Saturday, October 14, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Todd Rundgren - Faithful

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #20:

Not the real thing and not really an incredible simulation, side one of this melodic funhouse gem from 1976 comprises a mania of the imitable kind from an inimitable artist. Faithful may err a bit on the south side of a misnomer, but Todd Rundgren’s endeavor to reach beyond the cover song grasp by re-creating, note-for-note, a little ‘60s pop heaven, sends in enough cloning embellishments to do right by the original artists.

Fortunately, the result is more gloriously sloppy than slavish, more hit than miss. Rundgren is a proficient enough guitarist to tune in and turn on to a couple of pre-Altamont archetypal psychedelic freak-outs. The Yardbirds' criminally overlooked acid-rock flashback “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” comes off spot-on in a hear-the-colors see-the-sounds replication from the group’s Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page dueling-leads incarnation.

Jimi Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine” is slightly less triumphant. Although the guitar work constitutes the quintessence of blissed-out Bacchanalian cosmic consciousness, Rundgren seemingly abandons all hope of reproducing Hendrix’s vocals, even to the point of supplying only a half-hearted, barely-there spoken aside when it came to singling out “Mr. White Collar Conservative, pointing his plastic finger at me.” Sure, the tangent sounds campy and dated now, but you can’t leave your freak flag at half-staff. Bummer.

Of course, the road to hippie hell was paved with "Good Vibrations," and while there’s no way anybody can improve on the Beach Boys' original, Rundgren’s attempt, after faltering a bit on capturing Carl Wilson's sweetly soulful singing style, is game enough – tremolo-ing theremin and all, intricate vocal harmonies and all. Rundgren seems to have a little more fun on Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine,” with a spirited, if wavering, Blonde-On-Blonde-era Dylanese complementing the brassy oom-pah loopiness of the winning instrumentation.

Knowing the Beatles are in the details, Rundgren’s nuanced craftsmanship of the Lennon-led “Rain” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” is perhaps the most triumphant on the "faithful" side of things. Vocally, Rundgren – more so than on the album’s other intonation affectations – is pretty pliant in handling the sting of John’s mid-period singing style, even on the songs that relied (to an extent) on studio-bred experimentalism and augmentation.

But Rundgren also has a healthy respect for the impulsiveness and the spontaneity the Beatles threw into their work.  And so accordingly, he helter-skelters into a little free-form fun and apparent improvisation, whether adding a snippet of "She Said She Said" into the concluding backward swirl of the sonically hallucinogenic “Rain,” or intimating within the lysergic whirlwind of “Strawberry Fields Forever” – not that Paul is dead or a mention of cranberry sauce recipes – but something else even more cryptically indecipherable.

In going from oldies to other goodies, it is immediately evident that there’s nothing cryptic or enigmatic about the equally tuneful side two of Faithful, however, as Rundgren reverts back to his trademark mode of power-pop, blue-eyed soul, and wistful ballads, evoking such earlier works as his classic 1972 Something/Anything? double album.

Rundgren covers a lot of stylistic ground across these six songs, from the lush Philadelphia Sound of “The Verb 'To Love’” to the Foghat-boogie of “Boogles (Hamburger Hell).” But the hook-filled highlights – and among the best songs Rundgren has written and recorded – are the blistering and hard-edged rocker “Black And White,” which is as cynical as the warmly infectious “Love Of The Common Man” is humanity-filled, heartening, and hopeful.

Whether paying homage by playing favorites, or creating his own brand of pop-rock treasures, Rundgren is not only faithful to his ever-changing moods and whims, he is, indeed – as another album title would have it – both a wizard and a true star.

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