Album of the Week, January 13: Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren
January 13, 2013 Leave a comment
Born in Upper Darby, PA in 1948, Todd Rundgren started with rock in high school and over the course of nearly 50 years has charted one of the most diverse and influential careers in popular music. His first big break came with the Nazz; personality conflicts caused him to leave the band after two albums. He was also disappointed with the sound and production quality of their recordings and spent a year learning all about recording, engineering and production. His next album, 1970’s Runt, was officially a trio with brothers Hunt and Tony Sales. The follow-up, aptly titled The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, was billed to the group but was mostly a solo record with some session players (including the Sales brothers). While those discs were promising and solid, nothing in them prepared the world for the next release, his 1972 masterpiece Something/Anything?
|Label||Bearsville||Release Date||Feb. 1972|
|U.S. Chart||#29||U.K. Chart||n/c|
[U.S. Hot 100]
Over the next 40 years, Todd would explore just about every permutation of rock and pop, from Brill Building to Motown, from progressive rock to arena hard rock, from electronic experiments to stage musicals and operettas. In many ways, this album is the launching point for all of those explorations. It manages to be cohesive while allowing the musician to test the waters of all his diverse interests. He was also firmly in control in the booth, sett ing the stage for his in-demand status as a star producer for over two decades.
Originally released as a two-disc vinyl LP, Something/Anything? was not just a tour-de-force but was notable for being almost entirely a solo show. For 18 tracks over three sides, Todd wrote, played, sang, engineered, and produced absolutely everything. Others had dabbled in the one-man album (notably Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder), but he raised the art — and science — to a whole new level. Making the most of available technology, he created songs that sounded like whole bands were in the studio, something new and brilliantly delivered.
Each of the four sides has a theme identified in Todd’s wonderful liner notes from the original release. Each song also has a quick written intro, showing off the artist’s wit and sense of musical history. Side One is “A bouquet of ear-catching melodies” — a perfect label for this radio-friendly set of lovely pop tunes. It opens (“like at Motown”) with the first single, the sublime Carole King homage I Saw the Light. Overall, this disc is the most consistent, showcasing Todd’s sense of melody and musicality. Other highlights include the wistful It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference and the lovely relationship primer It Takes Two to Tango (This Is For the Girls). Rundgren also gets in a nod to history with the foot-tapping drive-along Wolfman Jack.
Side Two is labelled “The cerebral side.” It opens with a delightful bit of filler, Sounds of the Studio, in which the producer shows off the many sonic flaws that can be found on any record “even this one” due to the limitations of tape tracking and splicing. While these seven tracks are less cohesive than the first side, they show off more diversity in his repertoire, including the proto-prog instrumental Breathless, the self-indulgent listening experiment I Went to the Mirror, and the movie song (with no movie) The Night the Carousel Burned Down. Of particular note is the Gilbert and Sullivan inspired Song of the Viking, curiously dedicated to the not-yet-famous Patti Smith.
Side Three shows off Todd’s harder rock inclinations as “The Kid gets heavy.” Bracketed by the menacing Black Maria and the surprisingly effective speeding car epic Little Red Lights are three lovely — if heavy — tunes. Couldn’t I Just Tell You might have stiffed on the charts, but it has been named as an influence by three decades of power-pop bands and it’s easy to see why. Torch Song is one of Todd’s loveliest stately ballads, sad and sweet in less than three minutes.
For the fourth side, things take a different turn. Todd opened up the studio and invited in all his friends. The six original tracks were all recorded live in the studio by a cast of dozens — he sings and mostly plays guitar — and the loose, live feel fits amazingly well with the previous three sides. It opens with Overture — My Roots, a merger of two tape fragments from 1966 bands in which Todd played guitar. We then move into “Baby Needs A New Pair of Snakeskin Boots — A Pop Operetta” wherein everyone rollicks through the fresh songs with power, wit, and charm. Todd kept some of the studio banter and wrote a whimsical story in the liner notes to create the faux operetta. Standouts include the bittersweet anthem Dust In the Wind and the nod to “message songs” in Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me.
The album’s finest track is ironically one of Todd’s earlier compositions. The Nazz recorded Hello It’s Me on their debut in 1968 and had a small hit with it. Pleased with the song but dissatisfied with its presentation, the singer and writer resurrected it for this album. With the full band and great backing vocalists driving things along, it’s one of his finest moments on record. It was also his biggest hit, peaking at #5 in December 1973.
Todd Rundgren followed this masterpiece with a dazzling, sometimes frustrating series of albums over the years. He was always the chameleon, veering from sonic wizard to progressive rocker to balladeer to digital maniac and everywhere in between. He also recorded a dozen albums with Utopia, a band that started as his cosmic jam outfit and evolved into a very democratic four-man power-pop band. Forty years on, however, nothing quite matches the power, brilliance, and charm of his first proper solo album.
FURTHER LISTENING: So the question is, how do you like your Todd? With all the diversity, each disc may appeal to a different listener. Most have a handful or more of truly wonderful songs and everything into the early 90s shows of his blend of great writing and engineering genius. The best view of his experimental genius is the next album A Wizard/A True Star, which leaves behind most traditional song structures in an epic journey through the mind of Todd. Another reasonably successful experiment is 1985’s a cappella, in which every sound is generated by Todd’s voice modulated through a number of devices. It sounds strange (and sometimes is) but works surprisingly well, mostly because of the solid songwriting. His most remarkable post-S/A? disc was 1978’s The Hermit of Mink Hollow, a wonderful set of songs about love and loss which includes the top 30 hit Can We Still Be Friends.
Anyone interested in his side band, Utopia, should check out their eponymous 1982 album. Others have some good material (including the original of Love Is the Answer, later covered by England Dan and John Ford Coley), but this set is their most cohesive, consistent, and democratic.