Monday, February 25, 2013
Todd Rundgren "Hermit of Mink Hollow" (4.5*)
He’d been doing most of it on his own for a while, and as far back as Something/Anything he’d completed three sides out of four without assistance, but when Todd Rundgren’s eighth solo album arrived in 1978 it was credited to Todd Rundgren - Arranger, Instruments, Producer, Vocals and no one else. In between he’d been working with assorted session players and the members of Utopia, and had been pushing the limits of how much you could fit into the grooves of a single disc (A Wizard, A True Star) but Hermit headed back in the opposite direction, with eleven tracks clocking in just under 35 minutes (compared to Wizard’s nineteen and a tad under fifty-six minutes).
That mightn’t matter much in real terms, and Rundgren had been fairly prolific so you’d be inclined to suspect he’d have to slow down eventually. Alternatively, you could look at the breakup of his long term relationship with Bebe Buell, glance at the title and figure there’s this heartbroken bloke sitting in his cabin on Mink Hollow Road just west of Woodstock and this is all he’s been able to come up with.
Which would make sense if we were back in the Laura Nyro/Carole King territory he’d been working earlier, but despite the presence of a truly great break-up ballad (Can We Still Be Friends) and a couple of titles that might support that sort of hypothesis (Hurting for You, Too Far Gone, and, maybe You Cried Wolf) what we’ve got here is an interesting exercise in largely cheerful and upbeat power pop.
Actually, if you were looking for forensic evidence re. terminated relationships it might make more sense to return the tracks to the sequence listed on the back cover, which was what Rundgren delivered to the record label. Bearsville, in their wisdom, thought the original sequence was “too haphazard” and asked Rundgren to split the album into an “Easy Side” (comprising the lighter, poppier songs) and a “Difficult Side” with the cerebral or rockier songs, with the quirky Onomatopoeia, which would definitely qualify as “Cerebral” getting a guernsey on the “Easy” side...
A more combative Rundgren might have told them to butt right out, but he claims to have gone along with the request because it made no difference to him and, conceptually, the record didn’t suffer for it. The sceptical listener, of course, with plenty of hard drive space, a second import into iTunes and a bit of fiddling with the track numbers, assuming you’ve got a smart playlist or something to keep the two separate (I’ve got one called Unheard, where the Plays is 0, but there are undoubtedly other ways) can put him or herself in a position to compare and contrast.
Both versions kick off with the happy, upbeat and semi-anthemic All the Children Sing, and while Rundgren’s version followed it with Too Far Gone, Out of Control and Lucky Guy, the Bearsville resequence slots the gorgeous Can We Still Be Friends in as Track Two. Upbeat starter, followed by one of the all-time breakup ballads that sequences into the pure power pop territory with Hurting for You and Too Far Gone. The latter, with an airy chorus hovering over Latin rhythms delivers an interesting assessment of the ups and downs of Rundgren’s career from family and friends.
As far as winding up Side One is concerned, whether you’re looking at Easy and Difficult or One and Two, the very clever Onomatopoeia is followed by Determination, an impressive slice of power pop that winds up the first side rather well. Your mileage may vary as far as Onomatopoeia is concerned, but to me it’s a rather clever bit of studio wizardry that mightn’t have much point beside a demonstration of the man’s editing skills but still works as a combination of audio dictionary definition and word play. I do, after all, have a thing about word play...
Turning the attention to The Difficult Side Rundgren turns social agitator on Bread, three minutes of power ballad about starving Americans living below the poverty line, and continues in the same territory with Bag Lady, a piano ballad that verges on the melodramatic but has its heart in the right place.
After that the listener probably needs something a little more upbeat, and You Cried Wolf‘s bouncy assessment of an ex-lover’s false alarms in the commitment department meets that requirement fairly well. Rundgren drops it right back for the melancholic piano-driven Lucky Guy, which followed Out of Control in the original sequence. In the other setting, however, it’s about time for a howling up-tempo raver. Out of Control fits that requirement to a T and both sequences conclude with Fade Away an exercise in sumptuous harmonies that winds things up with a closing statement that works as well as All The Children Sing does as an opener.
With the tracks sorted into both sequences it’s difficult to say which one works the best, and I’m inclined to agree with Rundgren’s assessment that the Easy Side/Difficult Side idea wasn’t a problem and that the record wouldn’t suffer for it. As it is, I have ‘em both, and in an environment where you’re going to be playing your favourite tracks on shuffle the album sequencing isn’t really an issue, is it?
In any case, regardless of the actual sequence, what we have here is a collection of
snappy, cleverly arranged quality pop songs that’s possibly the best, and definitely the most accessible, thing he’d done since back around Something/Anything. That’s not to suggest they’re all classics, but it’s a remarkably consistent collection that’s remarkably free of duds and candidates for the shuffle button.