Todd Rundgren and Utopia
Reviewed on this page:
Nazz - Runt -
The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren -
A Wizard, A True Star - Todd -
Todd Rundgren's Utopia -
Initiation - Another Live -
Faithful - RA -
Oops! Wrong Planet -
Hermit Of Mink Hollow -
Back To The Bars - Adventures In Utopia -
Deface The Music - Healing -
Swing To The Right - Utopia - The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect -
A Capella -
Todd Rundgren Live -
2nd Wind - No World Order - Redux '92: Live In Japan -
With A Twist...
Can you spell T-A-L-E-N-T? Not only is this guy an extraordinarily successful producer - he's done everything from Hall & Oates to the New York Dolls to Meat Loaf to XTC to Jill Sobule - but he's a musical polymath. Plays guitar, keyboards, horns, who knows what else; has a huge vocal range; writes prolifically; and at least on most of his early records, proves himself with a dead-on command of melody, harmony, and arrangement.
His magical early 70s records are shockingly good, combining Carole King-like melodies, Brian Wilson-like harmonies, Jimi Hendrix-like guitar playing, and late 60s Beatles-like production.
Problem is, Rundgren has a habit of derailing his career with ambitious, idiosyncratic production experiments that antagonize the critics and confuse his fans. Meanwhile, his lengthy digression with the somewhat faceless pop-rock group Utopia resulted in a lot of entertaining albums, but not a lot of commercial success, locking him ever more tightly into the image of a cult star.
Despite all the missed opportunities, Rundgren and Utopia's catalogs are well worth exploring. His first three records were as the leader of Philadelphia's mid-tempo late 60s rockers the Nazz, a band that didn't have a very distinct identity but did make some good music.
During the early 70s he produced what many consider his best solo work, successfully keeping up with that era's phenomenal explosion of pop textures and styles.
By the mid-70s he'd formed Utopia, which eventually stabilized its composition around four virtuoso musicians who ended up splitting songwriting and singing responsibilities.
Rundgren continued putting out self-written/performed/produced solo albums on a regular basis, slowing down only when Utopia collapsed in the mid-80s after failing to gain a consistent mass audience.
Over the past decade and a half he's occasionally ventured forth with a "comeback" album, but from what I've heard none of these efforts really match his best records from the 70s.
Rundgren runs his own web site. It's entertaining - particularly the timeline - but because he's now trying to make a living by selling stuff directly to his fans, it's highly commercial and not terribly informative. If facts are what you're after, try The Todd Rundgren Connection instead. (JA)
The Nazz: Robert "Stewkey" Antoni (lead vocals, keyboards), Thom Mooney (drums), Todd Rundgren (guitar), Carson Van Osten (bass).
Utopia: Kevin Ellman (drums), Mark "Moogy" Klingman (keyboards), Jean Yves "M. Frog" Labat (keyboards), Todd Rundgren (guitar), Ralph Schuckett (keyboards), and John Siegler (bass).
By about 1976 the lineup had changed almost completely to include Rundgren, Roger Powell (keyboards), Kasim Sulton (bass), and John "Willie" Wilcox (drums, ex-Hall & Oates band), all of whom sang lead vocals.
Nazz (The Nazz: 1968)
Released when Rundgren was barely out of his teens, his first band's first album shows all of his later motifs: careful harmonies, blazing lead guitar parts, and a weird tendency to draw inspiration from all corners of rock's softer territories.
So instead of anything resembling either Bay Area hippy rock or LA folk rock, the record is packed with odes to mid-60s British pop music: Hollies-style ballads ("See What You Can Be"; "Crowded") and acid rockers a la Cream ("Back Of Your Mind"; "Lemming Song") or the Who ("When I Get My Plane," like a low-budget "I Can See For Miles").
With unimaginative producer Bill Traut at the helm, most of it is at least workmanlike.
But there's a lame, loud blues-rocker ("Wildwood Blues"); "She's Goin' Down" plods through a series of indulgent solos; and the overwrought "If That's The Way You Feel" can't make anything out of its complex melody and string arrangement.
The good news is the two sides of the single, which unlike the rest of the album was produced by the band: "Open My Eyes" has some effective riffs, a cool middle, and an impressive drum beat.
Meanwhile, "Hello It's Me" is a druggy, down-tempo, harmony-laden masterpiece, well worth hearing in this form.
It's no coincidence that Rundgren re-recorded it for Something/Anything? Of definite interest to Rundgren fans and collectors of 60s curios. (JA)
Nazz Nazz (The Nazz: 1969)
Their second album was recorded in Britain and produced by the band, with a bunch of weird production gimmicks and interesting, professional string and horn arrangements by Rundgren, who wrote the whole record.
Includes a really elaborate, mostly instrumental 11-minute pop symphony ("A Beautiful Song"). (JA)
Rundgren's first solo album shows him fully matured as a producer, writer, and performer, even if it lacks the consistency that would make for a classic rock record.
There's an audible Brian Wilson influence (the Gregorian chant "There Are No Words"), and when his voice doesn't sound completely generic it sounds creepily like Carole King (the memorably tuneful "We Gotta Get You A Woman," Rundgren's first Top 40 hit).
But he's also hard-rocking enough keep your attention ("Who's That Man?"), and he never stays with one style long enough to outwear his welcome; so much so that he even pulls off an intricate, nine-minute pop suite that veers from classical to hard rock to piano balladry to pumping, horn-driven R & B ("Birthday Carol"). Plus his legendarily offbeat humor comes to the fore on a biting, offbeat music industry indictment ("I'm In The Clique").
Early 70s pop-rock fans will find this record instantly gratifying, although his next few albums are even better.
Rundgren had engineered for the Band, so Rick Danko and Levon Helm guest ("Once Burned"); otherwise the rhythm section is usually the very young Sales brothers. (JA)
Nazz III (The Nazz: 1970)
I've been told that Rundgren quit before this was released, causing the group to fall apart.
Apparently the album was cobbled together from tracks left off of Nazz Nazz, which was intended to be a double LP.
Rundgren's vocals from those tracks were re-recorded by Antoni.
I have seen conflicting information with respect to the release date, which was either 1969 or 1970 and may actually have been before Runt's. (JA)
The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren (1971)
Less experimental than Rundgren's debut but musically more solid, this virtual tribute to Carole King is his mellowest and most straightforward production.
It's stuffed with wispy, richly harmonized piano ballads that tread so close to King's Tapestry it's downright distracting ("A Long Time, A Long Way To Go"; "Hope I'm Around"; the awesomely tuneful "The Ballad (Denny And Jean)" and "Be Nice To Me") - his most striking break from her earnest formula is a clever, gently waltzing cowboy sendup that's not really so far from her "Smackwater Jack" ("The Range War").
Rundgren's melodies have never been more ornate (the snippet "Remember Me," which became the core of "Just One Victory"), so only a few songs are instantly accessible.
But the tougher ones do reward careful listening ("Wailing Wall"), and King herself couldn't outdo the groovy, clavinet-driven "Long Flowing Robe," with its starry-eyed free love lyrics and uplifting harmonies, or the haunting, jazzy open spaces of "Boat On The Charles" (where he plays both vibes and sax).
Plus there are a few fine, mid-tempo rock 'n' rollers: the slo-mo "Bleeding," with its nimble, distorted lead riff; the grinding, slightly frantic "Parole," like something off of Eric Clapton; and best of all, the bouncy, ecstatic, "Hey Jude"-like "Chain Letter."
The rhythm section is mostly Tony Sales (bass) and N.D. Smart (drums), but Hunt Sales drums on "Parole," and Rundgren uses Jerry Scheff and John Guerin on a couple tracks. (JA)
A double album that was the commercial high point of Rundgren's career; it not only cracked the Top 40, but was his only gold album.
When Rundgren's on, he's really on: his piano-based pop Carole King schtick is sweeter than ever (the masterful "I Saw The Light"; "Torch Song"); the few rockers have heavy, exciting hooks ("Black Maria"; "Couldn't I Just Tell You"); there's a bleary-eyed, rollicking, entertaining sing-along ("Slut"); and his melodic sense is frequently awesome ("It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference").
Even the second-tier numbers have interesting touches (time shifts on the ballad "Cold Morning Light"; psychedelic circus sounds on "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down"; the Beach Boys-meet-Gilbert & Sullivan on "Song Of The Viking"; a subtle Latin twist on "One More Day (No Word)"; big band R & B on "Dust In The Wind").
But there are too many mistakes: the synth instrumental "Breathless," several pure experiments ("Intro"; the bluesy, disjointed "I Went To The Mirror"; "My Roots"), and too much else that's simply mediocre (the mid-tempo R & B number "Wolfman Jack"; the plodding "Sweeter Memories"; the generic pop songs "Saving Grace," "Marlene," and "You Left Me Sore," and heavier "Little Red Lights" and "Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me"; the annoying gimmick tune "Piss Aaron").
He's often so frothy he's insubstantial ("It Takes Two To Tango").
And the record's key single is a cheap shot, a remake of "Hello It's Me." Rundgren's only Top 10 hit ever, it's woozy and over-produced compared to the original Nazz recording.
Frustrating - there is a truly great single LP buried in here somewhere.
"I Saw The Light" (actually issued earlier) was the other hit single.
The players are mostly just His Toddness, but he brings in two different full bands on the more energetic side 4, including Klingman, Siegler, the Sales brothers, the Brecker brothers, Jim Horn, Ben Keith, Rick Derringer, Rick Vito, and Billy Mundi. (JA)
A Wizard, A True Star (1973)
By now Rundgren had not only blossomed into a pop-rock savant, but had let it get to his head.
Throwing caution to the wind, he tries here to fuse the madcap experimentalism of Frank Zappa ("Dogfight Giggle") and the smooth melodicism and studio prowess of Stevie Wonder ("Does Anybody Love You?"; "I Don't Want To Tie You Down," which is just exquisite).
Even more ambitiously, he borrows Paul McCartney's "pop symphony" approach of stringing together unrelated one-minute tunes without allowing time for breaks between the tracks.
Incredibly, it works.
The bizarre synth effects and manic changes of style are a little disorienting, but mostly captivating - everything from dueling slide guitar and tuba ("Hungry For Love") to a soul ballad with steel drums and Chicago-style horns ("Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel").
The song fragments range from head-bangingly loud ("Rock And Roll Pussy") to mind-meltingly sweet and psychedelic ("Flamingo"), and the full-blown pop-rock productions rank with his finest ("Zen Archer"; "International Feel"; "Is It My Name?"; "Just One Victory").
The joke tunes are crafted and intriguing ("Just Another Onionhead/Dada Dali"), and there's even a frighteningly well-done 60s R & B medley ("I'm So Proud/Ooh Baby Baby/La La Means I Love You/Cool Jerk") and a truly touching cover of "Never Never Land."
Very nearly the best rock record of the year, and with such a generous running time it's a steal.
Players include the Brecker brothers, David Sanborn, Rick Derringer, and future Utopia members Klingman, Labat, Schuckett, and Siegler. (JA)
Another double album, and sadly it's weaker, with a surfeit of far-out instrumentals (the shrieking "The Spark Of Life"; the neo-classical waltz "Drunken Blue Rooster"; "Sidewalk Cafe"; the synth noisefest "In And Out The Chakras We Go (Shaft Goes To Outer Space)"); a sound collage ("How About A Little Fanfare?"); and even a few intentionally sloppy vocals (the overblown, almost Frank Zappa-esque rock/fusion medley "Everybody's Going To Heaven/King Kong Reggae").
Still, there's plenty of his signature dreamy harmonies, wiggy, incredibly elaborate production tricks, and facile rock guitar ("I Think You Know"; "Number 1 Lowest Common Denominator," an unexpected Electric Ladyland tribute).
Even some of the experiments are solid, like the hippie gospel anthem "Sons Of 1984" - recorded with an entire live audience singing along - and his charming, Gilbert & Sullivan-influenced joke tune "An Elpee's Worth Of Tunes" (although "Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" really is a Gilbert & Sullivan composition, and it flops).
And Rundgren was so close to his peak that there are plenty of Something/Anything?-style masterpieces: the ecstatic, clavinet-based, strongly Brian Wilson-influenced "A Dream Goes On Forever"; "The Last Ride," a majestic, inspirational rocker with a far-out jazz-fusion sax solo by guest Peter Ponzel; the gorgeous, oddly timed pop song "Izzat Love?"; the strutting, wacky hard rocker "Heavy Metal Kids"; and the utterly enchanting, insidiously catchy "Don't You Ever Learn?"
Although some tracks are all-Todd ("Izzat Love?"; "Useless Begging," another nice Carole King-like ballad), more often he uses a full band, including the Brecker brothers and the contemporary Utopia lineup of Klingman, Shuckett, Siegler (often replaced by John Miller), and Ellman. (JA)
Todd Rundgren's Utopia (Utopia: 1974)
Rundgren's first attempt at forming a new band was a product of its times: the ensemble featured not one, but three keyboard players, and their debut album is dominated by three extraordinarily long tracks - "The Ikon" runs an exhausting half hour - that mostly consist of elaborate instrumental segments.
There is one pop song (the salsa-flavored "Freedom Fighters"), but mostly Rundgren exploits the players' phenomenal musicianship to concoct a blend of contemporary prog rock a la ELP or Yes, and zany jazz-influenced experimentation a la Frank Zappa.
It's never comedic in the fashion of a Zappa record, of course, but the creativity quotient is pretty damn high.
And anyone who doubts Rundgren's own instrumental abilities should get a good listen to some of the blistering guitar solos he delivers.
I can't imagine buying this in preference to one of his earlier solo records, but for indulgent, pretentious 70s art-rock it does have a lot of entertaining flashes. (JA)
Rundgren's one big stab at a prog rock concept album is the first real artistic catastrophe of his career.
It does start out with a few passable tunes in his usual synth-heavy hi-tech style.
The lead-off song "Real Man" is one of his more hummable neo-Motown pop-rock anthems, with lots of clever dynamics and harmonies; "Eastern Intrigue" is a mostly amusing psychedelic Beach Boys homage; "Death Of Rock And Roll" is a fun, over-charged guitar band tune.
But the side is marred by spaced-out a capella number ("Born To Synthesize") and a painful David Sanborn sax solo fade (the overlong title track, otherwise in the same vein as "Real Man").
And "Fair Warning" deteriorates from an interesting Temptations-style harmony showcase into a really boring duel between Rundgren's vocals and guest Edgar Winter's histrionic sax, ending with a pointless reprise of "Real Man."
And most of the record is devoted to a 36-minute synthesizer instrumental that's frequently unlistenable ("A Treatise On Cosmic Fire") despite a substantial book-end theme that gives Rundgren a chance to show off his guitar soloing ("Dance Of Kundalini").
The rest is just randomly compiled improvisational experiments with alternative synth voicings, technologically interesting but ultra-dull.
Tons of bit players here including Rick Derringer, Rick Marotta, Bernard Purdie, Winter's bassist Dan Hartman, and Utopians Ellman, Klingman, Miller, Powell, Shuckett, and Siegler. (JA)
Another Live (Utopia: 1975)
This is a live album with the full three-keyboard player band, the first half all originals and the second put together from a bunch of sources.
By now Willie Wilcox and Roger Powell had joined the group, and Powell is spotlighted repeatedly with trumpet and synth solos.
The band is as tight as ever, and Powell gets some impressive tonal range out of his synths. But Rundgren is still wallowing in starry-eyed mysticism and elaborate, overblown prog rock arrangements, and the song material is really uneven - the obligate stomping rocker is weak ("Heavy Metal Kids"), and there's even a broadway show tune ("Something's Coming").
You know something's wrong when a cover of the Move's cretinous glam rock behemoth "Do Ya" becomes a high point.
Still, some of the prog rock/jazz fusion showmanship is impressive ("Another Life"); there's a nice semi-acoustic hippy-dippy mantra ("The Wheel"); and the album closer "Just One Victory" is a good choice.
An expendable disc, but better than much of the prog rock of the time. (JA)
Rundgren's first flashy, nostalgia-driven production stunt a la David Bowie's Pin Ups, if unfortunately not the last.
This time he blows all of side 1 on exacting, creepily authentic reproductions of key songs by key 60s rock stars.
The stylistic range is impressive, with everything from the Yardbirds' obscure, but groundbreaking acid rock A-side "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" to Dylan's rollicking circus anthem "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine" (ironically, also covered by the Page-era Yardbirds).
He even simultaneously apes Carl Wilson and Mike Love on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," which scored him a Top 40 hit.
But the effort often just highlights the difference between extreme competence and genuine inspiration ("If Six Was Nine"), and he sounds particularly foolish tackling two different John Lennon compositions ("Rain"; "Strawberry Fields Forever").
Rundgren's enormous waste of energy is hugely frustrating, because he shines so brightly on the densely arranged, trippily tweaked, and gleefully creative side 2.
Four of the tunes rank with his best mid-70s work: the funky, clavinet-infused rocker "Black And White," the gloriously sunny anthems "Love Of The Common Man" and "Cliché," and the slow-building R & B testimonial "The Verb (To Love)."
And even the weaker tracks are interesting (the loose, bossa nova-influenced singalong "When I Pray"; the goofy, if clever "Boogies (Hamburger Hell)").
Billed as solo, but Utopia is the backing band; Powell's broad synth palette is particularly impressive. (JA)
RA (Utopia: 1977)
By its third album Utopia had become a much more commercially focused outfit, albeit still rooted in prog rock.
So this is a concept album with a bunch of sun-related song titles, a lot of extremely slick jazz-fusion synthesizer playing and uplifting tenor harmonies ("Overture"; "Sunburst Finish"), and an endearing, if somewhat infantile 18-minute fairy-tale suite on side 2 ("Singring And The Glass Guitar"), all of which emulates Yes' sure-fire entertainment formula.
Side 1 is packed with joyful and technically impressive pop music that in a couple of instances is startlingly reminiscent of the late-period Beach Boys (the goofy, "Heroes & Villians"-like "Magic Dragon Theatre"; "Eternal Love," a beautiful feel-good anthem with a bizarre a capella middle).
It's not a truly great record: "Jealousy" is something of a heavy metal bash fest, and "Hiroshima" is a stomping, self-righteous, seven-minute political protest number, but it's clever, and it ends up being entirely listenable thanks to the band's amazing tunefulness.
If any of this sounds inviting, don't hesitate to dive in.
The band had stabilized its lineup at this point, with new bass player Kasim "Kaz" Sulton joining Powell, Rundgren, and Wilcox; Sulton, whose slightly lower voice complemented Rundgren's in harmony, immediately took on more than his share of lead vocal duties. As usual from here on, Rundgren produced but all four members split the songwriting. (JA)
Oops! Wrong Planet (Utopia: 1977)
Having finally figured out that the prog rock thing was a dead end, Rundgren had the band focus on what you would think was highly commercial pop-rock.
It's almost a uniform success. The key tracks rank with almost anything else in Rundgren's catalogue: his stomping, strutting, apocalyptic "Trapped," New Wave-ish "Love In Action," and heart-melting, blue-eyed soul anthem "Love Is The Answer"; and Powell's funky, brilliantly arranged "Abandon City" and would-be-70s-Beach-Boys-masterpiece "My Angel," with Rundgren taking a surprisingly professional sax solo (!).
The musicianship and song material are phenomenal, and Rundgren's slightly psychedelic production shows some of the flair that made his early 70s records so special.
As before, songwriting and singing is remarkably evenly split; Sulton has a prominent role, singing his heart out on "My Angel" and the equally gorgeous power ballad "The Martyr"; Wilcox sings a slightly moronic pop-metal rocker ("Gangrene"); and Powell not only is responsible for "Abandon City" (he even plays the classy trumpet solo), but delivers a respectable, if slightly over-harmonized ballad ("Windows") and a romantic, "Because"-like love song ("Crazy Lady Blue").
Probably the group's best effort, neither it nor any of their other albums ever broke through to a true mass audience - but don't let that put you off. (JA)
Hermit Of Mink Hollow (1978)
An outstanding, self-produced one-man-band record.
For whatever reason, Rundgren really has his act together this time: it's one snappy, cleverly arranged pop song after another, with sterling melodies and solid performances.
He does make heavy use of synths, and the material is consistently light. But there's none of the experimental synth bombast that ruined some of his mid-70s work, and
there's even some stylistic variety, from light Latin rhythms ("Too Far Gone") to hook-heavy power balladry ("Bread") - plus an endearingly zany gimmick tune ("Onomatopoeia").
High points are numerous, including some fine pop-rock ("Determination"), an elaborate, starry-eyed anthem ("All The Children Sing"), a bouncy J. Geils-style dance tune ("You Cried Wolf"), an exquisite Beach Boys/soul hybrid ("Fade Away"), a blazing, aptly-titled heavy metal show-stopper ("Out Of Control"), and a gorgeous break-up ballad that's among his best ever ("Can We Still Be Friends").
Even minor efforts like the melodramatic piano ballads "Bag Lady" and the Stevie Wonder-esque "Lucky Guy" would have been highlights on most albums.
Strongly recommended. (JA)
Back To The Bars (1978)
A sloppy but joyful live double album summing up his assorted prog and power-pop excursions of the last decade.
There's rough-edged work by the backing players, plus minimal guest contributions from Rick Derringer (guitar somewhere), Spencer Davis (harmonica on a jokey "Range War"), Hall & Oates (the R & B medley from A Wizard), and an entirely inaudible Stevie Nicks - I'm not sure who ruins "Sometimes I Don't Know" with a crude duet vocal, but it sure is annoying.
Rundgren's stage patter makes him seem like a sneering egotist with an irritating sense of humor ("Never Never Land"); his vocals are often ragged ("Real Man"); and the frequently longwinded performances ("The Verb 'To Love'") never rise to the level of earlier studio versions.
The band alternates between the current Utopia and earlier Rundgren associates like Klingman, Schuckett, Siegler, and Smart, and although all of these guys really can play, sometimes you wouldn't know it ("Love In Action," the only nominal Utopia tune).
It's such overkill ("Initiation") that the more minimally arranged stuff actually works better ("Cliché," on guitar; "A Dream Goes On Forever," on piano).
On the other hand, Rundgren's catalog of material was so strong by now that almost every tune is worth hearing again ("Don't You Ever Learn"; "Zen Archer"; the big finale "Hello It's Me") - even though he focuses on secondary albums like Todd ("Last Ride"), Faithful ("Common Man"), and even Initiation ("Eastern Intrigue").
And some of the louder stuff really smokes ("Black And White"; "Black Maria"; "Couldn't I Just Tell You"). (JA)
Adventures In Utopia (Utopia: 1980)
This is another really solid pop record that shows the band not making much musical progress but still trying hard to please.
Oddly, they finally scored a modest Top 40 hit here with the politely funky anthem "Set Me Free" - but the tune is basically forgettable and is easily bested by two others on the same record: the cathartic, awesomely harmonized "Caravan," and the immensely entertaining hard-rock sci-fi head-banger "Last Of The New Wave Riders."
Who knows and who cares what the song's actually about...
Elsewhere there's not much to discuss.
"The Road To Utopia" is also pretty substantial, but it's weighed down by a combination of New Wave and California soft rock affectations.
The rest is consistently competent but basically bland, veering between Cars-like New Wave ("You Make Me Crazy"; "Shot In The Dark") and slick soft rock with a beat bordering on disco ("Second Nature"; "The Very Last Time").
The only low point is a synth ballad with yet more Beach Boys harmonies that emulates that group at its corniest ("Love Alone"); and purists also might be offended by the out-and-out attempt at disco/rock hybridization on "Rock Love."
Not a high point, but the two really great tunes make the album a reasonable purchase. (JA)
Deface The Music (Utopia: 1980)
Another of Rundgren's bizarre experiments, this time an album rehashing the Beatles' stylistic progression from about 1963 to mid-1967.
It's a frustrating failure, so precise in its imitation that it's more parody than homage.
Everything's super-specific: "I Just Want To Touch You" gives "Please Please Me" a title based on "I Want To Hold Your Hand"; "Crystal Ball" is like any of their early rock 'n' roll screamers; Sulton does a Paul-ish Mediterranean acoustic ballad c. 1964 ("Alone"); Wilcox apes Ringo covering Carl Perkins ("Silly Boy"); "That's Not Right" sounds like an A Hard Day's Night outtake; "Hoi Poloi" rips off "Penny Lane" almost note for note, faked trumpet and all.
There's an over-emphasis on primitive Merseybeat pop-rock ("Where Does The World Go To Hide"), and the psychedelic numbers are better but still disappointingly dull - the "Eleanor Rigby" knockoff "Life Goes On" is even more painful than "She's Leaving Home"; the music hall joke tune "Always Late" is amusing but slight; and the "Strawberry Fields Forever/I Am The Walrus" tribute "Everybody Else Is Wrong" is catastrophically heavy handed, from Rundgren's nasal lead vocal to the tinny synth-orchestra backing.
There is some good stuff, albeit nothing as good as the real thing: "Take It Home" is fun, but it pales besides real Revolver-period rockers like "Rain" or "Dr. Robert"; ditto the classy "It's Getting Better" facsimile "Feel Too Good," with its ultra-authentic chiming rhythm guitar and acid-drenched harmonies; and the "McCartney" piano ballad "All Smiles" is genuinely beautiful but wretchedly unoriginal.
Much, much weaker than XTC's later, similarly motivated "Dukes of Stratosphear" albums, and a weird footnote in a great band's career. (JA)
An ambitious one-man-band concept album with a lot of intricate vocal harmonies, experimental synth effects, distractingly fake-sounding electronic drums, and lengthy arrangements.
It's alternately grating and gorgeous.
Rundgren's off on a heavy spiritual head trip here, so the lyrics and atmosphere are pompous and overbearing ("Flesh").
The tunes are also uneven, with some tracks being fragments (the eerie piano ballad intro to the "Shine" suite) and others just not going anywhere despite any number of painstaking overdubs ("Pulse"; the sleepy, spacey, seven-minute, Secret Life Of Plants-like meditation piece "Healing Part II").
But there are some good-to-great moments: a joyful joke tune that recalls his early 70s work (the oompah-ing guru spoof "Golden Goose"); a sweet, Utopia-like synth-soul ballad ("Compassion"); an interestingly jumpy, if repetitive anthem ("Shine"); a nice blue-eyed soul groove tune that gets done once with a long, dreamy sax solo ("Healing Part I") and then again with some energetic scat singing ("Healing Part III"); a punchy, R & B-flavored pop-rock number with a solid refrain and a crisp lead guitar part ("Time Heals"); and best of all, a creepy, psychedelic, introspective thought piece with a hypnotically arpeggiated riff, a gorgeous melody, and tons of bizarre effects ("Tiny Demons").
I'd rate this much higher, but by Rundgren's standards it's just not terribly consistent. (JA)
Swing To The Right (Utopia: 1982)
The band's temporary, but career-threatening downturn continued with this uneven collection of New Wave pop songs.
The self-consciously stylized synth stylings and robotic beats are irritating ("Junk Rock (Million Monkeys)"; Sulton's nearly successful "The Up," with a blaring chorus; Powell's leaden showcase "Last Dollar On Earth," with noisy vocoder-ized backing vocals), and Rundgren's usual pop-rock spotlights are erratic ("Shinola" is a mess, and the Brian Wilson-influenced peace 'n' love plea "Lysistrata" is sweet but slight).
The group is so short on ideas that they stoop to covering a decade-old O'Jays hit ("For The Love Of Money," entertaining and exactingly performed but utterly incongruous), and even pump out a stiff, formulaic three-minute disco rave-up ("Fahrenheit 451").
Despite all the problems, they do come across with three exceptional tunes: the title track, an intricate, wonderfully danceable homage to swing; Rundgren's rapturous, super-sincere confessional soul ballad "Only Human"; and the joyous mock-Beatles anthem "One World."
But all three were re-recorded for the band's 1992 live album, making this very nearly the most expendable of the late-period Utopia discs. (JA)
Utopia (Utopia: 1982)
A collection of 15 three-minute New Wave rockers with insistent, mechanical drumbeats, overbearing synth lines, and forced-sounding tenor harmonies.
That may seem like a recipe for disaster, especially because the group sounded so exhausted on the last record.
But they manage to dig out what might be their strongest set of tunes ever.
The lyrics are stuffed with witticisms and metaphors ("Bad Little Actress"), the ballads ache with mature sentiment ("I'm Looking At You But I'm Talking To Myself"), the neurotic New Wave dance numbers are downright funky ("Call It What You Will"; the soaring, Hall & Oates-like "Chapter And Verse"), and the pure rockers are among their most ferocious ever (the power-pop classic "Libertine"; the militaristic "Hammer In My Heart").
Even the two early Beatles-style twist numbers are plenty of fun ("Feet Don't Fail Me Now"; "Say Yeah").
Rundgren and Sulton both sing like saints ("Private Heaven"), and Powell and Wilcox almost get away with their strained vocal spotlights (Powell's "Burn Three Times" falls short, but Wilcox is authoritative on the stomping, riff-filled lust anthem "Princess Of The Universe").
There's hardly anything going on here production wise - backwards lead guitar ("Infrared And Ultraviolet") and boogie-woogie piano ("Forgotten But Not Gone") are hardly new ideas.
But the record is still punchier and more entertaining than almost anything else the rock industry came up with in the early 80s, and with three LP sides crammed onto one CD it's a bargain. (JA)
The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982)
A trendy, New Wave-influenced pop record, with a novelty song that ended up getting heavy promotion on MTV: "Bang The Drum All Day," a gratingly insincere, over-the-top synth-ska hybrid.
Elsewhere, Rundgren mostly just recycles his crafted synth-pop formula, with several otherwise strong tunes being lengthy, generic, and over-produced in a Utopia style ("Drive").
There's a lot of light-weight, fake-sounding electronic percussion ("Chant," like Prince meets the Cars); very little guitar; some mediocre songwriting (the cleverly harmonized, emotionally delivered "Don't Hurt Yourself"); and almost nothing resembling a hard rock song - an ill-considered note-for-note cover of the Small Faces' massive, hard-hitting "Tin Soldier" is so wimpy it sounds like a parody.
At least there's some stylistic variety: "Influenza" has a subtle and interesting bossa nova influence, the soothing, Hall & Oates-y ballad "There Goes Your Baybay" almost has a salsa beat, and the voice-plus-piano "Emperor Of The Highway" is another jokey Gilbert & Sullivan homage, albeit one of his better ones.
And much of the record does range from respectable ("Don't Hurt Yourself"; "Baybay") to downright impressive (the synth ballad "Influenza"; "Hideaway," an excellent example of Rundgren's classic pop-rock formula).
Still, it's a big step down from his similar one-man-band record Hermit Of Mink Hollow. (JA)
Oblivion (Utopia: 1984)
Not a lot of artistic progression here - it's another high-volume New Wave record, same thumping beats and industrial synths.
The musicianship is solid ("Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw"), and there's an awesome Cars-style ballad ("If I Didn't Try"), an equally strong mid-tempo number ("Maybe I Could Change"), and a magnificent, slow-building confessional piece ("I Will Wait").
The rockers are competent to pretty good ("Itch In My Brain"; "Welcome To My Revolution"; the funky, addictively danceable "Too Much Water"; "Crybaby," a would-be Cars hit).
And most of the rest has some point of interest ("Love With A Thinker," with a funky synth line).
But Rundgren's slide into irrelevancy has begun: "Bring Me My Longbow" marks his new, headache-inducing formula of wall-to-wall synth and stiff electronic percussion.
A small step down, but the record is no disaster.
The bonus track "Fix Your Gaze," which I've been told was originally recorded for this record, rocks really hard, and I'm not sure why it was left off.
I have this matched with the following album and some bonus tracks on a recently-released double CD. (JA)
POV (Utopia: 1985)
The band's last album before breaking up in 1987. (JA)
A Cappella (1985)
Another failed experimental album, with many tracks being honest to goodness a capella ("Honest Work") or at least nearly a capella ("Johnee Jingo").
By now Rundgren had gone off into deep space, not to return for years: the tunes are poor, and the production is irritating - he's developed an allergy to guitars, so he wallows in industrial electronic percussion ("Blue Orpheus") when he's not just using handclaps.
He seems bored with real rock, so on top of a jarringly insincere gospel cover (the Spinners' "Mighty Love"), there's a second gospel number that's downright ridiculous ("Hodja").
Not to mention a grim synth experiment with electronically tweaked vocals ("Miracle In The Bazaar").
His harmonies are technically impressive, and sometimes he ditches the thin-sounding, high tech aural torture in favor of (say) his Healing sound ("Pretending To Care"), or the shrink-wrapped 80s New Wave pop of Ever Popular ("Something To Fall Back On").
And the big production number "Lost Horizon," with another one of his seductively romantic melodies, really rises above the rubble.
But he ruins the only other catchy tune ("Lockjaw") with a totally obnoxious joke voiceover and deafening sci-fi production.
Further proof that 1985 was one of the worst years in rock history. (JA)
Todd Rundgren Live (rec. 1977 - 1985, rel. 2000)
A compilation of cuts from three shows that were broadcast on the King Biscuit Flower Hour.
It's highly uneven, starting with three mediocre songs from his 1985 A Capella tour; they do "Real Man" a capella, and there's a disappointing medley of Marvin Gaye hits with some minimal synthesizer backing.
Only the piano-accompanied "Can We Still Be Friends" gets pretty much the standard treatment.
The rest, from shows in 1977 and 1978, is far better, including another version of "Real Man" and plenty of strong material that focuses on his early 70s solo work ("Black Maria"; A Wizard's R & B medley).
However, every last song is repeated from Back To The Bars, which was recorded at about the same time.
The performances are OK but not stellar, with Rundgren's falsetto fading in places ("It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference").
And his stage patter ("Never Never Land") isn't all that illuminating.
Certainly not essential, but if you're bored with Back To The Bars it's worth a look.
The band's not credited but figures to be Utopia on the 70s tracks. (JA)
Nearly Human (1989)
Rundgren's first album after the longest recording hiatus of his career.
After a couple of listens I'm not sure what to make of it; the production is excessive, with an over-large band on every track and the same bloated running times as on most of his later records, but at least it doesn't hit the extreme lows of 2nd Wind. (JA)
2nd Wind (1991)
An embarassing pop record that shows Rundgren having lost his commercial sense.
Mostly it's just plain weak; one overbusy funk/R & B tune ("Love Science"), one incongruous, shockingly ugly synth-metal rocker ("Public Servant"), and lots of luxurious pop ("Who's Sorry Now"; "Gaya's Eyes"), some of it amazingly dull ("If I Have To Be Alone") and some of it tastelessly bombastic ("Kindness").
Ironically, all of his skills - including his vocal range - seem intact; he just can't resist overproducing and overlengthening absolutely every song.
So, for example, the title track wastes an interesting blend of jazz-fusion and prog-rock by running more than seven minutes.
It all falls apart with two bizarre tunes (composed for a musical) that blend updated Gilbert & Sullivan light opera with pure Hollywood cornball ("The Smell Of Money?"; "Love In Disguise").
They're in such excruciatingly poor taste they're unlistenable.
That leaves almost no high points, just one long pleasant ballad in his usual style ("Change Myself").
It's enough to disenchant even the most obsessed fan.
Everything's recorded live, so there's a huge band, including a trio of female vocalists, a horn section, both Roger Powell and Vince Welnick on keyboards, and Prairie Prince on drums. (JA)
No World Order (1993)
Another concept album, but it's a rebound of sorts.
This time around Rundgren seems intent upon proving that he's up to date, so he blends electronic collage, hiphop, techno, and art rock and cranks the volume to the point where it's headache-inducing.
Worse, he shows off by presenting up to three versions of the key songs and dropping in little snippets of the others at random - so you get 16 tracks but only 10 different tunes.
The result is a bore. The first time around "Worldwide Epiphany" seems like a brilliant cock rock/hiphop hybrid a la INXS, but by the third time around it really gets on your nerves.
Ditto for everything else that almost worked here - in most cases beautifully harmonized funk/soul/hiphop ballads like "No World Order," "Love Thing," and "Time Stood Still."
It would almost be excusable if the music were more consistent, but Rundgren's lengthy raps are irritating ("Fascist Christ"; "Proactivity"), there are not enough classic Rundgren pop tunes like the Stevie Wonder-ish "Property," there are too many annoyances like the self-referential techno anthem "(Don't Quit Your) Day Job" and the pounding, militaristic synth metal slab "Word Made Flesh," and his computerized, cut-and-paste arrangements make the whole thing seem like one big random mess.
At least it's not quite as bad as some of the decade's other over-eclectic, over-produced albums by 60s leftovers (e.g., Yes' Union).
The next year Rundgren released a shorter version of the album, with no repetition of tracks, called No World Order Lite. (JA)
Redux '92: Live In Japan (Utopia: 1993)
After a decade in remission, Utopia finally reformed for a brief tour of Japan (yes, they do play "Hiroshima").
The resulting album is too often loud and monotonous, with one tune after another getting the same blaring treatment ("Zen Machine").
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that it flopped.
But actually, I like it.
For starters, the band does make a point of covering all of its stronger material from the late 70s and early 80s - 16 tunes and there isn't a loser in the bunch (an economical, five-minute take on "The Ikon" is the only real oldie).
They're also unexpectedly well-practiced, smoothly trading off lead vocals and instrumental solos.
Some of the material like "Trapped" does benefit from the high-energy treatment, and they do slow down on a few harmony-fests like "Abandon City," a stretched-out take on "Caravan," the entertainingly overwrought soul number "Only Human," and "Love Is The Answer," which is as gorgeous as ever.
If you really don't know the group's catalogue you might be put off by the record's echoey noise, but otherwise it's a true bargain at cut-out prices. (JA)
The Individualist (1995)
Rundgren's best one-man-music-industry record in years.
He does wisely ditch the disastrous 90s production values of No World Order, and the tunes are all solid and comfortably familiar: Utopia-style synth funk ("Espresso (All Jacked Up)," with clever lyrics and Stevie-esque chord changes), overblown soul ballads ("The Ultimate Crime"), etc.
But he just doesn't know when to shut up: every last track repeats itself until you're totally fed up with it. And since he's recycling himself so heavily anyway you'd do better with one of his classic records.
The disc is a typically useless interactive CD-ROM with crude animations, some concert footage, and an annoying point-and-shoot game. (JA)
Up Against It (1997)
This is a collection of demos for a Broadway musical that Rundgren worked on in the late 80s. I've never seen it in stores. (JA)
With A Twist... (1997)
A surprisingly fun remake project that recasts Rundgren's most melodious work as ornate, down-tempo bossa nova (!).
The sound is light, breezy, and appropriately cool and stylish, gracefully matching the material: creative tropical percussion, gentle acoustic guitar, electric and acoustic piano, and vibes.
He even serves up a languid sax solo ("Can We Still Be Friends") and turns "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" into a shuffling, joyful dance number.
Some of the rearrangements aren't really that interesting ("Influenza"); the tempos are so stately that "Never Neverland" - made even lighter by a whistled solo - is as fast as it gets; the bombastic, crawling, creep-out movie soundtrack arrangement of "Hello, It's Me" is a wretched, unintentional self-parody; and occasionally he gets carried away with warm fuzzy synth parts and distractingly complex vocal harmonies ("Love Is The Answer").
But more often he's either going with the tried and true ("I Saw The Light") or resurrecting 80s obscurities that are worth the effort (Utopia's dreamy "Mated"; the romantic, poppy "Fidelity"; Marvin Gaye's gorgeous "I Want You," a Rundgren concert staple that's nicely sped up to mid-tempo).
His vocals are as strong as ever ("A Dream Goes On Forever"), and his production isn't nearly as excessive as in most of his late-period work, with relatively short four-minute running times and decent dynamics.
The best value for the money of anything he's done solo since the 70s.
The band is Jesse Gress (guitar, also co-credited with arrangement), John Ferenzik (keyboards), Kasim Sulton (bass), and Prairie Prince (drums). (JA)
One Long Year (2000)
A new studio album.
I have it and don't have a definite impression of it just yet; I get the feeling that the song material isn't as solid as on The Individualist, but that the production values are a little better. (JA)
A new studio ripoff.
Rundgren extracted his lead vocal tracks from the masters of 14 tunes, then handed out one each to a pack of trendy techno mixmasters with names like Chemical Groove and Astralasia, and waited for the tapes to come back in the mail.
Since Rundgren apparently doesn't perform one new note, I can't even vaguely imagine the audience for such a thing.
Most of the material is from his solo albums, including two versions each of "Band On The Drum" and "Hello, It's Me," and obscurities like Todd's ""Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" and A Cappella's "Something To Fall Back On"; there are also a few Utopia cuts ("Mated"; "Secret Society"). (JA)
A new studio album.
I read a bunch of web blitherings about the record and none of them mentioned outside players, so I'm assuming it's another one-man-band effort, even though Kasim Sulton and Prarie Prince were in Rundgren's backing band for the promo tour. (JA)
We gotta get you a woman...