Todd Rundgren “White Knight”

Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren “White Knight”

If there is one thing Todd Rundgren can be counted on, it’s that he will do his own thing (good or not) without a thought toward commercial success or his fan base. After what I like to think of as his “golden” musical period ending in the early ’90s, he then emerged as a techno-futurist, with experiments in EMD, ambient, and rap music. Although ahead of his time and putting off many fans, Rundgren has continued breaking musical taboos and deconstructing his own work (and other artists’ music as well). He persisted in making music with techno beats and synth textures but proved his guitar prowess again on 2008’s Arena.

By the time we got to 2013’s State and 2015’s Global, Rundgren’s music had become slightly more accessible. His satiric voice and natural melodic abilities came bubbling up from all that thick custom-made production gloss. That all leads us to White Knight.

This is more like Rundgren’s version of Duets (sort of). He teams up with a variety of artists from assorted genres on a variety of songs and even has three solo tunes. While he remains a master of atmospherics on the opener “Come,” the collaborations are a mixed bag. The dream pairing here is with Daryl Hall and Bobby Strickland on “Chance for Us,” with the best Philly soul vocal duo asking, “Is there still a chance for us?/Or does the music die?” Wow. Why did it take so long to get these guys together?

The humorous commentary is always a part of Mr. Rundgren’s arsenal, as on the anti-Trump gem “Tin Foil Hat,” which is aided by Donald Fagen (Steely Dan). The sweet ballad “That Could Have Been Me” with lead vocals by Robyn is another keeper. It’s a case of Rundgren getting the best elements from his collaborators to enhance his songs. With the rock/pop genre, he is a master of this – but when he goes outside his element, like electro-disco on “Naked & Afraid,” it sounds contrived and overly commercial.

The biggest smile crossed my face when I heard “Let’s Do This,” a power pop duet with Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness). Another interesting pairing is with Joe Walsh on “Sleep,” with its plucked guitar chords, strings, and soothing chorus. There is another worthy tune, “Buy My T,” which sounds like a Prince parody, but damn it’s catchy.

Simply put, this is the best Todd Rundgren album in a very long time. Just these tracks I mentioned make up for the rest, which are either overindulgent vanity pieces or simply boring songs. After decades in the music business, veteran musicians tend to either coast on their reputation (like Stevie Wonder) or indulge in personal projects that their fans barely tolerate. It’s rare for that music legend, already venerated, to produce something new that can appeal to the existing fan base (like Ian Hunter). So for you Rundgren fans, it is a definite must buy. Others may want to stick to his various greatest hits packages.

Amazon

Major Label artists releases in 2015 – Part 2

The big stars of rock/indie (some with power pop leanings) have come out of the woodwork this year and here are mini-reviews of some that I follow. If you missed it check out Part 1 of this.

 

Ben Folds

Ben Folds “So There” – Ben has slowly made his journey from piano popster to orchestral composer. He addresses this change on the poignant “Not A Fan.” But he still can make thrilling pop music buried under all those strings. Some good songs, but he eventually he goes to the full Concerto. At least Danny Elfman did it on separate albums. Listen to: “Phone in A Pool”, “Yes Man” Get it here.

The Fratellis

The Fratellis “Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied” – Huge shift in sound for the band; if you’re looking for another “Chelsea Dagger” go elsewhere. The grander, more dramatic  “Me and The Devil” and “Baby Don’t Lie To Me” sound a little like Supergrass. “Thief” is another standout here, and the funk bass on the circus-like “Dogtown” keeps it interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t consistently hit the mark. A good album, but it needed editing to make it great. Get it here.

Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams “Get Up” – The amazing Jeff Lynne does for Adams what he did for Roy Orbison; making him relevant to audiences again. Adams gets the full Wilbury treatment here with great catchy singles like “Go Down Rockin” and “That’s Rock and Roll.” Plus amazing ballads like “We Did It All” takes advantage of Adams sandpaper-vocal delivery. Its easy to see why Absolute Power Pop blog added this to his top ten. Proof Lynne always has the magic touch (with other artists.) Get it here.

Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney “No Cities To Love” – Legendary punk all-girl band returns. It’s a little more structured, less grungy, a decent reunion that delivers plenty of radio friendly songs that will appeal to the indie pop crowd. Bitching about the state of affairs on “Price Tag”,”Surface Envy,” and the catchy “A New Wave” are highlights.  Old fans will note it doesn’t reach the highs of 2008’s The Woods, but that’s okay – it’s a great starting point for new fans.  Get it here.

Major Label artists releases in 2015 – Part 1

The big stars of rock/indie (with power pop leanings) have come out of the woodwork this year and although a rare few made my Top 25 list (Tommy Keene, Chris Stamey almost made it) most have been putting out exceptional music:

 

Wilco

Wilco “Star Wars” – The band continues to pave its own course (a free download!), mixing the influences from newer (Radiohead) and older (Lou Reed, Beatles) bands. Plays like a stripped down rehearsal in spots, with little studio gloss. Solid release stands nicely alongside its post-2008 albums. Listen to: “More”
Get it here.

Squeeze

Squeeze “Cradle to The Grave” – The Tilbrook-Difford songwriting partnership continues to dazzle. While not as good as the 1980-90’s era, its damn close. A welcome return to form, and some real sweet gems here. Listen to: “Nirvana”, “Happy Days”
Get it here.

Jeff Lynne

Jeff Lynne’s ELO “Alone In The Universe” – This was hyped up quite a bit and even though I love Jeff and the ELO sound, it just didn’t impress me. Maybe he shouldn’t have re-hashed “Showdown” into “Love & Rain,” it sounds like ELO on autopilot. Oh well. Listen to: “Dirty To The Bone”, “Ain’t It A Drag”
Get it here.

Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson “Fast Forward” – Leave it to Joe to deliver excellent musicianship and great songwriting that sounds like a mature artist. No this isn’t rock or the early ’80s and the brilliant title track makes it clear. While a bit long and with a few jazzy filler tunes, this is still a good album for JJ fans. Listen to: “If It Wasn’t For You”, “Junkie Diva” Get it here.

Paul McCartney “New”

Rarely do I review such mainstream stuff, but when it comes to Sir Paul I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted to know if he could still pull out some of that old Beatle magic. I wasn’t keen on his standards LP Kisses on the Bottom, so I was expecting something closer to my tastes.

With the stigma of ageism gone from rock n’ roll, the 71 year old Beatle works with four different producers (Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles Martin) in an effort to sound “new” but still tinted with sweet nostalgia. The title track certainly does this, a sing-along crowd pleaser with a Beach Boys coda. Paul’s melodic gift still holds up with nice bass guitar lines of “Alligator” and “On My Way To Work” which recalls his time with Wings. “Early Days” is a predictable look back and the ballad “Looking At Her” is another signature Macca love song.

One caveat is that his voice is really starting to show its age, like fellow septuagenarian Brian Wilson he needs a little help from his (studio technician) friends.  And for every polished gem like “Queenie Eye,” you get filler like “Appreciate” with its forced hip hop beat or the overly glossy production on “Save Us.” This isn’t going to stop fans from rushing out to grab this, and it’s nice to know that the old dog is trying some new tricks. The good stuff easily outnumbers the lame stuff, and my favorite here “Turned Out,” proves beyond a doubt that Paul is back. So enjoy him while he’s still here making music.

Amazon | Itunes

More album favorites for 2012

This was an excellent year for melodic rock and indie-alternative pop. I didn’t have time to rank everything, but I did want to make another list for you, these are albums that I’ve enjoyed but I didn’t have time to review. More overlooked gems will be reviewed this week.

A message from Sunrise Highway musician who says “support indie artists!”