Todd Rundgren nearly tackles the future. One Long Year-- forward leaning, but flawed.
by Chris Vreeland
In the process of becoming familiar enough wih this album to write a balanced review, I began to ponder why it was I haven't become a bigger Todd Rundgren fan over the years. What is it, despite the fact that I genuinely like his music, and appreciate his talent, that keeps me from the more rabid enthusiasm that I muster for groups like XTC, King Crimson, the Beatles or Bob Marley? I'm aware of the fact that Rundgren is widely regarded amongst the music community as one of the true greats of rock music songwriting and production, but somehow I've never been moved to follow his career that closely, despite having seen him live twice, and the fact that both of these shows ranked in the "Phenomenal" category, with his 1979 performance with Utopia at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin ranking as one of my all-time favorite shows.
For one, Todd Rundgren has unusual ideas about equalization. In his mixes, each instrument tends to occupy a very narrow slice of the spectrum. I'm not certain of his intent, though it could be to place each instrument in it's own sonic space, but to me, he goes overboard in the attempt, and things tend to sound one-dimensional, and just thin to me in a lot of his mixes. He's revered as a producer, but there's a double-edged sword at play-- Take for example XTC's Skylarking. He managed to elicit some of the best performances of their career, and his sequencing and arrangement of the songs is arguably the albums greatest overall strength, but simultaneously, he ruined it with the thinnest and weakest mix of all their albums, by far. If he could see fit to give up a little control and work with an engineer who might mitigate hs tendencies towards thin, trebly mixes, his strengths as a producer wouldn't be so impacted by his weaknesses.
But one gets the impression from One Long Year that TR isn't one to cede control easily. The mantle of one-man-show would appear to be one he relishes, even when it's to the detriment of the music as a whole. Nearly all of the album, with the exception of one lone song (a remake of Love of the Common Man from 1976's Faithful) and a couple-odd overdubs, is Todd alone with his Mac, sequencers and drum machines. Not that this is universally bad--the albums strongest songs are its more experimental ones, where he totally emerses the listener in a digitally fabricated wall of sound. The third track of the album, Jerk, is a frantically paced screed in which he repeatedly intones through a wall of effects "With friends like these, who needs enemies" and "I want to grind you down to atoms." The song is processed, and sliced apart into a sonic collage worthy of the best of the electronic genre, and it's a truly powerful, angry hypno-robotic tirade. The 7th song, Mary and the Holy Ghost represents the best of so-called Trance, or Acid Jazz, and is also spellbinding, and totally immersive, a sea of swirling sound, but in a lush, and soothing way, utterly unlike Jerk.
On a whole, though, the album is wildly uneven, and it jerks you from the processor-enhanced digital future back and forth to the acoustic past, and a couple of his attempts at "normal" songwriting, in the classic Todd Rundgren vein seem very out of place on what could have been an entirely forward-looking, and strong record, if he'd unified the theme a bit more. Instead, he flits across a career-wide spectrum of ideas, some of which seem tossed off haphazardly, or rehashed here, like the Remake of "Bang the Drum," which he reworked for a live solo performance called "Bang on the Ukulele Daily." While it's rather amusing the first time through, it falls flat by the third listen, and it was all I could do to not hit the "forward" button, and attempt to be objective