11 March, 2012

One Hour of Psych-Pop Splatter: Todd Rundgren, "Todd"

Todd Rundgren's deranged double-album splatterpiece Todd is one of those albums that really, really couldn't be made today.

It's a double album made in 1974 that barely breaks the double album barrier - 66 minutes total, 33 minutes or so on each LP. All four sides feature a different tunefully warped and bizarre keyboard instrumental thrown in to tie things together. The sequencing is completely off. There are enough analog synthesizers here to give Vangelis a wet dream and they're slathered all over nearly every damn song. The music, lyrics and singing often make it seem as if Rundgren was cracked on hallucinogens and in the middle of the biggest Magical Mystery Tour fixation ever - the whole thing feels a lot like a '67 British Invasion acid trip in the middle of the '70's. This is also borne out by the fact that the front cover of the album shows Todd with green and pink hair, wearing a black sweater with little strawberries and assorted specks of multicolored nonsense all over it, staring full on at the camera, sitting in front of a brown wall and looking like one of the biggest El Lay hippie burnouts in the world. Some songs reach toward psychedelic whiteboy soul, one or two songs make gestures toward embryonic '70's heavy metal, some songs are weird, ridiculously idiotic and insular jokes, some songs are ambitious, strange experiments, and more than a few songs are extraordinarily melodic pop. The entire project reeks of an extremely talented craftsman half out of his mind on drugs, with an unlimited budget and a studio full of '70's gear, throwing absolutely everything at the wall to see what sticks.

This album basically hangs together worse than a frayed clothesline.

But Todd has enormous amounts of demented, druggy, psychedelic charm: and on the whole, I end up submitting to it every time, in spite of all the flaws. When albums like this succeed - completely self-indulgent, drug-soaked messes made only because the artist was just out of his gourd enough to think everyone wanted to hear him meander, sprawl, croon and make bzzt noises over two whole albums' worth of wax - it's often because many of the flaws turn into strengths. Yes, there are more squiggly Moog synthesizer overdubs per square second of time on this album than on your average mid-'70's British prog record. Yes, the sequencing makes absolutely no sense, makes entirely too much use of making songs go together through segueing them with electronic squeaks and burps, and it sometimes seems uncomfortably like Todd decided on how to order the songs by throwing all the titles in a hat and picking them out at random. Yes, Rundgren's weird, dorky sense of humor can occasionally get really overbearing, arrogant and annoying. Yes, Rundgren's inability to really and truly connect with an audience at a genuinely meaningful emotional level is still a problem. And yes, a few of the songs are just unspeakably awful - but in spite of all that, this is not a failed record.

Rundgren's staggering musical ability and prodigious gift for Beatlesque melody and songcraft were still at a high enough point at this time for him not to blow 30 minutes in one go on insultingly dull, masturbatory imitations of progressive rock instrumental suites, which is where he'd be in about a year or so after this. And you'd best believe Rundgren knew how to write a truly crafted pop melody in the early '70's: the kind of pop melodies that would make Robert Pollard shit himself with envy. (That's another thing - I would be very surprised if Robert Pollard had never listened to a Todd Rundgren record in his life. And it also should tell you something that Pollard makes far more emotional connection with a listener, even when singing proudly nonsensical lyrics, than Rundgren often does.) Since Rundgren is also a master producer, the record just sounds fantastic as well: the complexity of the mixing alone on this record would delight many engineers. The combination of pure pop craftsmanship, technological obsession and sheer LSD-assisted dementia makes for a very interesting and very unpredictable 66 minutes.

Let's start with the outright failures first. Todd Rundgren was a longtime Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and after writing a few songs in that mold (most notably "Song of the Viking," off his biggest commercial success, 1972's Something/Anything?), decided to try out actually covering a song of theirs for real: "Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song." What results must be one of the most utterly wretched cover versions ever whelped on magnetic tape. Rundgren was a great pop singer, and had a large vocal range and a clean, beautiful, sometimes quite expressive voice - but he simply didn't have the vocal chops to try and tackle this. Instead of just singing the song as well as he possibly could, Rundgren rushes through the lines with an unbelievably irritating, half-spoken theatrical declamation that swoops and valleys through octaves at random like a gutshot hawk. It would make a true practitioner of sprechsegang in musicals like Rex Harrison vomit with disgust and probably get him egged off the Upper Darby high school stage. He probably thought he was being funny, but (not for the first or last time) it just comes off as gormless and egotistical. Combine that with a ton of "wacky" (read: very, very stupid) chipmunked vocal overdubs offering "witty" (ditto) asides like "I'm only 11 years old!," sound effect tapes that make no sense whatsoever in the song and a thrown-together mass of electronic keyboards seemingly selected for their resemblances to merry-go-round organs and harpsichords, and you get an excruciating pile of aural shit.

The same goes for the whimsically titled synthfest "In and Out of the Chakras We Go (Formerly - Shaft Goes To Outer Space)," which spends almost six minutes making a bunch of terrible, powerless and inherently unmemorable "Skweet! Skweet!" noises, because I guess that trying to write another tune wouldn't have been far out enough. Mind you, I have nothing against wordless, atonal six-minute synthesizer noise excursions if they at least have some true negative power and atmosphere to them, and if this had been a brutal six-minute excuse for proto-power electronics, I'd probably be flipping for it and commending it for how revolutionary and ahead of its' time it was. Needless to say, this sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks making mouth noises through a Speak and Spell while a bunch of Daleks attempt to do the polka and fail miserably. For six minutes.

Really, if there's one main weakness with Todd, it's not the nascent case of synthesizeritis, or all the stylistic detours, or how deranged and unfocused it can be, or even the fledgling moves toward prog - it's Todd's sense of humor, which makes even some of the better songs come off as ridiculous and overdone. His lead vocal on "Heavy Metal Kids" is a prime example of this. The song itself is a pretty funny parody of '70's arena rock, all big distorted chords and blistering guitar solos, background organ, and has a pretty decent chorus. And the ending, where Todd shuts up and goes off on guitar, is just a great stand-alone piece of overblown glammy rocking. But Todd sings the song like he's a borscht belt comedian playing to the nosebleed seats. He basically poses his way through the song, making absolutely sure you know this is essentially a joke and that he doesn't mean any of it - which was already obvious from the lyrics. It's just laid on way too thick, and significantly saps away a lot of enjoyment I can get out of it. This is the same problem with the "King Kong Reggae" part of the six-minute jam "Everybody's Going To Heaven/King Kong Reggae," because Todd apparently thought he needed to squawk "Watch the big monkey do the King Kong reggae" like a fifth-rate soul singer trying to imitate a macaw. (Oh, and no, it doesn't sound a bit like reggae, not even a tiny little bit.)

But then there are the other songs - and man, there are a lot of them. "A Dream Goes On Forever" is one of those astonishing, beautifully melodic and instrumentally inventive pop gems Rundgren could seemingly knock together in a few hours after breakfast back then. As with all of Rundgren's best pop songs, it just sounds effortless. He uses an electronic samba rhythm (there are definitely more than a few early drum machines used on this album) and plays a snare drum along with it to create a rhythm that just glides, plays a progression on clavinet that sticks in your head about as much as your average early '70's Elton John song, layers some tasteful synthesizers over it, harmonizes with himself in ways that Prince almost certainly enjoyed listening to, and voila, there you have it - instant, brilliantly easy success - except that it's not easy; who the hell comes up with a song that's basically piano-pop arranged for clavinet and drum machine? Todd does. Rundgren also had an uncanny talent for ballads and slower pop material, and he again combines a wonderful tune with a creative arrangement on "Useless Begging." It's another piano-pop number like "A Dream Goes On Forever," except he's actually playing piano this time. The drum machines make buzzing shuffling noises (like windshield wipers dancing), there are almost imperceptible acoustic guitars panned hard right and left, more synthesizer usage that's actually tasteful, and a nice little melody that sticks with you. Most of the instrumentals are actually pretty fantastic too - "Drunken Blue Rooster" gets a lot of mileage out of a gorgeous, warped little waltz figure played mostly on piano, and "The Spark of Life" is a wonderfully spacey exploration of synth-and-guitar-drenched psychedelia. The "Everybody's Going To Heaven" part of "Everybody's Going To Heaven/King Kong Reggae" is an absolutely ass-kicking progressive rock jam (and, from an engineering standpoint, that's a really cool drum sound). "The Last Ride" is seriously druggy white acid-soul, with a marvelous droning organ line hidden behind a magnificently sloppy drum part and more overachieving '70's guitar shredding. "Don't You Ever Learn" actually deserves to be six minutes long, combining a beautiful piano melody with more hazy psychedelia - including a mind-bending and quite entertaining round-robin section where piano and synthesizer play the same melody just a little out of step with each other, and an outro that sounds like more psychedelic soul topped with near-Beach Boys self-harmonies. And it would be fairly hard to find a more deeply felt and satisfying Electric Ladyland homage than "Number One Lowest Common Denominator," which basically puts "1983" together with "Long Hot Summer Night" - the song's bridge is absolutely inspired from a melodic standpoint, and the Leslied guitars and phased vocals are extremely well-observed. It may seem a bit goofy, but there's no doubt Rundgren cared pretty deeply about that album, and since there was almost no reason to do such a sincere Hendrix tribute in 1974, it makes me love it that much more.

But of all of the songs here, the best is a painfully short 1:55 slice of what I'd call pop genius: "Izzat Love." This is just a perfect pop melody, matched with a very odd, stop-start rhythm that not only doesn't get in the way, but elevates the song. There was a lot of thought and creativity put into this, but it's not even noticeable on the first few listens because it sounds so easy for Rundgren to have put it all together. It could easily have been a No. 1 smash, and deserved to be. And Todd, for once, actually connects with the listener; the lyrics might just be about the most tired thing of all, Pop Song Subject Number One, a relationship in trouble, but it's obvious that he actually meant it this time. You can hear it in his voice; Todd is not terribly great at faking emotion, and when he actually means it, you can hear it. "Is that love to forgive all those things you've done? If you go still you know I'm the one. Only love, love alone can survive. Deep inside I believe it's a lie. Am I wrong?" His label understandably wanted to release this as a single, but Rundgren got into a massive pissing match with them over it, ostensibly because the song "was indicative of a style he no longer wished to pursue," according to Wikipedia, that font of unassailable truth, and he only won because he threatened to never record again if it happened. Personally, his excuse not to release it as a single seems like patent horseshit to me - I think he didn't want to expose himself emotionally, but it's not like I know the guy.

Todd is a deeply confusing, off-the-wall, self-indulgent 66-minute mess of a pop double album, and if I think about it rationally it's got more flaws than I should really forgive - but I'm such a sucker for the sound, feel and style of the album as well as the songs. It's an odd, uneasy compromise between the Something/Anything?-on-ten-hits-of-windowpane-acid-in-a-funhouse-mirror feel of his real masterpiece, A Wizard, a True Star, the psychedelia and soul that must have deeply influenced him when he was younger, his undeniable talent and flair for writing perfectly crafted pop songs, his mushrooming interest in synthesizers and electronic gadgetry, and the overtures toward progressive rock that would result in quite a few outrageously awful albums of his. Perhaps the best thing about Todd is that it seems completely unaware of the unique balancing act it mostly manages to pull off. It's a snapshot of an artist in transition... and he's really, really high on acid.

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