Following chart-topping success across Europe at the dawn of the new millennium, Ambrosia Parsley determinedly brought avant-pop band Shivaree back into obscurity. Her solo debut Weeping Cherry came out April 28th. She’s presently working on a book of inspirational limericks. You can follow her on Twitter here.
It’s been days now since I tried dragging (and clicking, sure) Todd Rundgren’s latest, Runddans (his collaboration with Norse comrades Emil Nikolaisen and Hans-Peter Lindstrøm), into my living room. But my computer’s doing that thing again, and I’m unable to satisfy its silent binary needs. Not surprising, since I’m one who’s quick to go poking my computer with a stick, and so now I’m a sentimental Luddite vexed by a link from a technological wizard and one-time true star. I was instructed by the watermarking boilerplate not to share the album with anyone, so I quickly forwarded the file to my pal Holly and asked her to please bust it open for me. Now I could relax, slip into a warm tub and listen to Todd’s iconic album Runt (1970) while trawling the web for biographical gemstones. I poured a glass of wine and sang along to “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” So far, this Talkhouse gig was super fun.
I love these early Rundgren records and spinning them at night in the Catskills, where my bathtub lives, is a heady business. Most of these albums were recorded just up the road. I’ve prowled the bowels of his onetime studio Utopia in Bearsville, New York (now home to “Radio Woodstock”), where I touched pyramid props and giant orbs. Easy enough for a superstitious gal to think the ghosts of those times and their songs and stories still haunt these very woods. Oh, but the Rundgren tale is a Pandora’s Box, and as this dawns on me, I begin to panic. He’s lurched through the decades and a host of stylistic/conceptual conceits like Neil Young off his Adderall. Digesting it all is now downright scary, and I am both terrified and hungry. I pull the plug and head back downstairs. Runt’s long over, so I cue up A Cappella (which came out in 1985, long before Björk’s 2004 album Medúlla and arguably conceived and delivered before any of us had heard of Bobby McFerrin) and stir some sauce. I make a mental note to put this record into high rotation, as it completely rules. I chop up some garlic and wonder why I haven’t already listened to A Cappella 5,000 times. I worry that Kanye might steal it.
With the sauce on simmer and my greens in a cool bath, I curl up on the couch and poke around some more. Like a schoolgirl, I marvel over the discovery of various common threads, learning that the second Runt, 1971’s Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, was released the day after I was born. This makes me swell with pride, because I’m just that kind of asshole.
Now that we have astrology and geography on our side, I feel confident that Runddans is indeed just the record I should be braying about and am thus ever more anxious to hear it. I put on “Be Nice to Me,” do fake ballet around the kitchen and pretend I’m Laura Nyro.
The five records Rundgren released between 1970 and 1974 are a gluttonous burst of pop ambition and virtuosity, and it’s baffling that even a fussy old beast like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet to take proper note. I recall the time I saw Todd himself at the local farm stand, buying apples from Dr. Know of the Bad Brains, and recognized that Woodstock is indeed a never-ending episode of Behind the Music. Dizzied by Todd’s joyous, hopped-up Philly soul, I put on a Hall & Oates record to revel a little longer, though opting for Abandoned Luncheonette (1973) instead of the Rundgren-produced War Babies (1974). This is a guy who masters his own records, which totally makes sense. (I recall hearing a rumor that Prince would actually mix front of house during soundchecks, and wonder if maybe there isn’t some crazy blood link between these two freaks.) I research Global, Todd’s latest solo album (released in early April), and find a snarky live review complaining about the synths and the pair of back-up singer-dancers wearing Afro wigs and sequined jumpsuits. I think to myself, “What could be better than that?” and proceed to the YouTube link. Of course, I totally dig it, but I can see how easily it might piss off an old fan or baffle a newcomer. Todd is dancing and hardly picks up a guitar, which tickles me and appeals to my authority problem. These were good songs well sung, just projected through a lava lamp, with dancers in wigs and sparkly things. Go, Todd.
It’s a new day and the gods have smiled on my old laptop. Runddans is finally mine to ponder. My road trip with Todd and the Norwegians begins nicely enough, everybody cool and me riding shotgun. I keep selfishly searching for something familiar, but can’t escape the vibrations coming from the back seat, Hans with his video game and Emil kicking the back of my seat. Wiggliness aside, I’m certainly not hating it and begin to kind of enjoy the perpetual chaos. Out comes the Chex Mix, and we groove past neon soundscapes and bustling space hamlets. This record is, in every sense, a trip: your mind wanders, you come back to it. Todd himself says, “It isn’t like there’s songs and you can pick out a favorite song. It’s more easy to say, ‘I like it from 7:45 until 9:33,’ or something like that.”
You begin to recall ambient adventures like Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), only to find there’s a discotheque where the Sharper Image used to be. I wonder if all this brain-teasing might actually be making me smarter, and try some long division in my head to see if it’s working, but… nothing. Although I do feel strangely ambitious for this hour and decide to organize the scary drawer in the kitchen. Then “Solus” begins and I stop and think, damn, his voice is still great… even when it sounds like he’s singing through a coffee grinder. “Put Your Arms Around Me” is familiar turf, basecamp. Shades of Earth, Wind & Fire, this is Todd cutting loose, stopping and starting and bleeping, some epic drumming and under all its nervous ambition, unmistakable sweetness.
It’s hard not to detach, or get lost in some epic swirl, but I get pulled back again and again by one of a few lyrical lines that repeat throughout the record. “Put your arms around me” or “I think I’m going out of my head” are both perfectly sensible things for anyone to say, so we can all sing along and really mean it. Scattered around those recurring phrases there’s mostly oohs and ahs, which feel personal, comforting and very beautiful. OK, it’s been a rough month around the house, and maybe I’m sensitive, but those made me weepy. When it’s all over, I end up liking the hymn at the end the best, because it made me imagine being kissed on the forehead by Glinda the Good Witch.
This is someone who’s copped, formulated, transformed, fucked up and made out with more shit than anyone except for maybe Prince. He produced “We’re an American Band” and created “Be Nice to Me.” It’s downright inexplicable, but for decades now he’s mostly secreted himself away in Hawaii, so we forget. But damn. If it’s an artist’s job to explore, Todd Rundgren is Captain Kirk.