Graded on a Curve:
Todd Rundgren,
Something/Anything?

The words “studio genius” get flung about willy-nilly, but Todd Rundgren, the guy who gave us “Hello, It’s Me,” is the real thing. Oh, I know, his prog explorations with Utopia are largely unlistenable, but I would ask you to look at Exhibit A, the 1972 double LP Something/Anything?, as proof of his, er, geniusitude. It was one of the greatest gifts (along with Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story) my older brother bequeathed to me when he took off to see the country in the mid-seventies, and I loved (and played) it to death.

Studio savant that he is, Rundgren recorded three of the LP’s four sides all by himself, and brought in a gaggle of studio musicians, including Rick Derringer, Randy and Mike Brecker, Hunt and Tony Sales, and Ben Keith to record side four. All four sides have titles, which we needn’t worry about, and side four purports to be a “pop operetta,” to which I can only say okay, Todd, it’s your LP. The critic Robert Christgau said of Something/Anything?, “I don’t trust double albums” before changing tracks and saying, “But this has the feel of a pop masterpiece, and feel counts.” He’s right about double albums: some of the tunes on Something/Anything? do nothing for me and have the distinctive smell of filler. That said, there are more than enough timeless tunes on Something/Anything? to justify that other overused word, “masterpiece.”

Stirring ballads (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”), dizzyingly marvelous power pop numbers ala The Raspberries (“Couldn’t I Just Tell You”), flat-out screamers (“Some Folks Is Ever Whiter Than Me”), great horn-driven hard rockers (“Slut”), Steely Dan soundalikes (“Piss Aaron”), utterly sublime pop confections (“Hello, It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) and oddball novelty tunes that nevertheless rock (“Wolfman Jack”)—that “anything” in the album’s title is Todd’s way of telling us he can do it all, and does. Why, I didn’t even mention his soulful turns on the piano (“I Went to the Mirror,” “Torch Song”), maniacal metal contraptions (“Little Red Lights,” the big-hooked “Black Maria”), big, bad gospel- AND Steely Dan-tinged tunes (“Dust in the Wind”), ironic Harry Nilsson numbers (the happy-go-lucky sad song, “You Left Me Sore”), and brief lo-fi studio jams (“Overture—My Roots: Money (That’s What I Want)/Messin’ with the Kid”).

I haven’t done the math, but the LP includes 25 tracks, which means there are a fair number of tunes that don’t really do it for me. Which is not to say they’re subpar; there’s nothing wrong with the sad “Cold Morning Light,” the upbeat “It Takes Two to Tango (This Is for the Girls”), or the bluesy “Sweeter Memories.” I just happen to skip them, along with the mildly annoying instrumental “Breathless,” the carnival-organ-sad “The Night the Carousel Burned Down,” and the really quite likeable “Saving Grace,” which I don’t ordinarily listen to, although I couldn’t tell you why. Ditto for the catchy but sappy “Marlene,” which I loved as a teen because I could substitute the name of my first true love (Darlene, oh where are you now?) as I sang along. And I definitely skip “Song of the Viking,” which annoys me more than any Todd Rundgren song this side of the horrifying “Bang the Drum All Day” or 1981’s “Healer” from the LP Healing, on the cover of which Todd is dressed like an alien from Venus and looks incredibly like Fred Armisen doing a parody of a pretentious rocker dressed like an alien from Venus.

Which brings us to the question: What happened to Todd Rundgren? Well, he took the progressive path with his band Utopia, which is always a good way to shed me. And as mentioned, he abandoned normal clothing to dress like a space alien. But even the solo LPs that followed in the path of Something/Anything?, to wit 1972’s hopefully ironically titled A Wizard/A True Star and 1974’s Todd demonstrated that brilliant songwriter Todd was being slowly taken over by evil studio technician Todd, and when push comes to shove the only song I love off the former LP is the triumphant “Just One Victory,” while the sole tune I listen to on occasion from Todd is “Heavy Metal Kids,” which demonstrates that while Rundgren knows absolutely nothing about heavy metal kids, he does a pretty good imitation of Ted Nugent doing the robot. In short, it’s good for a hoot, as is the sloppy “Rock & Roll Pussy” off Wizard. And by 1975’s Initiation, he was writing songs entitled “Born to Synthesize,” to say nothing of the kind of four-part odysseys (“A Treatise on Cosmic Fire”) that make me livid, and the jig was up. Although he did manage to deliver his own eulogy with the almost bearable “The Death of Rock’N’Roll.”

In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter much. I can live with “I Saw the Light,” “Wolfman Jack,” “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” “Hello, It’s Me,” “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me,” “Piss Aaron,” and “Slut” just fine, so long as you toss in “Dust in the Wind” (which isn’t as great as the Kansas song of the same title, but hey), “Little Red Lights,” and “Black Maria.” If you’re a fan of the album, and you really should be a fan of the album, your faves may well differ significantly from mine. Which is an indication of its greatness, and of Rundgren’s brilliant facility at genre hopping. You just can’t nail the guy down, although if I had been his record company I’d have rejected every album that came afterwards, in the hope that he’d produce, sooner or later, another LP as brilliant as Something/Anything? You know, like all those monkeys on typewriters who will sooner or later produce Shakespeare. And I’d have kept him away from progressive rock. And Venerian fashion, while I was at it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text