A Review By R. Jackson Criss
(Todd Rundgren-“White Knight” Audio CD/Release date: May 12, 2017/Label: Cleopatra)
Those of us who have followed rock legend, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, performer and producer, Todd Rundgren, know to always expect the unexpected.
For years, known as an artist like the title of his 1995 album, “The Individualist,” Todd always worked alone, especially after the dissolution of his band Utopia in the mid-80s. With few exceptions. Rundgren albums were solo efforts entirely.
That’s why many–not just hardcore purists–were shocked to learn that The Wizard’s 26th solo album was going to be one of collaborations, several with peers or equals in his field. “White Knight” will be released on May 12 and let me be one of, if not the, first to say: order a copy today. You will not be disappointed.
While other artists of Rundgren’s age and longevity—turning 69 in June and right at 50 years in the business–are content to churn out the hits or fan requests over and over and produce little, if any, new material, TR continues to create original music. And not only that rarity, each new album of the artist is an adventure in uncharted territory, often to the chagrin, and sometimes anger, of the casual fan. Those who have been with Rundgren for any length of time are used to it, though. And respect him for it. This respect will only deepen with “White Knight” even with Todd taking a side or back seat to his collaborators on some tracks.
Reviewing this new release without a tightrope–no liner notes, only a Soundcloud email–I nonetheless can rank this record as one of Rundgren’s better efforts in years, at least since 2004’s brilliant “Liars.”
“White Knight” begins with solo Todd: “Come” is the invitation, a keyboard-driven track presenting a soaring, elegant plea for reciprocity when the hard times exist–as we soon discover in this record, they indeed do.
“I Got Your Back,” featuring Dam Funk (who accompanied Rundgren as DJ on part of his 2015 techno “Global” album tour) and rapper K.K. Downing is one of the better cuts on the record, incorporating the message of struggle alongside a Philly soul beat. “A brother in need/is a brother indeed” Rundgren sings, when you’re thrown “out of the garden and into the street.” The rap section of the song, instead of detracting, adds to the groove of as good a song as I’ve heard Todd perform in many years.
Close your eyes when listening to the duet with fellow blue-eyed Philly soul brother and friend, Daryl Hall, entitled “Chance For Us” and you’ll be transported to Hall and Oates’ hit albums “Private Eyes” and “H2O.” Complete with a fluid bass line straight from the late Tom “T-Bone” Wolk’s playbook and Bobby Strickland’s sax solo filling in for Charlie DeChant, you’d think Todd had gone back in time to one of these classic Daryl and John records (on which the duo always acknowledged his influence). It’s yet another standout track with an Eighties vibe featuring two of the best living soul vocalists complimenting each other as no other voices can do today–or ever have done. The track tackles individual relationships, a theme Rundgren has gotten away from over the past decade. “Is there a chance for us?” Hall asks–“Should we face the bitter truth?” Rundgren also wonders.”Did the music die?” the song asks. (Hell no, to answer in another context. Not as long as we have Rundgren and Hall among us).
Another purely TR solo track, “Fiction,” sounds like a “Global” outtake to these ears. A good song that gets even better when those famous, glorious harmonies come in at the end.
“Beginning (Of The End)” finds Todd taking backseat entirely to New Orleans native, singer John Boutte. This song is, simply and honestly put, incredible. Sounding like a cross between Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, Boutte paints a mournful, haunting vocal portrait, taking Rundgren’s lyrics to new and different heights than the master himself might have have done. This track deserves to be an instant soul classic. “Told myself I was winning/but it’s pointless to pretend” Boutte sings and you believe and feel for him throughout the wistful track. And when Rundgren’s backing vocals come in to complement at song’s end the listener has entered a true state of satori.
The dream of any Seventies rock fan comes true with “Tin Foil Hat” featuring Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen singing alongside Rundgren in a blatant, sarcastic attack on our current president. The two sound “greeeeaaat” and “HUUUUGE” (as the song goes) together and Fagen rips on the piano and organ with typical Dan-esque flourishes.
The strangest cut on “White Knight” is “Look At Me” featuring (I presume) a young rapper named Michael Holman. Set over a screaming audience background, the song is an apparent jab at the modern narcissism so rampant in pop music today with Holman and Rundgren alternating shouts demanding adulation. To my mind, the song represents Rundgren’s sarcastic view of the crop of current pop stars, the begging message to “LOOK at me” voiced so loud apparently because these “stars” have nothing else to say or going for them musically.
The leader of a band Todd once produced, The Pursuit Of Happiness (remember “I’m An Adult Now”?) is Canadian Moe Berg and he joins TR on the jangly, power pop number “Let’s Do This.” It almost sounds like a modern “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”: “You’re playing checkers/and I’m playing chess” Rundgren chides while pushing the listener to just “do this” whatever it may be. Upbeat, positive and also somewhat reminiscent of another famous band Todd once produced, Badfinger.
“Sleep,” featuring the great guitarist Joe Walsh, has TR crooning over his sleeping loved one (apparently–or is Todd playing Godd again?) while Walsh tastefully plays some understated licks. It’s a pop gem that could have easily come off of Todd’s 1976 album, “Faithful.”
Another song in which Todd turns over the mic entirely is the sad, yet gorgeous, “That Could Have Been Me.” Sung by Robyn, a well-known Scottish singer in her own right who sounds a bit like Lisa Stansfield meeting Jill Sobule at times, this may be the highlight of the record even though Todd only wrote, played and sang backup on it. Robyn’s heartfelt, touching delivery of a lyric as personal as Rundgren gets is nothing short of pure beauty. (“When you roll over at night/(Tell me what you see)/An empty pillow by your side/That could have been me…”)
“Deaf Ears” with Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor is what you might expect. It begins the apocalyptic phase of “White Knight,” appropriately enough, with an industrial, dark overtone broken occasionally by the “fuzz” that NIN is known for. It’s interesting to finally hear these two together after a lengthy mutual admiration and friendship. Still–I’m left not knowing quite what to think of this particular collaboration, leaving me intrigued but slightly cold.
On the other hand, Bettye LaVette, the soul singer who so impressed The Who’s Pete Townshend with her version of “Love Reign O’er Me” at The Who’s Lincoln Center honors a few years back, literally tears up “Naked And Afraid.” After Todd starts the song off, LaVette hits her entrance hard in another one of my favorite tracks off the record. Electronic, yet funky, this ominous song is made even more so by LaVettes soulful delivery.
“Buy My T,” the next Todd solo song, is an obvious homage/tribute to the music of the early Prince, circa 1981. Along with the Minneapolis sound that takes me back to high school, Rundgren delivers some of the most humorous and funniest lyrics I’ve EVER heard him sing. In full falsetto, TR advises us to “Buy my T/buy my hoodie/You can bootleg the music/but you have to buy the shirt.” We all know TR was a huge influence on the late Prince; here, the teacher pays tribute to the pupil.”It’s a limited edition/Will that be cash or charge?”
Todd’s youngest son, 25 year-old ReBop, joins his father on the stunningly moving “Wouldn’t You Like To Know.” Without the benefit of liner notes, I had to write one of Todd’s other sons, Rex, to ask what exactly was ReBop’s contribution to the song. I was told it was the beautiful guitar work throughout the ballad which, indeed, comes across lyrically as a father talking to his son about a broken heart: “Sometimes you have to hurt like this/If you ever hope to grow” and “Did she really care?/Wouldn’t you like to know.” Yet another personal favorite track off of “White Knight” for me.
Finally, the album closes in a way that, perhaps, we expected. For years now, Rundgren’s lyrics on recent recordings have pointed, blatantly, to a day of reckoning. With “This Is Not A Drill,” featuring guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani and longtime TR band mates Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince, we are told, after a blistering Satriani intro solo, that “Shit has gotten real–the happy days are gone–if anyone is captured–we take the poison pill.” With an orchestral backing, Satriani and Rundgren close “White Knight” out in an apocalyptic blaze…of glory? Time will tell.
We are left then, at the end of the record, with little hope. Except, possibly, that the “White Knight”–the man who has sung of love being the answer, that only just one victory is needed to be alright and that a dream goes on forever–might just stick around to advise, comfort and inspire us with his music.
My only complaint against “White Knight” is that the songs are a bit too short. Usually, Todd takes his time and his music runs long without being redundant or boring. But on the new record all of the tunes are brief, almost too brief for my taste. A minor criticism of “White Knight,” though, when heard as a whole.
In a time when we are losing too many musical greats, the adolescent heroes of my generation, the artists who we grew up with and whose sound was the soundtrack to our lives–it is both a wonder and a joy to have Todd Rundgren still going strong musically, still incredibly relevant and revered, still railing against the wrongs of society yet comforting our fears and showing sympathy to, and empathy for, our concerns and dreams. And, yes–still providing, even now, the soundtrack to our lives. To my life.
He is a legend, yes. He is rock star, of course. But he is more than those things now after all these years. He is an American treasure, our own shaman and “wizard, true star” who, this reviewer sincerely and dearly hopes, will be producing more records like “White Knight” for many, many years to come.