Finish” is also entertaining, especially when it evolves into an explosive fusion-based jam along with the band’s ever-present high-pitched harmonies. “Hiroshima,” another 7+ minute effort (as was "Overture: Mountaintop and Sunrise/Communion With the Sun" and "Sunburst Finish"), is a bit heavy-handed and overbearing in its over-the-top preachiness, but it's also moody, dramatic, and has some great guitar/keyboard dueling. Finally, “Singring and the Glass Guitar (An Electrified Fairytale),” an 18-minute (still only half of “Treatise on Cosmic Fire”!) “electric fairy tale,” is sure to test all but the most dedicated prog listener’s patience at times, starting with those deliberately annoying (yet oddly endearing) spoken word sections, the often-impressive but undeniably indulgent soloing (each band member gets a spotlight), and of course the silly concept itself. Still, some of the solo sections smoke, the melodies and vocals often soar, and overall I can’t help but be won over by the song’s (and the album’s) tuneful strengths. Don’t get me wrong, Ra is seriously flawed and is primarily recommended to you pothead types who worship Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and seek the “deeper meaning” behind each Neil Peart lyric. The rest of you will likely enjoy only some of this stuff, and parts of this album may very well make you cringe. Me? I rather enjoy Ra as a guilty pleasure from a bygone era, though there's no denying that albums like this and Initiation are why punk rock had to happen.
Oops! Wrong Planet (Bearsville, Rhino ’77) Rating: B+
This far less proggy and more accessible, song-based Utopia collection features 12 relatively concise songs, some of which would've seemed to have had considerable commercial potential. However, the album sank like a stone for whatever reason, the silly album title likely being a big part of the problem marketing-wise. One of the reasons Utopia was able to produce at such a prolific pace was due to the band's democratic nature, as unlike Runt Utopia was a true band whose four members could all write and sing, and many of these songs feature lead vocals from members other than Todd. Anyway, Oops! Wrong Planet is something of a loosely based concept album about feeling displaced, with love being the guiding light to a better life. None of which really matters when listening to these songs, starting with "Trapped," an explosive, hard-hitting rocker with biting lyrics ("trapped in a world we never made"). Powell's "Windows" (the lone song not at least co-written by Todd) is a somewhat bland but perfectly pleasant soft rocker, while "Love In Action" is a catchy, energetic, upbeat power pop anthem that's a definite album highlight. The Wilcox sung "Crazy Lady Blue" is a moody ballad that too obviously nods to The Beatles' "Because;" it's still good, especially Todd's soulful guitar solo, while ELO is the likely influence on "Back On The Street," a harmony-laden mid-tempo rocker that could be a bit hookier but which is still enjoyable. The next three songs are all highlights, starting with "The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell," a catchy, extremely creative multi-sectioned should've been classic that's highlighted by its colorfully psychedelic sing along section, plus Todd adds a blistering guitar solo. "The Martyr" is an excellent big ballad exquisitely sung by Sulton (it includes their usual stellar harmonies as well), while the album's most atypical track is the Powell sung "Abandon City," an oddly catchy and busily funky number featuring twitchy rhythms, an improbable wailing trumpet solo from Powell, and another Todd guitar solo to cap it off. After hitting that impressive mid-album groove comes Wilcox/Rundgren's comparatively weak "Gangrene," a silly rocker (you expected a song named "Gangrene" to be good?), and Powell/Rundgren's (as sung by Sulton) so-so "My Angel," a straightforward, heartfelt ballad with a sax solo from Todd that like "Windows" is pleasant enough but doesn't really stand out. Still, I suppose that a letdown was inevitable, and besides, the album finishes strongly, starting with "Rape Of The Young," an angry, hyper rocker, and though I wish their voices were a bit grittier to better fit this hard-charging stomper (this is a weakness of their rockers in general), it's still a good effort on which each band members' abilities are showcased (especially Todd's guitar playing, naturally). Saving the most popular song for last, "Love Is The Answer" (later a hit single for England Dan & John Ford Coley) ends this often angry and quite cynical album with a melodic, optimistic soul ballad with a universal theme ("we got to love one another"). Which was smart, actually, as my lingering thoughts about this somewhat patchy but sometimes superlative album are likewise positive, and certainly I would recommend Oops! Wrong Planet to any open-minded fan of adventurous pop music.
Hermit Of Mink Hollow (Bearsville, Rhino ’78) Rating: A-
Todd the one man pop band (memories of Something/Anything?) returns on the fine Hermit Of Mink Hollow, which features a few missteps but is still probably Todd's best solo album after his early '70s prime. On the downside, the album is a bit one-note and vanilla flavored (the clean, creamy sound could use some grit), and the vocals are mixed too far back at times. However, a bunch of airy choruses and sumptuously arranged piano-based melodies (memories of The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren) largely make up for the album’s wimpy shortcomings. Having recently parted ways with girlfriend Bebe Buell, this is Todd's most personal album to date from a lyrical standpoint, and many view it as being his "breakup album," though from what I've read he would dispute that claim. Regardless of how autobiographical these songs are, it can't be denied that sad (the singable soft pop of “Hurting For You”), questioning (the minor hit “Can We Still Be Friends?”) breakup ballads and lovers with commitment issues (“Determination,” “You Cried Wolf”) are among the album’s dominant themes, while the upbeat, catchy “All The Children Sing” and the sumptuous, harmony-laden “Fade Away” bookend the album with perfectly placed opening and closing statements, as Hermit Of Mink Hollow really holds together as a cohesive whole. Elsewhere, “Too Far Gone” features interesting self-lacerating lyrics and another airy chorus, the ELO-ish “Determination” delivers stellar power pop, and the short but effective “Lucky Guy” is one of several melancholic piano-based ballads, this one being particularly bittersweet; I wonder who the lucky guy was that Todd was so jealous of. Anyway, on the lesser front, the short but mindlessly fun “Onomatopoeia” is a catchy, goofy sing along of the type that The Beatles would’ve slated for Ringo back in the day, “You Cried Wolf” is silly if mildly entertaining, and the hard rocking "Out Of Control" is pretty good but sounds out of place here and probably should've been shelved for another project. “Bread” is moody and is also comparatively rocking, with some good guitar, while "Bag Lady," which follows it in the middle of the album, is a listenable but somewhat lackluster ballad. These two songs see Todd attempting social commentary, but while listening to them I can't help but think that perhaps a hermetic, rich studio bound rock star isn’t the best speaker for the impoverished. Fortunately, much of the album provides first rate pop, especially side one which is among his very best, and “Can We Still Be Friends?” in particular would seem to be a slam dunk to appear on any "best of Todd Rundgren" compilation. Hermit Of Mink Hollow is an extremely strong soft rock album with several superb songs amid a few minor misfires.
Back To The Bars (Bearsville, Rhino ’78) Rating: B+
Recorded at three separate venues (the Bottom Line in New York, The Roxy in Los Angeles, and the Agora in Cleveland) with both Utopia and a solo backing band in support of Hermit Of Mink Hollow, Back To The Bars works as an idiosyncratic "best of" the previous decade. Curiously, the album contains no songs from Hermit Of Mink Hollow, as Todd instead appears to be partial towards Faithful (5 songs), Something/Anything? (5 songs), and A Wizard, A True Star (4 songs including the long soul medley), with scattered songs throughout the rest of his discography, including the Utopia track "Love In Action." The performances are accomplished and energetic, and the light-hearted banter shows the strong connection Todd has with his fans. Also of note is guest appearances from Rick Derringer, Hall and Oates, Spencer Davis, and Stevie Nicks, but good luck in spotting them or any of the other 10 musicians credited for that matter. After all, this is Todd's show, and he seems quite comfortable in front of his adoring fans. Sure, songs such as "I Saw The Light" and "Hello It's Me" lack that perfect studio glisten, and the layers of studio wizardry that make his best albums listening "experiences" is also lacking. But Todd is an excellent songwriter and musician as well as a studio alchemist, and those strengths shine through. Plus, people who feel that his "overproduction" leaves his music sounding sterile should especially appreciate this strong if at times somewhat sloppy and long-winded live album. Personally, I prefer most of the studio versions of these songs, but I can still readily enjoy these renditions, though as is often the case my song selection would've been different (more songs from Initiation than Ballad or Todd?). Still, by and large the song selection is solid and this lively live album should please if not necessarily thrill all possible audiences, including newcomers, casual fans, and fanatics alike.
Adventures In Utopia (Bearsville, Rhino ’80) Rating: B+
Todd and his pals in Utopia continued here with the more pop oriented direction first started on Oops! Wrong Planet, which is fine by me because Utopia are a fine pop band. Sure, there's a cartoonish cheesiness to the band sometimes, particularly with the harmonized vocals (definitely a Queen influence), but there are some undeniably catchy songs here, starting with “The Road To Utopia” and then moving onto the new wave-y "You Make Me Crazy" (those who hear this track might not think his later fronting of The New Cars was so strange after all). Other highlights include Sulton's "Set Me Free, which was actually a top 30 hit due to its lightly singable harmonized chorus (ironically their biggest hit was about trying to get out of a record deal!), "Caravan," which I'd describe as "epic new wave" (as you can see there's more of a new wave influence on this album) and which is simply a great guitar track, as well as being a stellar showcase for the terrific group interplay between all four talented instrumentalists, and "The Very Last Time," which like many tracks here has a catchy harmonized chorus and a soaring guitar solo. Elsewhere, "Second Nature" delivers slight but pleasant soft rock, and "Shot In The Dark" is enjoyably ELO-like, but the almost a capella (aside from some synths) "Love Alone" is bland. I prefer the sci-fi themed "Last Of The New Wave Riders" and the funky, groove-based "Rock Love," because even though the cheese factor is too high on both tracks, the sophisticated instrumental work (including several solos) again impresses. Then again, Utopia are more about great individual songs, or even great moments/sections within songs, than consistent albums, and that's the case with Adventures In Utopia, which is still among their most consistently enjoyable releases. Note: Not to dismiss his subsequent career (either solo or with Utopia who broke up in 1986), which I haven't followed nearly as closely, but what I've heard from his later albums hasn't overly impressed me. For one thing, his '70s keyboard-driven attempts are much better and purer than his '80s keyboards, which have aged poorly. Also, Rundgren's post-1980 career is largely experimentation or innovation focused - for example his A Capella album which included only his electronically manipulated voice among its sounds, and his "interactive" album No World Order - but in my opinion he lost his fastball musically and became too interested in being an entrepreneur, especially in the '90s with the dawn of the Internet. Maybe I'll review some of his (and/or Utopia's) subsequent albums at a later date, but I feel pretty confident that the albums already reviewed on this page are the ones for which he will be best remembered (though his mindlessly fun 1983 single "Bang The Drums All Day" remains one of his most famous songs and is a consistent favorite at sports arenas).
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