Fire Note Says: Veteran rocker Todd Rundgren mixes it up with Robyn, Trent Rezner of NIN, some new hip-hop friends, and a host of his contemporaries as he stretches out on this experimental synth pop collection.
Album Review: Disclaimer: Although I’ve written professionally (and as a hobby) as a music critic for nearly 37 years, there are some artists about which I can’t even pretend to have any objective distance. I am a fan, and have been from the first time I’ve heard their music. U2 and Wilco are two bands about which I should not be trusted to offer a cool, distant critical opinion, they had me at ‘hello.’ And, my history with Todd Rundgren’s music goes all the way back to my first concert at the age of 16, when I saw his band play a free show in a park in Buffalo, NY on a cool, rainy late Spring day. I’d already committed to memory Something/Anything and A Wizard, a True Star, so I’m more inclined to sing the praises of Todd Almighty than most. In Todd I trust.
(Don’t get me started on the fact that as a true rock veteran, a fine composer and a world class guitarist, a creative talent who has evolved with music tastes over the decades dabbling in a variety of genres – from Beatlesque pop/rock, soul ballads, hard rock and blues, prog rock and jazz fusion, electronica and dance, and a cappella vocal corals to everything in between, not to mention that he’s produced important albums for bands from the New York Dolls, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad, and, while I’m no Meatloaf fan, one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell. Hey, I told you not to get me started.)
That said, this new album of original material by Rundgren, his 22nd or so, if you eliminate all the compilations, covers, concert recordings, or albums with his band Utopia (I count 9 of those), finds the pop-meister breaking still new ground, something you do not expect from an established artist, especially one who is 68 years old. On recent tours supporting his latest electronic and hip-hop influenced albums, State (2013) and Global (2015), Rundgren has grown grumpy with his older fans who insist on a steady diet of the old hits, like “Hello, It’s Me,” “Can We Still Be Friends,” and “Bang the Drum All Day,” and do not give his new works a chance.
And I can certainly see his point, an artist wants to play their most recent compositions, the current things that they’ve been working on, that keep them engaged and excited. But, to be honest, I wait at each show to hear “Black Maria,” which early on set the standard in guitar soloing for me, and sing-alongs like “Just One Victory,” “A Dream Goes On Forever,” and “Sons of 1984.”
So, to guarantee that new folk (and even us oldies) will tune into his new album of fresh material, Rundgren has collaborated with folk like NIN’s Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross, Swedish dance/pop, soul singer Robyn, jazz vocalist John Boutte, blues singer Bettye LaVette, and some classic rock stars thrown in for good measure, including Donald Fagen, Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh, and guitar god Joe Satriani.
If you’ve heard one song already from this new album, it’s probably “Tin Foil Hat,” a song about our new President, written with Fagen that feels like it could have been a Steely Dan song. From his ride down the elevator, to “those tiny little hands,” to all those “alternative facts,” poking fun at his speech patterns from the way he says “It’s gonna be a yuge, yuge, yuge new world,” and “It’s gonna be great, tremendous, amazing and all that.”
In that context, it’s impossible to not hear the next song, “Look At Me,” about a narcissist entertainer type with “a technicolor ego” who will “drop my pants to my knees yeah/If you think that’ll please ya.” And the next track is “Let’s Do This,” and looking through the same lens, one could clearly hear a certain politician thinking “I could play your for suckers, just cause you want it less/Maybe you’re playing checkers, yeah and I’m playing chess.”
In that spirit, the disc’s opening track “Come,” opens somewhat regally, addressing the loss of freedom, and the need for people to stand together, and then as if to respond “I Got Your Back” follows, assuring that they are allies in a common cause.
But as much fun as the political songs are, and they are both funny and fun, not everything here requires that interpretation. “Chance For Us,” featuring vocals by fellow Phillie native Hall, Rundgren recalls the soul music roots of his childhood upbringing in a song about the hope for a failing relationship. Similar in tone and content is “That Could Have Been Me,” featuring a soulful lead vocal by Robyn. I’m not sure there’s anything like the pop radio formats that gave Rundgren his early airplay hits, but if there was, this would be a shoe in.
And speaking of the current state of the music business, Rundgren takes aim at the digital internet free for all where he used to make his living on “Buy My T.” Now playing concerts and selling merch are required to survive as a working musician, as he sings, “You can bootleg the music/But you have to buy a shirt.” By way of homage, Rundgren here appears to by playing in funk territory that mimics Prince.
But then his apocalyptic vision turns literal on “Deaf Ears,” which benefits from the synth sounds and tracking of Rezner and Ross, getting Rundgren as close to industrial as he’s ever ventured as he imagines a world where we “reenact the hunger games.” Then there’s “Naked & Afraid,” with Bettye LeVette singing in duet as the queen of a world right of Tina Turner’s thunder dome.
While Rundgren stretches out stylistically on White Night, benefitting from hip-hop, rap poets and soul singers alike, but he’s covered a lot of this synth mastered territory before, most recently on State. What I miss most, though, is Rundgren’s guitar playing, he’s always been a most talented and melodically pleasing soloist. The first obvious guitar tones on the disc to my ears are on “Sleep” with Joe Walsh sitting in, and then in the final two tracks of this 15 song release. “Wouldn’t You Like To Know,” featuring Todd’s son, Rebop, and the intense closer with Joe Satriani whipping up his usual sound fury. But even where guitars are included we don’t get anything at all resembling a traditional rock guitar solo… and I miss it. Who ever said their favorite song by Steely Dan wasn’t made better by the jazzy, rockin’ guitar solo that always shows up at some point? Why not include one on Fagen’s song? I get that he wants to do something new, but guitar playing like he’s been doing for 4 decades now has not ever gone out of style, IMHO.
So, Rundgren, who never really went away, is back and he’s in strong form. I can’t say this is good as his best work from the past, but it’s as good or better than anything he’s done in 20 years. And did I mention that Trump song, funny one that.
Key Tracks: “Tin Foil Hat” / “Chance For Us” / “That Could Have Been Me”
Artists With Similar Fire: Steely Dan / Peter Gabriel / Roxy Music
Todd Rundgren Website
Todd Rundgren Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb