Friday, May 31, 2024

Todd Rundgren 30: New Cars and Arena

One of the stranger—and certainly unexpected—detours of Todd Rundgren’s career was his brief stint fronting The New Cars. This star-studded tribute band included original Cars Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton (fresh off a decade with Creedence Clearwater Revisited) plus Rundgren regulars Kasim Sulton and Prairie Prince. Todd did a decent job copping the vocal stylings of both Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr, as heard on It’s Alive. This live album delivered the familiar Cars hits, plus “I Saw The Light” and “Open My Eyes”, but they blew the chance to play “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, “Bye Bye Love”, and “Moving In Stereo” in order. They did come up with three new songs; nobody’s going to mistake “Warm”, “More”, or “Not Tonight” for Ocasek originals (that last one in either its live or studio version).

Still, Todd sounded engaged throughout, but when the tour was over, he went back to Hawaii and recorded his next album completely by himself, again, on his laptop. The resulting Arena has an apt title, as the songs are guitar-driven, alternately rocking and brooding, but all designed to keep crowds on their collective feet and pumping fists.

In keeping with the last album, one-word song titles are the norm. The intricate acoustic picking on “Mad” soon gives way to power chords and pounding drums with a yelled chorus. “Afraid” harkens back to Pink Floyd’s “Learning To Fly”, but this an arguably better song overall. We start to enter a theme, first on the angry monologue in “Mercenary” and then on the blatant parody in “Gun”. “Courage” is more along the lines of an ‘80s feel-good anthem, and while “Weakness” sports sludgy riffing to suggest another attack, the chorus gives away the sensitivity. Similarly, “Strike” sounds familiar, until you hit the chorus, which could almost be mistaken for AC/DC.

“Pissin” takes down a boor at a party, but it’s mixed in such a way that the music is the focus, not the action. Synths frame the arrangement of “Today”, but “Bardo” returns to the mysticism of his mid-‘70s lyrical endeavors. Lest people think it’s getting too deep, the swaggering “Mountaintop” has a buried fable. “Panic” ramps up the tension even while telling us not to, and “Manup” is a more direct call to action.

He’s consistently made solo albums that are completely solo, but his fascination with technology and speed in the digital age have often come off cold. Not so with Arena—even the drums, which are programmed, sound real. The album may sound big and stupid at points, but it’s worth it.

The New Cars It’s Alive (2006)—3
Todd Rundgren
Arena (2008)—3


  1. Surprisingly high scores. Nice overviews. Must give these a good listen.