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Love in Action: Todd Rundgren Goes “Back to the Bars,” To “Mink Hollow” and Beyond

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Welcome back to our Rundgren Round-Up, spotlighting the final installments in Edsel’s series of the complete Bearsville Todd Rundgren and Utopia reissues!

On 1978’s Back to the Bars, Todd Rundgren was in gentle, intimate mode, feeding off audiences in New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland eager to hear his most accessible tunes on a “retrospective” tour.  For this look back at a near-decade’s worth of music making, Rundgren enlisted the classic Utopia line-up of Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox and Roger Powell, as well as many special guests including Moogy Klingman, Spencer Davis, John Siegler, Ralph Schuckett, Daryl Hall, John Oates and Stevie Nicks!  These two discs (originally two LPs, reissued on two CDs) reveal the dream set list for many of the fans that still flock to Rundgren’s concerts.  With no slight intended to Rundgren’s more adventurous (and ultimately quite rewarding) work, the pop classics on these two discs haven’t aged a day.

There’s nothing “Cliché” about Rundgren’s performances on Back to the Bars, as no two are alike thanks to his famously freewheeling vibe while performing live.  Utopia shines on the infectious “Love in Action” (with Powell clearly enjoying his wild synth solo) and neo-Philly soul of “Real Man”  There’s plenty of soul, too, on “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel” as well as a jazzy, impassioned reading of “The Last Ride.”  On “The Range War,” Rundgren veers into country-and-western territory with a twangy vocal as Spencer Davis accompanies on harmonica.

You might believe you can fly when you hear the heartfelt and simple rendition of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s tender “Never Never Land” from Broadway’s Peter Pan, which segues into the hard-rocking “Black Maria,” offbeat “Zen Archer” and “just plain foolish” medley, in the artist’s words.  Here, Rundgren and his band tackle Curtis Mayfield (“I’m So Proud”), Smokey Robinson (“Ooh Baby Baby”), Thom Bell (“La La Means I Love You”) and finally “I Saw the Light.”  Looking back in 2012, the latter song has earned its place among those other acknowledged classics.  The album concludes with an all-star jam on “Hello, It’s Me” (what else?) welcoming Rick Derringer, Hall and Oates, Stevie Nicks (!) and others to the stage.  There are no real spotlights, but it’s a fun valedictory nonetheless.   Following the song, Rundgren comments, “We don’t stop here…” and Todd’s voice trails away to the fade!  Though the album did stop there, there’s no doubt the audience would have been more than happy to spend the night (whether or not you think they should)…

There’s plenty more after the jump, including track listings with discography, and order links!

The 3-album/2-CD package of Hermit of Mink Follow, Healing and The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect is a set of extremes, from the conventional to the radical.  (Notice a pattern here?)  That dichotomy was epitomized on Hermit, with one of its two original LP sides labeled “The Easy Side” and the other deemed “The Difficult Side.”  The former introduced one of Rundgren’s greatest songs, “Can We Still Be Friends?” as well as a coulda-been-a-hit, “Hurting For You.”  As for the latter, the artist made one of his rare ventures into social commentary (see Swing to the Right for another example of this) with the chilling “Bag Lady” and “Bread.”  But even these edgy themes were couched in passionate, accessible melodies, with Rundgren citing Laura Nyro as influencing “Bag Lady.”  Another cut off the “Difficult Side,” “Lucky Guy,” is one of the most sincere items in the singer’s catalogue.  It’s no wonder that Hermit of Mink Hollow remains one of Rundgren’s most beloved albums.

To avoid dividing Healing (the follow-up to Mink Hollow) on two CDs, the Edsel collection continues instead with 1983’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect.  Underneath the self-effacing, ironic title, Rundgren embraces the new decade with his “poppiest” album yet.  There’s no overt concept to the album, and he considered his work on it “just shuckin’.”  But few would argue with the infectious melodies and incisive lyrics that fill the record, including “Hideaway” and the Hermit-esque “Influenza.”  Unmistakably Rundgren but with a slight New Wave sheen, he created all of the sounds on the album, many with the aid of his Linn drum computer.

One song off Tortured Artist, however, has taken on a life of its own despite inexplicably not being lifted as a single by Bearsville.  “Bang the Drum All Day” found Rundgren being self-consciously “goofy,” but he still managed to tap into the zeitgeist with a universal sentiment that was easily latched onto by listeners.  Today he admits the song is a “cash cow” but it’s certainly a disarming one.  Elsewhere on Tortured Artist, Todd covers The Small Faces with a modernized “Tin Soldier” and pays homage to Gilbert and Sullivan with the brisk and appropriately arch “Emperor of the Highway.”

Closing out this set is Healing, a semi-concept album dating from 1981 that remains one of the most fascinating curios in Rundgren’s considerable catalogue.  Side One of the original album loosely tells a parable about a man who discovers he has healing powers, and the second side is a “soundtrack to that story” in Rundgren’s words.

Over the album’s first six songs, the man discovers his powers, grapples with them, and questions his place in the natural order.  The musical narrative occasionally detours and shifts perspective to others’ reactions to his healing powers (“Golden Goose”) and asks some big questions (“What are riches untold in a life without compassion?” in the most accessible song on the record).  As the story ends (“Now, as the evening sun sets on you, healer/Your day is over, your light is fading away at last”), the man reflects on what he has, or hasn’t, learned.  The gentle, spiritual side of Rundgren comes to the fore, especially on the second side with the three-part “Healing.”  In Paul Myers’ fine liner notes, the singer mentions that some therapists have actually used the music in the pursuit of healing, though he admits, “the scientific part of me wonders whether it’s actually the music or the placebo effect.”  Placebo or no, the album is another wonder from the one-man band.  A bonus 7-inch single was packaged with the original album, perhaps to make it easier to swallow, and both of its songs have been appended here.  The power-pop “Time Heals” and ballad “Tiny Demons” both make a fine coda to Healing.

These three albums mesh well together as all emphasize Rundgren’s virtuosity; he handles all vocals, production and instruments on the three albums.  Each includes a detailed booklet with lyrics, original album art, liner notes and memorabilia, while every CD bears a replica of the Bearsville label.  Each title is in stores now from Edsel, and you’ll find order links just below!

Tomorrow: Shout! Factory gets into the act, as we have even more Rundgren news coming your way!

Todd Rundgren, Back to the Bars (Bearsville LP 2BRX 6986, 1978 – reissued Edsel EDSD 2125, 2012)

CD 1

  1. Real Man
  2. Love of the Common Man
  3. The Verb “To Love”
  4. Love in Action
  5. A Dream Goes On Forever
  6. Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel
  7. The Range War
  8. Black and White
  9. The Last Ride
  10. Cliché
  11. Don’t You Ever Learn?

CD 2

  1. Never Never Land
  2. Black Maria
  3. Zen Archer
  4. Medley: I’m So Proud/Ooh Baby Baby/La La Means I Love You/I Saw the Light
  5. It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference
  6. Eastern Intrigue
  7. Initiation
  8. Couldn’t I Just Tell You
  9. Hello, It’s Me

Todd Rundgren, Hermit of Mink Hollow/Healing/The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (Edsel EDSD 2126, 2012)

CD 1: Hermit of Mink Hollow (Tracks 1-12, Bearsville BR 6981, 1978)/The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (Tracks 13-21, Bearsville BR-23732-1, 1983)

  1. All the Children Sing
  2. Can We Still Be Friends
  3. Hurting for You
  4. Too Far Gone
  5. Onomatopoeia
  6. Determination
  7. Bread
  8. Bag Lady
  9. You Cried Wolf
  10. Lucky Guy
  11. Out of Control
  12. Fade Away
  13. Hideaway
  14. Influenza
  15. Don’t Hurt Yourself
  16. There Goes Your Baybay
  17. Tin Soldier
  18. Emperor of the Highway
  19. Bang The Drum All Day
  20. Drive
  21. Chant

CD 2: Healing (Bearsville BR 3522, 1981)

  1. Healer
  2. Pulse
  3. Flesh
  4. Golden Goose
  5. Compassion
  6. Shine
  7. Healing Part I
  8. Healing Part II
  9. Healing Part III
  10. Time Heals
  11. Tiny Demons

Written by Joe Marchese

March 13, 2012 at 12:27

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