Artist: Todd Rundgren
Label: Hi Fi Recordings (U.S.), Cooking Vinyl (U.K.)
Release date: September 30th (U.S.), September 29th (U.K.)
Back in the early nineties, Todd Rundgren once sang about “the old rocking chair” and how it beckoned him “like a junkie’s needle.” Well, thank goodness he never succumbed to that middle-aged temptation. This year, Rundgren has been busier than ever, touring almost non-stop with his own band as well as heading up a Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers tribute tour. He even managed to find time to record his twentieth solo album, Arena , which will be making its way to stores by the end of September. Arena is probably the most accessible sounding record Rundgren has made since the Nearly Human days. It’s essentially the guitar-rock album fans have long been asking for. You’ll find no church-bashing (i.e. Fascist Christ, Mammon), pseudo-rapping (i.e. No World Order, Individualist) or show tunes (i.e. The Smell of Money) here. You’ll even notice simpler chord progressions just by the fact that the songs are guitar-based rather than keyboard-based. So, those typical Rundgren-esque tone-clusters which are normally an integral part of the Rundgren sound aren’t as plentiful although they do pop up now and then like in the middle section of Afraid or the bridge in the song Today. But don’t get me wrong when I say “simpler” chords. This just means that the songs will have a more immediate impact on a wider range of listeners. Hopefully this new accessible version of Rundgren will allow him to reach a larger audience this time around which unfortunately didn’t happen the last go-round with his critically acclaimed Liars album in 2004.
As with most of his albums, Rundgren focused his material on a particular concept which, on Arena, is all about conflict and how we (men in particular) react to them. Rundgren was quoted in a recent interview that “this record is more about action. Time for talk is over. Now it’s time to actually do something.”
The album opens with a guitar arpeggio reminiscent of Rundgren’s “Buffalo Grass” but then kicks into a straight ahead rocker a la “Black and White”. “This is more than upset, it’s as enraged as I get and you ain’t seen me mad yet, and now I’m mad!” screams Rundgren in the chorus. His vocal performance is amazing here. Is this man truly 60 years old??!?!!?? The energetic performance on this song is that of a man half his age. it’s awe-inspiring. the song also features a tasty guitar solo that recalls the solo from Utopia’s “The Very Last Time”, which in itself was a nod to Tom Scholz/Boston. sweet. The strong album opener is also the first single off the album.
“Mad” segues right into “Afraid”, one of the more typical “Todd” sounding songs on the album that could have fit right into his previous albums like The Individualist. The highlight is the middle section where Rundgren repeatedly asks “Why suffer for nothing? Suffer for something.” Then the song builds to a nice, restrained David Gilmour-ish guitar solo.
The opening metal guitar intro would work perfectly as some wrestler’s theme music on WWE monday night RAW. No one would ever recognize that this is the same dude that came up with “Bang on the Drum”. Rundgren even manages to sound pretty menacing with that Trent Reznor-type distortion on his vocals during the verses. The distortion effect goes away just in time to clearly hear Rundgren scream at the top of his lungs - “How do you like me now that I’ve done your dirty work? How do you like me NOW???” The song is obviously about the Iraq War but Rundgren leaves the door open to let it be just about any type of work being contracted out. You can even take it as some sort of statement about Rundgren’s work with The New Cars, being a “hired gun” and all. OK, that’s stretching it a bit but you get the gist. Oh, and I love the nod to Boston’s “More than a Feeling” in the acoustic-led bridge section. hhmmm, another reference to Boston? Maybe concert promoters should take note of this and somehow arrange a tour package next summer with Rundgren and Boston together? *hint, hint*.
“Gun” just screams ZZ Top with Texas blues riffs galore. Rundgren would say before playing this song at his shows that this is “a FUN song about something really CREEPY”. His stance on gun control is pretty clear with the chorus: “You better run ’cause I’m young, dumb and I’ve got a gun, public idiot number one, ’cause I’m young, dumb and I’ve got a gun!” and the reference to Full Metal Jacket is genius - “This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun!” and again, another great guitar break in the middle of this song. love it.
There’s a significant shift in the sonic palette once track 5 starts up. With “Courage”, Rundgren channels the 70’s version of himself, complete with jangly acoustic/electric strumming and sugary sweet harmonies. It’s interesting to note that the instrumental intro featuring the flang-y lead guitar seems to be a knowing nod to Moe Berg and the Pursuit of Happiness. A nice change of pace after the first four “heavy” sounding songs.
“Weakness” is definitely one of the featured tracks on Arena especially after Rundgren dedicated the song to his wife, Michele, when he debuted the song live in Kauai at his 60th birthday bash. The song is a great hybrid of a bluesy guitar-riffed verse (a la Rundgren’s “Mystified”) mashed up with a soaring ballad of a chorus not unlike Rundgren’s “Hawking” (off of Nearly Human). His vocal performance is spectacular here which helps make those clunky superman references in the lyrics go down easier. Unfortunately the weak (yes, had to say it) part about the song is the stiff high-hat that gets pushed to the fore during the verses. It’s too bad Rundgren didn’t get Prairie Prince to overdub the cymbal work on the song because he would have been able to add that extra groove during those sparsely arranged moments in the song.
“Strike” is Rundgren doing his best AC/DC interpretation. There’s not a lot of substance in the lyrics here but it’s a fun song nevertheless with a lot of musical elements added into the pot to keep things interesting. The guitar solo isn’t all that striking (ouch, sorry. it was there.) here but man, that repetitive chorus will burn into your brain and last for days and days. It’s relentless! Listen to Rundgren screaming “Time to STRIKE while the iron is HOT!!” and tell me this guy ain’t 60 years old!!??!!
“Pissin” is the required novelty track on the album. Rundgren always seems to include one on each of his records. It’s definitely not one of the better songs on Arena but it’s still pretty memorable. I mean, where else are you going to find someone singing the line “and now your dick is in the mayonnaise“??? The modulation into the instrumental section of the song is a nice touch.
“Today” sounds almost like a leftover from the Liars sessions with the sequenced keyboard part and the pseudo-techno drum patterns. Here, Rundgren exhorts his listeners to resolve their differences with others, TODAY! It’s a great message and the song is a definite standout on the record.
“Bardo” has Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” written all over it. I love the guitar work on this one and the mood that is set here. Rundgren expands on the message from “Today” and brings in a Buddhist concept of transition where you need to confront your own issues in order for you to move on. “You can’t go back from where you came, you must move on and face the flame of the last Bardo.” Rundgren interestingly adds some white noise during the ending guitar solo to create some tension a la the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”.
Rundgren has already stated that he would love “Mountaintop” to replace “Bang on the Drum” as a sporting event favorite. and it has potential with the ever so catchy “higher-higher” refrain during the chorus.
Rundgren uses an interesting reverb effect on his vocals (during the verses) as well as on the bass drum that kind of recalls John Lennon’s use of the echo effect on songs like “Instant Karma”. The reverb effect on the bass drum is particularly distracting for me. I’m not sure if the general audience will pick up on it but since I’m a drummer, I notice it. basically, the digital delay on the bass drum is not in time with the overall tempo. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not but it sure is distracting.
“Panic” is a great song that recalls both Rundgren’s “Yer Fast” and Utopia’s “Itch in My Brain”. Probably one of my favorites at the moment. His sense of humor shines through with lines like: “The zombies awake but it won’t help to panic… your boner goes soft but it don’t help to panic… and you just made a stinky…” classic!! heh.
“Manup” is a strong closer. It pretty much sums up what Rundgren wants us all to do which is essentially to stop our complaining, get up off our asses and do something! The ending guitar solo is sweet but stops short. In fact most of the guitar solos on the album are short and concise but as he has mentioned in previous interviews, that’s how Rundgren views “Arena rock”: very melodic with big hooks and concise to the point guitar solos. I would have given him more leeway with the guitar solos but that’s just me.
- Overall Sound - If you’re familiar with Rundgren’s output over the last decade then you basically know how he operates in terms of recording his albums. Arena was essentially recorded with protools on his macbook utilizing programmed/sequenced bass and drum tracks, virtual guitar amp emulators, etc. Personally I would have preferred real drums over the “canned” drum sounds but that just might be the drummer side of me talking. Those sampled drum sounds just don’t give songs like “Mercenary”, “Strike” and “Mountaintop” the visceral power they need to take ‘em over the top, you know what I mean? Aside from the guitars, the “virtual band” made some of the songs sound a bit more restrained than I would have liked. Not really sure if it was a time or budget limitation but I suppose that’s Todd’s call and who am I to argue, right? And I guess, in the overall scheme of things, the sound of the record isn’t as important as the songs themselves. As long as the songs are well written it really doesn’t matter how their recorded. Just take the timeless Beatles catalog as one example of that. And it’s safe to say with these 13 songs on Arena , Rundgren delivers! It’s definitely the perfect follow up to his 2004 Liars album.
Oh, and for those of us sticklers that still grumble over the use of drum machines and such, Rundgren’s got us covered by bundling the new album with a DVD and CD of Rundgren’s live performance of the new album from the July 14th Boulder Theater show. So the packaged bundle sounds like a great deal. Look for it in stores beginning September 30th.
It seems that the production company responsible for the live DVD wasn’t able to finish the project in time to get it bundled with the initial release of the CD. So fans will have to decide on either purchasing the CD-only release at the end of september or wait for the DVD/CD combo which will be released later in the year (no word on an actual date for the combo release). I suppose Todd Fans will pick up both and I’m sure that’s what HI FI Recordings will be counting on so they could essentially “double-dip” their product.