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Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Prog Rock, Lush Pop, Hard Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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(released by: THE NAZZ)

Year Of Release: 1968
Overall rating = 10

Not bad Brit-pop instincts for four young grizzly Americans, but do they really beat anybody at it?

Best song: OPEN MY EYES

Track listing: 1) Open My Eyes; 2) Back Of Your Mind; 3) See What You Can Be; 4) Hello It's Me; 5) Wildwood Blues; 6) If That's The Way You Feel; 7) When I Get My Plane; 8) Lemming Song; 9) Crowded; 10) She's Goin' Down.

Judging from the liner notes to the CD, and later on - judging from the music itself, the Nazz originally assembled with one and only one purpose: to prove that four young American lads could actually do formulaic Brit-pop plus formulaic Hendrix-rock (all lumped together in one - remember, Hendrix was always treated as a British import back then, since he was only able to let his talents shine through on English soil) better than the Brits. Leader and creative soul of the band, young guitar whiz Todd Rundgren, as it seems, was keen on fulfilling that exact dream, and he almost jumps out of his very skin to achieve the goal. Unfortunately, he cannot but fail: due to the copycat tendency, Nazz suffers from the very thing that would forever mar Todd's successive career - a frustrating lack of identity. Out of the ten songs presented here, none are really bad: there are some well-written melodies, some neat production tricks and some carefully constructed harmonies. But there's also not a single speckle of innovation: Rundgren and company explore the kinds of sound that had already been well-mined previously by just about everybody, starting from the Beatles and the Who and ending with Hendrix and Floyd. It is very symbolic that the very first track on the album, the excellent 'Open My Eyes', starts with a ten-second snippet of the 'I Can't Explain' riff: the rest of the song has nothing to do with the famous Who hit, but it's like some kind of statement, maybe on the subconscious level. It's like 'we're ripping them off and we don't give a damn'. Add to this that the hooks on most of these tunes are not very obvious: unless it's your first rock record or something like that, nothing really jumps out and grabs you. The songs just grow and grow on you - very slowly, but at least I can say I got used to the sound and I'm easily awarding this album an overall rating of 10. Any more and I'll be betraying my rating credo: a record with not an ounce of innovation and without monstruous hooks can't really get anything higher than a 10.

Like I said, Rundgren is the creative soul here, yet he never sings lead vocals - that role is relegated to Robert 'Stewkey' Antoni, who's got a pretty ordinary teenage pair of chords, but at least he doesn't get off key or anything. Meanwhile, Carson Van Osten, who is also quite a skilled bass player, keeps inserting mighty fluent lines now and then, and drummer Thom Mooney is fairly professional as well. In all, these guys really took themselves seriously: they were definitely more than just another band in an endless stream of bands, they were determined to make a statement. Whatever complaints I really have, I must say that this is still one of the most impressive American rock albums of 1968 outside the whole West Coast scene, particularly seeing as the Velvet Underground never put out anything that year. And, certainly, nobody was able to ape the essence of Brit-pop as faithfully and convincingly as these guys.

What ensues are my recommendations for those who have already sat through the album one time and - just like me the first time around - found it an unenlightening bore. (So if you don't have the record, please go buy it first). The record is neatly divided into the 'soft ballad' part and the 'gruff rocker' part: no 'medley principle' is being employed anywhere, and it's clear that Todd doesn't really go for 'art-rock', preferring to stick to the basics at this starting point.

The 'soft ballad' part is somewhat hard to take unless you realize that the main thing about it are the harmonies and the subtle vocal hooks. Thus, the single 'Hello It's Me', later re-recorded by Todd in a more upbeat and Seventies-ish manner on Something/Anything?, is just a plain drag without the magnificent middle-eight ('it's important to me that you know you are free...') and the dreamy intonations of the main melody. 'See What You Can Be' has some extremely Beatlesque harmonies, with an exciting vocal crescendo at the end of each verse and a soaring, shrill refrain that's certainly able to draw one's attention. But the best of the ballads is certainly the gorgeous 'If That's The Way You Feel', featuring Todd's first ever attempt at a strings arrangement. It's not that it's all that different: it has the same hypnotic, dreamy atmosphere of 'Hello It's Me' and the same vocal crescendo of 'See What You Can Be', but both elements are used to better effect, and the strings also help make the music more 'mature'.

As for the rockers, they're all pretty good, my favourite one being 'Open My Eyes' - that's the one starting with the (subconscious?) Who quotation, but then it goes into this totally ass-kicking riff that has nothing to do with the Who, plus there's a lot of phasing, and how could you resist a lot of phasing? 'Back Of Your Mind' is a good one, too, sounding like some particularly well-performed Yardbirds tune (by the way, did you know that the Nazz took their name from a Yardbirds single - 'The Nazz Are Blue'? Looks very representative to me), and 'Lemming Song' and 'Wildwood Blues' are fast, effective pieces of boogie, even if the latter is seriously marred by a stupid lengthy chaotic coda. While the best thing about the ballads was essentially the singing part, the best thing about the rockers is the guitar part: Todd's playing is raunchy and vicious, and he takes special care to make as many overdubs as he needs. Normally, it's a two-tracked solo along the lines of Clapton's 'guitar symphonies' in Cream; the difference is that Todd is playing faster and with less precision, but more raw youthful energy. For a prime example of that sound, don't miss the instrumental break in 'Lemming Song': sharp, hard-hitting drum sound + melodic pulsating bass lines + two slightly different guitar solos running off at once = rock heaven, at least, rock purgatory.

And that's it. If the information above isn't enough to make you want to own this record, nothing is, because I certainly won't praise it as something particularly exceptional or a timeless masterpiece. This is where the subjective matter steps in, see? I Like This Album. I suppose that's what an overall rating of 10 stands for, anyway: albums that I like and don't give a damn if somebody proves to me that they're kinda shitty. Kinda like the Monkees (but hey, this sounds nothing like the Monkees - the poor apes could only wish they could play as swell as Todd does).



(released by: THE NAZZ)

Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 9

More of the same (what same? - good question!), albeit with more pretense and less craft.


Track listing: 1) Forget All About It; 2) Not Wrong Long; 3) Rain Rider; 4) Gonna Cry Today; 5) Meridian Leeward; 6) Under The Ice; 7) Hang On Paul; 8) Kiddie Boy; 9) Featherbedding Lover; 10) Letters Don't Count; 11) A Beautiful Song.

Despite the even more pompous and shaneful liner notes, the band's second album is clearly a serious letdown. People will tell you that the Nazz have successfully expanded and diversified their sound on their second record... where? Forgive me please, but I just don't see it. All I hear is more or less the same formula: jangly, not too memorable pop rockers and lethargic, dreamy ballads. I cannot truly think of any serious improvements, but I can sure think of many flaws that pester this record as opposed to its predecessor.

By now the Nazz were completely immersed in British culture - they even moved to the UK for three weeks to record this album - but they were still focused on completely disregarding Pop Rule # 1 ('Every Ditty Must Be Catchy') and Pop Rule # 2 ('Every Album Should Have A Face Of Its Own'), which, in turn, leads to the fact that you won't remember a single tune first time through the album. Well, this ain't a tragedy - I expected the record to grow on me just like Nazz did; unfortunately, this time the 'growing' procedure was very slow and painful. Apart from the fact that they just repeat the formula, it gets worse because there are no fast songs - everything's taken at the same rotten midtempo, no distinguishable riffs - Todd is going for simplistic strumming instead, and very few hooks.

Okay, so the first half of the record turns out to be pretty enjoyable after a long long while. 'Forget All About It', bookmarking the album, is a classic example of a 'pop formulaicness': here's a band striving to write a catchy, upbeat pop anthem but it's so artificial and full of seams that it's plain ridiculous. I can almost see them wracking their brains trying to think of a hookline for the main monotonous, bland main melody and finally coming up with the magnificent falsetto in the chorus (when they go 'forget all about it awhiiile...'). But it's so highly incompatible with the main theme that, acceptable as the song is ultimately, it simply cannot be passed for the 'real thing'. More or less the same can be said about the other songs on the first half of the record, even though in none of them the 'hookline' stands as much at odds with the main melody. 'Not Wrong Long' stumbles and crumbles along like a huge lumbering bullsquid, with a huge drumsound, deep vocals and a fat organ tone, but apart from the somewhat catchy main melody, it's just a big fat nothing. And 'Rain Rider', with its gruff, exemplary bassline and funny singalong chorus, is an interesting attempt at a psycho rocker... 'nuff said.

The most interesting stuff is sandwiched somewhere in the middle of the record, where you'll meet the beautiful 'Hello It's Me' clone called 'Gonna Cry Today'; fortunately, there's a very well constructed vocal melody there, with real chord changes and atmospheric choruses based on an elaborate, symmetric verse/chorus structure. The 'gonna cry today, gonna cry today' refrain, in fact, is one of the most gorgeous moments in the entire Nazz catalog (which isn't all that expansive, I give, but this only emphasizes the statement). And there's also the deeply lyrically weird 'Meridian Leeward' which I've grown to be really really amused with - how can't you be amused by a song which begins with the lines 'I'm a human being now but I used to be a pig/'Til they shortened up my nose and they made me wear a wig'? It also has a very unusual melody for the Nazz - something like a country tune crossed with Latin rhythms. Of course, most critics condemn exactly that one song for being too far out, but why don't we just disregard the critics for a while? Not a bad idea.

And so? There's also the second half of this album which sucks completely. I presume I should have mentioned that the album (which was originally planned as a double one, to be released under the title Fungo Bat) was supposed to be an even bigger statement than the first one, with the Nazz drawing upon all styles, playing all kinds of instruments, and Todd even learned to read music in order to come up with more complex orchestration. To that end, the closing number - 'A Beautiful Song' - is one of the most daring compositions of 1969, but it manages to bore me out completely. Eleven minutes of various musical ideas, mostly instrumental, mostly midtempo, sounding suspiciously like uninspired jams, at times guitar-dominated, at other times organ-dominated, sometimes orchestra-dominated; when the main vocal section comes on, you'll be regretting your very existence, but it's even worse - dreary quasi-accappella singing with poorly rehearsed and sloppy, incoherent vocal harmonies and each phrase being sung out for what seems an eternity. Occasional punches of energy in the form of blistering Rundgren solos do help relieve the drag atmosphere, but they're only occasional and definitely insufficient for an eleven-minute running time. If this is a statement, it's a very rhetoric one - these guys really had nothing to say.

To make matters worse, you only arrive it after sitting through two rather generic rockers ('Under The Ice', 'Hang On Paul'), two very generic bluesy numbers ('Kiddie Boy', 'Featherbedding Lover'), and one atrocious attempt at a 'rambling' ballad - I could have penned a song better than 'Letters Don't Count' in ten minutes without knowing a single note. While the rockers manage to grow on you a wee bit after a while, nothing else does, and even Rundgren's guitar gets annoying and gimmicky after a while. He did master some great technical moves, I'll admit, but by 1969 there were so many more kick-ass guitarists around that you really couldn't get away with guitar playing alone.

And anyway, I'm not surprised that the record never produced much fans for the Nazz. It's not the worst record I've ever heard in my life, but hey, it pretends to be a powerful pop album (not 'power-pop' - that's a different thing), and it's completely inadequate in that respect. I mean, yeah, if you're not gonna innovate, don't pretend you are. Just write good melodies and don't be so ambitious. To paraphrase a little, ambitions killed the cat, and no amount of ambitions can provide a good substitute for a timeless melody. Reasonable lyrics tho'. Rundgren quit after this album (which surprises me - I'd expect everybody else to quit instead), and the rest of the band released a Fungo Bat outtakes record next year (Nazz III), but something tells me it didn't go that high in the charts...



Year Of Release: 1972
Overall rating = 11

A fine exercise in one-man pop scholastics, but certainly it places the emphasis on 'compendium' rather than 'inspiration'.

Best song: I SAW THE LIGHT and IT WOULDN'T HAVE MADE ANY DIFFERENCE run a tie for me here. Funny how they're both at the beginning, innit?

Track listing: 1) I Saw The Light; 2) It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference; 3) Wolfman Jack; 4) Cold Morning Light; 5) It Takes Two To Tango (This Is For The Girls); 6) Sweeter Memories; 7) Intro; 8) Breathless; 9) The Night The Carousel Burnt Down; 10) Saving Grace; 11) Marlene; 12) Song Of The Viking; 13) I Went To The Mirror; 14) Black Maria; 15) One More Day (No Word); 16) Couldn't I Just Tell You; 17) Torch Song; 18) Little Red Lights; 19) Overture - My Roots: Money (That's What I Want)/Messin' With The Kid; 20) Dust In The Wind; 21) Piss Aaron; 22) Hello It's Me; 23) Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me; 24) You Left Me Sore; 25) Slut.

This release was Todd Rundgren's third one, and up to this day it remains his most well-known and popular among the critics. Now seeing as it's currently my one and only Rundgren album, I wouldn't want to draw any conclusions about the man in general; I'll wait up on that until I assemble a somewhat more representative collection. But overall, I tend to agree with the 'new generation' of critics like Brian Burks and Dave Weigel who, in turn, tend to be rather sceptical about the record really being Todd's masterpiece.

It has some good reasons to be overrated, though - undeniably solid reasons, too. Over the running process of these two records, Todd seems inclined to finally do the trick that so many other persons have tried, but mostly failed: draw a diverse and all-including encyclopaedia of pop music. In other words, make his own White Album - only on a somewhat more sophisticated level, both musically and lyrically. (In retrospect, 'sophistication' turns out to be in fact just a mask for the lack of truly brilliant ideas, but hey, we'll leave that for now). These songs are everything - soft pop, 'power' pop, gospel, R'n'B, blues, hard rock, psychedelia, weirdass experimentation, and even a mock-rock-operetta at the end: a true paradise for the lover of diversity, so it seems. What with the constantly increasing 'specification' and 'separation' of genres by the early Seventies, when remaking the same song over and over again was starting to be a completely normal thing even among talented bands, such an approach was almost 'retro-revolutionary', and, of course, the critics were all over themselves.

Even more, Todd makes a giant leap forward by showing the world the real possibility of the one-man band: three out of four sides on the album are recorded by Mr Rundgren alone, playing all the keyboards, guitars, drums and what-not, and he does it in a way that Paul McCartney could only dream of. Practically none of the songs ever gives the impression of a 'home recording': overdubs abound, but they're mixed in and produced so carefully that you never even start noticing the seams. In fact, when Todd's band finally steps out on the fourth side, I can hardly feel any difference at all - I hardly remember Todd blowing the saxophone, but apart from that, no dice, buddy.

These things alone should at least cause a lot of genuine respect towards such an album - and I do say that I am positively awed at the guy's abilities. But, unfortunately, there's an enormous downside as well. The problem is, with all these technical efforts and widespread ambitions, I can hardly feel the very artist on here. If anything, the record gives the impression of a brilliant scholar doing his trusty homework, a collection of 'musical compositions on the theme of so and so'. From a strictly formal point, the album is impeccable: all the genre requirements are always met, and I would definitely lie if I said that these songs lack hooks - only a relatively small portion of them is really not memorable at all. What they definitely lack is soul: all through the album, I can hardly get rid of the feeling that he's just approaching the music with a cold scientific approach, studying and imitating the technical characteristics of all these genres rather than trying to get to their essence and treat their elaborate structures as a base for his own artistic and creative impulses, not as a value unto itself. In brief - mannerism, that's what the record is suffering from. Who needs such kinds of flawless imitations if the artist hasn't really impressed his own identity into them? And Todd certainly doesn't leave much of a personal trace in your heart with Something/Anything?; there's practically nothing original or shocking or surprising in any of the songs.

Needless to say, these complaints do not refer to all of the album - otherwise I wouldn't have given it the extremely high rating of 11 (I wanted to give it a 10 originally, but I raised the rating one point just for the 'one-man band' factor which certainly should be taken into major consideration). The first two tracks are absolute classics - the Carole King tribute 'I Saw The Light', while not very deep or original musically, is filled with hooks and tasty slide guitars and gentle, touching love lyrics; and 'It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference' sounds like a particularly deep and/or moving ballad very much in the Neil Young style, with a steady, pulsating rhythm, a slight, but very emotive piano line and beautiful vocal harmonies. After such an inspiring start, though, things start to move in the hit-and-miss direction - a success here, an embarrassment there, and, while it all lies mostly in the sphere of personal taste, there can hardly be any arguments about the fact that Todd doesn't particularly care about his melodies being memorable - he's more concerned about making them different.

My preferences? I would extract a couple more pretty ballads from the Something part of the album, like the xylophone-driven (sic!) 'Marlene' and the countryish 'Cold Morning Light' which is still marred by (a) partially sounding like an inferior re-write of '...Any Difference'; (b) strange time signature alternations which spoil the song's groove as soon as it really starts going. Boo. I also easily tolerate the crunchy blues-rock of 'Wolfman Jack' (a song that sounds a bit overproduced to me - yeah, I realise it sounds ridiculous when we speak of a one-man band, but this will only help you appreciate the real talents of Todd as a multi-instrumentalist), and 'Song Of The Viking' is kinda catchy, even if its funny bip-boppin' piano rhythm is hardly compatible with a true viking atmosphere (as portrayed in Led Zep's 'No Quarter' and Jethro Tull's 'Broadsword', for instance).

From the second disc, it would be easy to extract the power pop masterpiece 'Couldn't I Just Tell You' (no, I'm not as madly in love with it as most other reviewers are, but I still admit it's one hell of an impressive song - with emphasis on 'power', 'power', 'POWEEER!'), and I'm also less critically inclined towards that little mock-opera that finishes the album. It's often condemned for ridiculous lyrical subjects, ranging from infectious sexual diseases to loss of control over bodily functions, but musically the side is certainly more interesting than, well, at least the previous two. The musical styles on that one go further back - it's jazz-pop and lounge music, played with verve and (almost) conviction, and it ranges from pleasant, occasionally almost tear-inducing balladeering ('Dust In The Wind' - if not a masterpiece, at least tons better than the Kansas garbage of the same name; 'Hello It's Me') to trashy, but naive and funny throwaways. Lighten up on 'Piss Aaron', people - it's not as offensive as it may seem, just a collection of obscene schoolday reminiscences. Not to mention that it's a parody on the 'schooldays were the best days of your life' eternal topic. 'Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me' rocks far harder than the bland Hendrix stylization 'Little Red Lights'; and 'Slut' is hardly self-humiliating - I'd say it's just a self-conscious ridiculization of the insane cock rock values of the early Seventies. In short, if one takes the 'mock opera' for what it is - a parody, it's all right.

A pity that the rest of the album is not (a parody, that is). Many of Todd's stylizations just don't work - 'Black Maria', with its Santanaesque guitar twirls, goes nowhere; the psychedelic 'I Went To The Mirror' drags on forever over a rudimentary piano background, and I could care less for Todd's little mystical gimmicks; the 'electronic' excourse on 'Breathless' might slightly predict the electronic glam of Eno, but it has neither the hooks nor the inspiration of the latter; the gospel of 'Torch Song' is plain laughable; and I don't even like 'It Takes Two To Tango', though I realize I'm probably alone on that one. In other words, the amount of filler is simply insupportable: on a conceptual level, that is, in order to uphold the album's status as a 'genre compendium', these songs are probably indispensable, but that doesn't mean I'll always be happy to put them on. To conclude this rather lengthy review, I'll just state that Something/Anything? certainly confirms Todd's reputation as a 'master', but does nothing to support Todd's reputation for being a 'genius'. A highly intellectual scholar, that's all.

P.S. And note that I'm not saying that this is a bad record - if I really slammed it, it's only because I feel it's been gruesomely overrated by all the paid critics on the planet (no, no, don't get me wrong, I'm not implying they were paid by Todd). It's a very good record, although I'm still not too sure if it's really worth the full double price which you have to pay because it doesn't fit onto one CD. But if you find it cheap - man, now we're talking!



(released by: TODD RUNDGREN & UTOPIA)

Year Of Release: 1974
Overall rating = 11

The best prog album prog fans ain't never heard of.


Track listing: 1) Utopia Theme; 2) Freak Parade; 3) Freedom Fighters; 4) The Ikon.

It's only another testimony to Todd Rundgren really not being taken all that seriously today that his Utopia project, and this album in particular, are almost unknown in the midst of progressive rock fans. Of course, this might originally have to do with the fact that Utopia represented only one facet of Todd's personality, and that, while Todd was certainly among the forefathers of art-rock and always took his composing and recording as something more than just show-biz (although that, of course, could be argued), the "progressive" ambitions of Utopia never came straight from the heart. It was, after all, an experiment - an attempt to play something witty, powerful, and very complex just because other interesting and intelligent dudes at the time were doing the same thing; something very much understandable for a musical chameleon like Mr Rundgren. And prog fans are not the ones to be joked around with; they don't like when the creator himself of the music they worship takes his art tongue-in-cheek. Heck, it's the guy who did "Hello It's Me", after all. Putting him on par with Genesis? No way!

Not that you could tell Todd Rundgren's Utopia is a tongue-in-cheek record had you not previously been acquainted with Todd's image and at least some of his preceding work. The band, assembled by Todd in order to capture the fashion of the day (a bit too late, though, as prog was already going out of fashion in 1974), includes no less than three different keyboard players and aren't meant to be taken lightly. There's one short track here, two that run over ten minutes, and one that runs over a whopping thirty, and each has more different musical sections, tonalities, tempo changes, and vocal melodies than you could shake a stick at; Tales From Topographic Oceans were certainly given some solid competition that year. And, of course, as it always goes with Todd, you have absolutely no idea what his exact message is, if there is one. There's some fantasy imagery, and... hmm... some weird jamming. You make your guess; mine is, "hey, here's something for those Yes guys to chew on". And I'm ninety-nine percent sure it's the right one.

I should hate this album, theoretically, but in practice, I don't. First of all, there's the musicianship. These guys do lack the exquisite technique that made so many prog bands, and Yes in particular, so inimitable; I can't say that any particular guitar or keyboards or bass solo really drives me wild with my jaw on the floor - although, granted, Todd really shows off some first-rate chops when he wants, and everybody is fluent and versatile. But the emphasis is not on technique by itself; the emphasis is on flow and sticking together as a unit. In that respect, it's not Yes or ELP that Rundgren seems to be imitating; rather, his main inspiration is Zappa and his early Seventies' Mothers incarnation, arguably the tightest and most mind-blowing musical unit Frank had ever played with. Many times through this record I've been reminded of Frank's Roxy & Elsewhere, and although I'm not sure Todd's album was released after that one, the connection is still obvious (and, by the way, is the introductory number really recorded live or is that audience applause just overdubbed?) The band just rips through all of these complex, amazingly tight sections, the likes of which a pathetic prog rip-off like Kansas would never be able to replicate. With the volume on 'The Ikon' turned up loud and proud, the track becomes an absolute aural delight, and the same goes for the other two lengthy songs.

Second, there's the melodicity. There can be enough muddling jazzy tempo changes etc. throughout the record, but every time Todd starts to sing his pop side (aka "accessible" side for the purists) takes over, and this occasionally results in moments of aethereal bliss, like the 'you don't have to be afraid' section on 'The Ikon', for instance. That sole four-minute song, too, 'Freedom Fighters', is not bad at all, with echoey psychedelic vocals a la Beatles circa mid-Sixties in the verses and a huge booming ELO-ish chorus taking over in an unexpected manner. Only 'Freak Parade' has a goofy, slightly dissonant main vocal theme, but then again, the title says it all - it gotta freak out, and it does.

'Utopia Theme', the grand opener, is still my favourite, though. The band needed that grand massive opening, which - in my humble opinion - would blow Yes out of the water had it been written by Yes. Huge bombastic mid-tempo riffs suddenly descending into fast metallic chunka-chunka passages; flashy (but brief) keyboard solos alternating with atmospheric wall-of-sound chorale parts; tricky jazzy signatures neatly submerging in the anthemic, typically prog vocal melody, and much, much more than I could ever describe. There's energy and dedication - I'm not sure if there's sincerity, but at least there's interest and talent. And whenever Rundgren really decides to shine, he really shines; check out the last aggressive guitar stunt right before the track finally calms down, for instance.

The drawbacks are obvious, and I think I already mentioned them all, the biggest of them being the, well, lack of wholly reasonable point to the album; and Todd's weakness is that he can't bring himself to add a little genuine humour to the proceedings (as we all know, when Todd has a sense of humour, it's a bit blunt, though, as with 'Piss Aaron'), so we have to deal with a serious-sounding record without a seriously determined message. And, of course, despite the solidity of the vocal themes, there just aren't that many memorable moments throughout. So it doesn't leave much of an impression - but it sure is a total blast when it's on, rarely dull and almost always entertaining.



Year Of Release: 1976
Overall rating = 9

Marvelous approach to cover material and a bunch of originals that are typical Todd.


Track listing: 1) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago; 2) Good Vibrations; 3) Rain; 4) Most Likely You Go Your Way; 5) If 6 Was 9; 6) Strawberry Fields Forever; 7) Black And White; 8) Love Of The Common Man; 9) When I Pray; 10) Cliche; 11) The Verb To Love; 12) Boogies (Hamburger Hell).

"Unpredictability for the sake of unpredictability", I'd call this here record. There's nothing else to make me understand the meaning of the first side of this album. Of course, the record name itself is a clue: Faithful apparently means 'faithful renditions', and the six covers on Side A should be qualified as Todd's 'faithful tribute' to some of his heroes of the mid-Sixties, the ones he took his inspiration from starting from his Nazz days. But, unlike David Bowie's similar project (Pin Ups), the emphasis is never on 're-inventing' the songs; the emphasis is on performing the songs as close to the originals as possible.

It's like an exercise in precision: is it possible to record these covers in a way that'd make them undistinguishable from the originals? And of course, a guy like Todd Rundgren doesn't take the easy way out - these songs are anything but barebone three-chord rockers like 'I Can't Explain'. Todd sticks mostly to the genre that served as his main basis, the resplendent psychedelic marvels of 1966-67; only Dylan's 'Most Likely You Go Your Way' sticks out a bit, but otherwise there's the Yardbirds' defining psycho single ('Happenings Ten Years Time Ago'), the Beatles' often overlooked, but just as often worshipped moment of psychedelic glory ('Rain') and their never overlooked moment of same glory ('Strawberry Fields Forever'), the Beach Boys' epoch-defining 'Good Vibrations' and even a Hendrix tune ('If 6 Was 9'). Of all these songs, only 'Happenings' looks like it's been slightly rearranged, but the song was so muddy and chaotic in the first place it'd take a Joseph Smith to get it right in the second.

On the other hand, 'Good Vibrations' is note-for-note perfect, with the Theramin and the clicking bassline and the chuckling organ and every single vocal harmony in its place; heck, it even got released as a single and won Todd a hit - I suppose most people never realized it was not a re-recording by the Wilson Bros themselves. With the other songs, you can occasionally tell the difference because Todd's John Lennon, Dylan and particularly Hendrix vocal imitations leave a lot to be desired, but they're still really on the spot. It's pretty laughable, though, when at the end of 'Rain' Todd tries to reproduce Lennon's backwards vocal part with the vocals going forward - twice as funny to me because for a long time I did not know the vocals in 'Rain' were reversed and wondered how the hell could John do something like that. Well, turns out that Todd could do that on his own without any effects! Ha!

So yeah, I do admire his work on these covers, an exercise akin to a sculptor painfully and laboriously reproducing an ancient statue, but far more difficult because it's pretty hard to capture both the technical details and the spirit of the original recordings. But as every gimmicky exercise, this particular one wears off you pretty quickly; one or two listens, and you're ready to go back to the originals - or at least go to the second side to see what kind of things Todd himself has to offer to the public. And this is where disappointment sets in for me.

Or maybe not exactly disappointment, as you already know now's the time for me to brag a bit about Todd being all style, no substance. But seriously, I've heard many people rave about the second side of Faithful and I just don't see anything spectacular about it. More specifically, the melodies of these six songs all suck. Yeah, that's what they do. Never the master of hooks, Todd doesn't insert that much of them here either. And that's damn bad; these six pop songs are supposed to be memorable and untrivially written and they're not. 'Love Of The Common Man', for instance, pretends to be glimmering shimmering optimistic power pop, and if you turn the volume really loud and just give in to those extremely tasteful, jangly guitars (the instrumental break is actually wonderful), it works, but it just doesn't work when the song is over. There's optimism and "simulation of inspiration" and correctly arranged 'climaxes' in the vocals, and the guitars are marvelous, but they're not playing anything that goes beyond standard rhythm strumming, and the vocals don't change direction even once - straightforward, monotonous and smooth as a rock.

Even worse for me is 'The Verb To Love', a bleedin' seven-minute song that tries to work as a blatant Stevie Wonder imitation, but at least Stevie had one of the best soul vocals in history, and Todd just has a, um, nice vocal. No thank you, I'll take any single song on Songs In The Key Of Life over this stuff any, any, any time of day. When there's not a single hint at a non-generic non-anthemic melody, I at least expect the singer to rise to unprecedented heights, and I guess even Rundgren fanatics would have to admit his aping Stevie Wonder is a bit corny and off the mark.

The two bookmarking rockers at least have some unfaked energy, and 'Black And White' adds grit and venom plus a moderately acceptable vocal melody, so I'll take it as best song even if by this site's objective standards it can hardly qualify above moderate. But all in all, the second side is just perfunctory, which is typical of Todd, I suppose, so I needn't be bothered. It sure doesn't help that these meek originals stand neck to neck with the masterful covers - the ones that just go to show how much of a second-hand limited-talent imitator Mr Rundgren is when compared to the Fab Four or the kings of surf, or even Hendrix (a limited songwriter as far as I'm concerned, too, but a trailblazer at least). Of course, repeated listens make the Rundgren material homier and cozier, but even after a couple dozen of 'em, I still could care less about the songs. But I suppose if you like stuff like McCartney's Flaming Pie, you'll dig this here stuff too, at least all the formal and technical pre-requisites of solid pop writing are here. A solid 9 for the effort and the titanic work it took to make that perfect recreation of 'Good Vibrations', but that's being generous anyway, so not an iota higher.



(released by: UTOPIA)

Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 12

A true hard/progressive tour-de-force. Imagination flows!

Best song: HIROSHIMA

Track listing: 1) Overture; 2) Magic Dragon Theatre; 3) Jealousy; 4) Eternal Love; 5) Sunburst Finish; 6) Hiroshima; 7) Singring And The Glass Guitar.

It can seem a bit weird that I'm usually over my head with Todd Rundgren at his most 'pretentious', whereas the usual pop classics of his normally leave me cold. But that certainly has an explanation. As I've mentioned many times before, Todd is certainly 'a wizard' rather than 'a true star'. He hasn't got a natural gift for genial melody; what he's really got is an endless imagination and sense of fantasy, as well as supreme taste and all the talents needed for a good producer/arranger. (Heck, he even managed to drag a band as generic as Grand Funk Railroad out of their pseudo-soulful misery!). No wonder, then, that it was Utopia that provided him with the most suitable polygon for practising his imagination.

Ra is Utopia's last "fully-progressive" oriented album, and the one where Todd is at once taking most chances of all and lets the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere prevail most openly as well. It's supposed to be a concept album - about the sun, of course - but the concept, as usual, is certainly a little loose and gets entirely lost as the record flows by. It's also pretty diverse as far as style is concerned, yet never really sounds like anything else. Well, there have been definite Yes links and even Queen links established, but Utopia, due to the immaculate, slightly jazzy-based musicianship, always sounded pretty unique.

The first side is dedicated to 'shorter' songs, ranging from pompous epics to arena-rockers, and if many of them suffer from the usual "gimme that essential hook" problem, it is regularly compensated by other factors. The opening number, 'Communion With The Sun', is the most Yes-ish, as the band chants their eulogy to Ra the Sun God (something tells me the lyrics might be an exact translation or at least an obvious imitation of the Egyptian hymn, but I don't have the original beside me at the moment, so I really couldn't tell for sure) harmonizing in a very Anderson/Squire-like manner (you can't help but be reminded of 'Roundabout' when they chant the accappella line 'Waves of light come rolling across the floor of the valley'!). You could call it derivative and pointless, but the rhythm section pounds along so ferociously and the entire thing is just done so smoothly (in the good sense of the word) I can't help getting that energetic punch. Maybe it'd be a good idea to try to play this thingie at sunrise, see what happens.

'Magic Dragon Theatre' pushes us into vaudeville territory, with music hall piano and something close to a Freddie Mercury imitation, but I don't really mind. All the funny interludes ('who could this be at this time of night? - I'm sure we weren't followed Dr Klang!') really add to the surrealistic scenario; it's a mess, but a funny enjoyable mess. Then Todd cedes the vocal spotlight to other Utopia members as they start singing more 'normal' material, like the stomping arena-rock thunder of 'Jealousy'. Never really loved Todd's metallic stuff, but always liked it just because it was produced in such a damn original and powerful manner, and this one's no exception - had it been recorded by Aerosmith (and it could), I wouldn't mention it with one good word, but the bass just pumps like mad on here, and the wah wah synths sound positively menacing. Equally impressive is 'Sunburst Finish' (I skip the mediocre power ballad 'Eternal Love' because not even Todd's talent can make it come alive. The song, I mean, not eternal love itself.)

But in any case, it's the second side that's really responsible for the unbelievably high rating. 'Hiroshima' still baffles me every time I hear it. Nobody will ever guess if the song was meant to be an honest dirge to the fallen of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or it was just a vehicle for Todd to visualize some of his more "perverted" fantasy ideas, but in any case, the performance is outstanding. Booming power chords, gloomy echoey vocals, the - slightly corny - feeling of impending doom, the quiet Japanese style synth chuckling, the ridiculous "this is the official voice of the United States of America addressing the people of Japan..." address, the nervous clock ticking, the nightmarish chaos of sirens and wild whooing guitars, and, of course, the nuclear boom and the sizzle of the frying-pan at the very end. Geez, this guy must have had some nerve to release a track like that.

But just to relieve the tension (or at least switch the tension into a more inoffensive mode), the album finishes on the eighteen-minute suite 'Singring And The Glass Guitar' which I just love. So yeah, there's a plotline here very well suitable for the likes of Uriah Heep ("jealous forces" have imprisoned Singring, the Muse of Joy and Happiness inside a glass guitar and thrown away the four keys which four brave individuals must retrieve from various corners of the world - musically represented by all four then-current members of Utopia taking "the lead" one by one), but there's also music the likes of which Uriah Heep could never have reproduced even if they stole away Rundgren's demo tapes, and there's a clear indication that Rundgren never takes himself too seriously on this one - if the ridiculous encoded narrator vocal and the introductory phrase ("this is an electrified fairy tale; if you've never heard of an electrified fairy tale, just picture little fairies with wee tiny electric guitars") don't do it for you, I'm outa here. This isn't even a "suite" in the strictest sense of the word, more like a musically illustrated pseudo-fairy tale with occasional singing. If I tried to recapture all the various musical atmospheres, I'd require another two or three screens of text; suffice it to say that the piece where they battle the fire-breathing dragon is one of the most hilarious and at the same time evocative pieces of musical fantasy I've ever heard (although it's closely followed by the drum solo and the bubbling noises when they search for the first key underwater). Dang, this is involving, especially when you got the lyrics in hand, and featuring some of Todd's most inspired soloing too. Hey Geddy Lee and Neil Peart, eat your hearts out!

All in all, it just goes to show that a bunch of guys with excellent chops and a knack for transforming imagination into weird technical gimmicks can make interesting music even if it's nowhere near memorable. Too bad Todd never tried anything like this again, but on the other hand, I doubt he could have come up with anything even vaguely better than 'Singring'.



(released by: UTOPIA)

Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 12

Oops! Wrong band! What's happened to Utopia?


Track listing: 1) Trapped; 2) Windows; 3) Love In Action; 4) Crazy Lady Blue; 5) Back On The Street; 6) The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell; 7) The Martyr; 8) Abandon City; 9) Gangrene; 10) My Angel; 11) Rape Of The Young; 12) Love Is The Answer.

Like, we're not doing this outdated prog rock schtick any more, boys and girls. We don't want no virtuoso instrumental showcasing, and no eighteen minute long epics about finding the four keys to a glass guitar. Instead, we want to do... ARENA ROCK! GET YOUR LIGHTERS OUT!

If this were an album from somebody like Queen, every second number would look like a 'We Will Rock You' clone and the final result would be unlistenable. Fortunately, Todd Rundgren has ten times as much taste as Freddie Mercury ever did; without extolling his brashness and manlihood a la arena-rockers of the day, he concocts another concept album, an anti-Utopia of sorts, with twelve short songs complaining about the hideous state of the modern world. When there are ballads, they are mostly about escapism and salvation - through love, of course; when there are rockers, they are about how modern society sucks. And Todd's really dedicated to the process, as I really can't state with absolute certainty these songs were written pro forma; it seems like his anger at least is perfectly sincere, even if he still lacks the melodic genius to pull off these universalist prayers.

Luckily, the album places a slightly more solid emphasis on rockers (seven as opposed to the five ballads); I have always valued Todd the rocker higher than Todd the master of witty subtle romantic hooks, and he sure doesn't let you down with this stuff. As usual, when there's no melodic hook to grapple upon, there's a whole bunch of gigigimmicks to get by, plus this strange feeling that Rundgren is really letting out some of his frustration. The lyrics are pretty damn good, too, and while by now Utopia has completely dropped the intricate jazz-influenced mind-blowing interplay that made some of their earlier albums so attractive, they're still damn good choppers (and I don't mean helicopters!) at this stage.

'Trapped', for instance, opens the album with this big fat phased riff, this big fat catchy chorus, this disturbing synth pattern, and most of all, this clever opposition of quiet poppy verse/huge booming metallic chorus - and if the 'trapped in the world that we never made!' line won't make you clench your fist, this means you've never really been pissed off at the world. (Like me! I'm a meek guy! I don't clench my fists! But then again, I got a huge imagination). 'Back On The Street' isn't exactly a highlight, and sounds pretty ELOish, to tell the truth, but that's not a minus in my book either - it's far more ferocious than anything ELO ever put out, in part due to the heartfelt delivery on the part of Mr Wizard. 'The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell', on the other side, is one of the most untrivial tracks ever written by the guy - it does start off pretty straightforward, like your basic 4/4 rocker, but then it ventures into a music hall section and a quasi-Styx chorus about how the devil is going to be dancing along with the Holy Ghost before ending in a short blues-based jam. And stuff like 'Rape Of The Young' boogies along... just boogies along better than anything that ever boogies along with you on a Todd Rundgren album.

My favourites, though, are the 'poppier' rockers on here - like 'Love In Action', for instance, which takes a basic barroom riff and suddenly curbs it so that the song becomes an optimistic power pop anthem just seconds after being ready to qualify as a prime Foreigner signature tune. Even better is 'Abandon City', arguably one of the catchiest pop-rockers in Todd's entire repertoire; artists all over the place would have slaughtered for hooks of the 'it ain't pretty... pity... abandon city!' Of course, catchiness isn't the song's only virtue - it features a special "cold", mechanical, proto-New Wavish jerkiness that really contributes to the seriously desperate atmosphere of the song and the album in general, not to mention a cool sax solo.

What amazes me is that even some of the ballads seem to work this time. Well, maybe not exactly; none of these ballads are bound to move me to tears, and I would be pretty hard pressed to understand what in the world would prompt Todd to start writing really heartfelt, really tear-jerking material in 1977 when he had been such a straightahead formalist for the previous decade. But some of his tries on this album turn out better than his regular stuff. 'Crazy Lady Blue', for instance, which does rip off the Beatles' 'Because' at the beginning, but fortunately incorporates that romantic element into itself rather than just plagiarizes it all over the place. Or 'The Martyr', which begins on a truly awesome acoustic guitar line and in which Todd had this marvelous idea to end each chorus with a well-placed, smoothly-rounded '...who really knows?'. Or even 'My Angel', which is kinda cute if sappy.

Too bad the big hit off the record, 'Love Is The Answer', just doesn't woo me over at all, much like 'The Verb To Love' or any of these other anthems to love from Todd. It's not bad, and it's no direct Stevie Wonder imitation or anything (although Todd still wants to sing like a black soulster when he simply doesn't have the guts - pathetic!), but the song's personality is at a total zero, and the hookline is limp, if existent at all, and what's up with this dumb handclapping towards the end? What kind of a dumb "crescendo effect" is that? Aaarggh.

In any case, a concept record it is, and as they say, "a concept album is more than the sum of its parts", in case you didn't know that. (If you didn't, check out any of my reader comments' pages. That's what they say to me when in reality they want to kick my ass for not liking 'Misty Mountain Hop' or some other dreck like that). So, supposing Oops! Wrong Planet was dedicated to me (and I know for sure my personal copy of the album is dedicated to me - I just wrote "dedicated to George" on it!), I'd be willing to forget the few gaffes and misfires for the generally entertaining and meaningful package of form and content that it is, and would say that the transformation from prog-rock to - ehhh - arena-rock went smoothly. Now bring on News Of The World, that I might bash 'We Are The Champions' in bitter recompense.


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