There only seems to be a handful of artist anymore whose musical vision is distinct – distinct enough that when you hear any of their music, you know who it is. Prince, Kate Bush, Tori Amos and a few who come to mind. Another is Todd Rundgren. His career spans from the late ’60s with the cult favorite Utopia, to a rather successful parallel solo career. In that long career there were moments in the ’70s and ‘80s where Todd Rundgren could have become a household name.
The near misses never suggested that Rundgren’s music was not good. It was often too good for the pop charts – or more likely too strange. Over the years he cultivated a unique style that blends the soul of his Philadelphia roots with quirky prog/alt rock sensibilities. Lately I can’t say that I’ve been swayed by Rundgren’s many experiments, but on occasion he hits paydirt, even if it far beyond the radar of the Top 40.
Released in the summer of 2017, White Knight finds Rundgren in the familiar position of being a pop producer. He accomplishes this by using contemporary artists as conduits to the mainstream – or as close as his brand of quirkiness will allow. The assortment of artist include well known names like Daryl Hall, Trent Reznor, Robyn and Donald Fagen. More impressive are some of the lesser known guest appearances like that of Betty LaVette on “Naked and Afraid” where she delivers all of the energy of Tina Turner.
There’s a lot to like about this album. Rundgren flexes is vocal range on “I Got Your Back”, a song marred only by a rap cameo by an unknown rapper. It’s actually not bad at all, just not expected – which can be a Todd Rundgren trademark. The surprises on the album make for excellent pop song material. “Chance For Us” is a kind of Philly Soul reunion with Daryl Hall. It’s actually one of the album’s high points.
The subject matter is as diverse as the guest roster. There are moments of political satire with “Tin Foil Hat” a song about Mr. Trump that appropaitly feaures Donald Fegan. It’s easy to think that “By My T” was some sort of underhanded tribute to Prince, with it’s cartoonish ’80s funk sound, but it’s about a Youtube rapper who sells T-shirts instead of his music.
With so many guest appearances, it might be surprising that it all still sounds like a Todd Rundgren album. As a formidable producer, it should come as no surprise. Despite the successful collaborations here, this is not likely to be Rundgren’s next breakthrough. Still there’s plenty here for old fans of Utopia or Rundgren’s early solo work (“Wouldn’t You Like To Know”and “Let’s Do This”) or his experimental side with “Deaf Ears”, a song featuring Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
This album deserves to be heard, if only to get a glimpse into the musical mind of one of the few geniuses left in rock who can do it all.