08 January 2010

Albums You Must Own (#8 in a series)

Todd Rundgren
Something/Anything? (Bearsville 1972)

TNOP recently went to the peach crate archives and pulled out one of our long lost favorites, Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? Cracking open the double album fold, there's Rundgren, pictured alone in a room jammed with equipment, guitar slung over his shoulder and arms outstretched with hands in dual victory signs. It's 1972, and the newest pop whiz-kid seems to know that he has accomplished something special.

The buzz in the singer-songwriter corner of the musical world over the preceding two years was about an artist who had produced and performed an entire album on his own: Paul McCartney (McCartney). And it was no secret that the multi-talented Motown youngster Stevie Wonder was also toiling away in the studio with the same intention. [Ed. note: Wonder's Music of My Mind would be released a month after Something/Anything?]

Just 23 years old at the time of the recording, the Philadelphia native was already a music veteran. Rundgren had fronted the group The Nazz, a garage rock band that recorded three albums and had two minor singles, "Open My Eyes" and "Hello, It's Me." He had followed that up with two efforts under the name Runt, producing the notable Top 20 hit "We Gotta Get You A Woman" in 1970.

The four sides (as in old LP lingo) of Something/Anything? are all provided with thematic subtitles. The first three are entirely Rundgren's efforts, and he is joined by an able band (including Rick Derringer on guitar and the Brecker Brothers on horns) on the fourth.

First up is "A Bouquet of Ear-Catching Melodies." It's no idle boast. The one-two opening shot of "I Saw The Light" and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference" would both land in the Top 20; they show off the influence of Carole King and Laura Nyro with aplomb. The Motown-splashed "Wolfman Jack" is up next, a tribute to the influential DJ who brought American teens rock 'n roll via Mexican megawatt superstation XERF-AM just across the border from California in the 1960s. Teenage heartbreak ("Cold Morning Light"), nighttime lurking ("It Takes Two To Tango") and a beautiful, hopeful ballad ("Sweeter Memories") round out Side A; almost forty years later, one is hard-pressed to find twenty minutes of pure, pleasurable pop that still calls for repeated listens.

Side Two delves into some engineering wizardry. As a tease, Rundgren provides an intro of examples of bad engineering. Pop, hiss, hum and editing are discussed by Professor Todd, finally interrupted by "Breathless," a prog rock/jazz fusion instrumental. Things stay interesting on "The Cerebral Side," highlighted by the amusement park psych out "The Night The Carousel Burnt Down" and the (yes) Gilbert & Sullivan cum Beach Boys "Song of the Viking" (the album notes provide the now interesting rock history footnote that the tune is dedicated to Rundgren's then unknown girlfriend, one Patti Smith).

The third side, called "The Kid Gets Heavy," is probably meant to be an indication of an edgier things to come, but "Black Maria" and "Little Red Lights" only carry through with that theme, clearly influenced by Santana and Jimi Hendrix. The tunes in the middle fit more with the previous mood, including the magnificent "Couldn't I Just Tell You," a power pop blueprint for the many groups that would follow.

The one-man show over, Rundgren decides to take on a full slew of musicians to tweak the fad of the day: the rock opera. Dubbing his effort "Baby Needs A New Pair of Snakeskin Boots," the spoof starts with an overheated cover of Barry Gordy's "Money (That's What I Want)" and Junior Wells' "Messin' With The Kid." Arena sing-along "Dust In The Wind" works without being pretentious. Then, curiously, up pops "Hello It's Me," originally recorded with The Nazz. This version, with no overdubs, would turn out to be the biggest hit of Rundgren's career. Then the singer bids adieu ("There goes Todd!") and launches into a trio of very amusing and rocking songs to close out Something/Anything? ("Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me," "You Left Me Sore" and "Slut").

The print media campaign in the music trades featured a picture of Todd Rundgren with a stick of dynamite in one hand and a lighted match in the other. The caption? "Go ahead. Ignore me." While it is true this eccentric musical genius faded from the front lines of music (recording album after album of eclectic music that couldn't be eaten up by the masses, as well as serving as a noted producer for noted rock acts over the years), Something/Anything? endures as a true pop masterpiece.

Todd Rundgren performs "Hello It's Me" live on The Midnight Special back in 1973.

Todd gives a bossa nova twist to "I Saw The Light" on a 1997 appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

Joe Jackson and a string quartet join Rundgren for a version of "Black Maria" (circa 2007).

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite album of all time. Great write up! Enjoying your blog!