Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Todd Rundgren 20: Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia

Since we started this mission, we’ve tried to give equal time to albums good and bad, short and long. The idea is that an artist’s story is told by the albums he, she, or they make, and we’ve tried where possible to approach each entry from the perspective of somebody following along in real time, as each new album emerged. When it comes to certain veterans, however, it can be tough to dredge up anything new to say about people who haven’t necessarily said anything new in decades.
Now, that’s not fair to a guy like Todd Rundgren, who has long explored the boundaries of whatever technology was available at every given moment. But between record companies and his own attention span, he stopped being truly and consistently commercial by the time the ‘80s were underway. Luckily for him, he had plenty of production work, and he also managed to keep Utopia going as an active band while pushing work under his own name.
In the space of a year, Utopia released two studio albums for the indie Passport label. Both albums included songwriting contributions from all four members, and embraced current music technology, like drum machines and synthesizers. Both are slick and loud, both approach political commentary in between love songs, and neither is very good. The Cars may have done it best, but here Utopia comes off like the Tubes.
Oblivion came first, in a none-more-black cover with light embossing that belies the slick contents within. “Itch In My Brain” is no “Hammer In My Heart”, and it’s pushing it to have a song called “Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw” in 1984. “I Will Wait” has potential, as does “Maybe I Could Change”, even with its quasi-Broadway intro. But of the whole album, “Crybaby” is the real keeper despite everything against it, like the keyboards and the inscrutable video with Willie Wilcox’s rotating motorcycle drumset, but at least it featured Ellen Foley.
POV arrived sporting graphics made up predominantly of windows from the then-mindblowing Macintosh operating system; oh, the memories this brings back for those of us who remember a world before Microsoft. The photos suggest some kind of sci-fi thriller; meanwhile, Todd was sporting one of his worst haircuts, and considering his history at the barber, that’s saying something. “Play This Game” is a terrific opener, but “Style” kills the momentum, and will have the listener looking online for “Jane’s Getting Serious”. “Mated” is half-decent yacht rock, and “Zen Machine” is no “Zen Archer”.
After the band was pretty much done, but before the label collapsed, they released Trivia, which compiled a grab-bag of selections from both Passport albums, along with some fine choices from 1982’s Utopia album that elevate the others. Two new tracks were recorded for extra enticement, “Fix Your Gaze” preferable to “Monument.” (The artwork is so dated it hurts: the front image looks like the work of someone who just bought a computerized graphic design program, while the back capitalizes on the Trivial Pursuit craze.)
A decade later, Rhino had already reissued every Rundgren and Utopia album up to 1982, so when they acquired the rights to the Passport albums, they combined everything on a double-disc set cleverly dubbed Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia. For the cover art, they went with the most photogenic option, as if that did any good. The first disc had Oblivion plus “Fix Your Gaze”, while the other had POV plus “Monument” and the B-side “Man Of Action”. This edition is tough to find, but the two albums now stream from the usual places with the extra tracks.
And that, dear reader, is how we can justify reviewing all these so-so albums in one post.

Utopia Oblivion (1984)—2
POV (1985)—2
Trivia (1986)—
Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia (1996)—2

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