by Jeff McLaughlin, published in Listener Magazine, Summer 1996 (copyright 1996, Eastern Bee Publications).
Check my references . . .
You know I been there, done that;
Don't need to sling the scat 'cause my resume is too fat.
So claims the artist formerly known as Todd Rundgren, on his Enhanced CD release, The Individualist. And he's right. A glance at (better yet, a good listen to) the Rundgren discography reveals a creative and stylistic prolificacy unmatched by most of his contemporaries. To call Mr. Rundgren the Joyce Carol Oates of pop music would probably be an understatement.
Rundgren's previous release, No World Order (1993), was excellent from a musical standpoint. However, in its CD-ROM version, the promise of an interactive (that's what the "i" in TR-i stands for) extravaganza went lar gely unfulfilled. Though technically interesting, the CD-ROM was actually sort of boring (not to mention inconvenient) in comparison to just listening to the music. So, when there was word that Rundgren's new release would be available only in a CD-ROM version, I became worried. Luckily, as it turns out, The Individualist comes in a format called Enhanced CD, which can be played both on a computer (Mac or IBM) and on a conventional CD player. That's the good news. The bad news is that, if your CD-ROM software is a few years old, the interactive CD-ROM may not work. But, the good news again is that software upgrades are readily available. And besides, with a typical retail price of $17.99, you won't lose much if you only listen to the music and never get to experience the CD-ROM at all.
So, having said all of that, I must report that I have found The Individualist to represent some of Todd Rundgren's best musical work in recent years. In this review, only the musical aspects of The Individualist will be discussed. However, for your information, the interactive portion of the disk includes animation and other visual accompaniments, song lyrics, concert footage, and even an arcade game that corresponds with the song, "Cast the First Stone." (You guessed it: it's a rock-throwing game.) Now, on to the tunes.
The music on the CD is characterized by a crystal clear sound, sometimes lean and sometimes dense, but never overwhelming. Layers of gently contrasting instruments and sounds provide seamless backdrops for Rundgren's well-wrought and varied vocals. The combination of synthesized tones and "real" instruments is rich and nicely balanced. For the first few listenings, I found myself mesmerized with the arrangements and sound quality alone. There is an effortless simplicity throughout, evidence of Rundgren's artistic and technical maturity in this area. Though several examples could be cited, "If Not Now, When" (with a complex arrangement) and "Beloved Infidel" (very sparsely arranged) typify Rundgren's production expertise at its very finest.
Several songs on The Individualist incorporate spoken (dare I say) raps, which Rundgren overdid somewhat on his previous release, No World Order. However, in this case, the spoken parts are less grating, more relaxed somehow, and better integrated into the musical arrangements. The title song is, in spots, strangely reminiscent of Frank Zappa, with its humorous blending of spoken and sung lyrics within the same line. Dan Quayle ma kes a guest appearance on "Family Values," with various sampled pronouncements on family values, interspersed with Todd's vocal line. By the way, I hope Dan hears his one. It may remind him that he and his kind don't hold a monopoly on righteousness. This is also one of the more "singable" tunes on the album.
Some of Todd's best rocking vocals show up on "Cast the First Stone" and "If Not Now, When?". The latter also features a ringing guitar sound reminiscent of "Love of the Common Man," from the 1976 Faithful album. "If Not Now, When?" is a good hard-rock anthem, which could be paraphrased as: "Hey, you . . . yeah you . . . stop complaining, get off your butt and do something about it." A similar theme is presented in a much mellower way on "The Ultimate Crime."
Also on the mellow side, "Beloved Infidel" is a prayer which recalls Rundgren's Healing era (circa 1981). The synthesized organ, percussion and bass, with a simple guitar solo, are ideal complements to one of the loveliest songs Rundgren has ever delivered. It is refreshing to hear (on this song and throughout The Individualist) that Rundgren still thinks civilization can be saved from its spiritual decline and that love and compassion will win in the end. (Yeah, it's corny and idealistic, but I happen to believe it as well.)
For you under-stimulated types, there is "Espresso (All Jacked Up)," a musical amphetamine that actually sounds like espresso, specifically a tad too much espresso. The song documents a worldwide whirlwind excursion with Todd and his buddies, all jacked up on caffeinated beverages. At the end, Rundgren repeats the lines "I need a hot espresso, I'm all jacked up" over twenty times very rapidly. I found myself spinning around in my desk chair, to be stopped only by the headphone cord as it tightened around my neck. Whee-hee!
From "Espresso," we move into the more subdued, "cool, man, cool" sound of "The Individualist," a mostly-spoken number, backed with vibes, wooden flute, and jazzy percussion. Thematically, "The Individualist" is a critique of those of us who are always trying to "figure him out." I suppose it's the universal plight of misunderstood celebrities (not that I have a clue about such matters).
The Individualist CD concludes with "Woman's World." In effect, this song says, "Okay, guys, admit it: Women rule."
It's a woman's world,
And I must admit
In most ways it's the thing that I wanted;
It's a woman's world,
I'm ready now, I'm into the program,
And I must admit
I'm trying my best at being a ladies' man.
Now, there's an anthem for the new century! This song also contains what is, for me, the strangest lyric of the entire album:
White boy, you come around here
With nothing but a handful of cash,
You need a big black mama to teach you some manners,
And a little blonde to wash your ass,
Cause don't you know it's a woman's world ... and it always was.
So, Todd, what's that all about?
Anyway, "Woman's World" is a potent tune, a relentless and gleefully up-tempo finish. It is typical of Rundgren to go out with the Big Finish, the get-up-and-dance-and have-a-revolution grand finale (like, for example, "Just One Victory," "Love Is the Answer," "One World," and "Second Wind" on previous albums). It's a fitting conclusion to this overall superior musical offering from The-Artist-I-Just-Can't-Bring-Myself-To-Call-TR-i
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