Monday, July 23, 2012

Utopia - Utopia

If Rundgren’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect was the sound of Todd trying to get out of his record contract, his work on Utopia’s self-titled 1982 release is the sound of him celebrating the arrival of a new label for his democratically minded band.

The eponymous album title is intentional. Despite releasing a half-dozen other records under the very same moniker, Utopia is clearly attempting to wipe the slate clean with lucky seven. And they would love nothing more than to start the relationship with their new label than with a big hit.

Utopia became the band’s only release for Network records, and all of the MTV-schlocking that Todd and company did for this album only got it to #84 on the Billboard charts.

The poor commercial showing has little to do with the music within Utopia, a three-sided exploration of the same kind of pop buzz that Rundgren began with Nazz. The 15 tracks presented here run the gamut to Todd’s attraction to Philly Soul, to the power-pop infatuation of Deface The Music, to the melting walls vibe of his own psychedelic garage origins. Utopia bounces along like an alternate universe top 40 station if it were programmed by four nerdy white guys who just bought a bunch of new wave records at Musicland.

It’s not Rundgren’s best production work, either. That distinction would come with the next Utopia album, Oblivion. Nothing bites and the instruments just kind of belches out of the mix. On one of the album’s best tracks-the tight package of opener “Libertine”-always seemed to sound like the record’s pressing was just a tad off-center, causing the song to have this strange warping effect that was prevalent on each spin or every cassette copy. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t on too much dope and my vinyl copy played just fine; the same effect is noticeable to me on my compressed digital file.

There’s a track like “Libertine” on every side: tight, simple, and enormously catchy. “Princess Of The Universe,” “Call It What You Will,” and the MTV light-rotation lead single “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” all could have been contenders on a larger scale if this band was marketable beyond the cult of Todd and fans of new wave pop.

The thing is, Utopia is made up of Todd Rundgren and his circle of very seasoned musicians. This stuff should be a cakewalk with these guys, so when things get a bit too goofy, too easy, and too clichĂ©d, there’s not a lot of room to hide from the necessary finger wagging.

“Burn Three Times” takes the entire “love is like cooking in the kitchen” motif a step too far and “There Goes My Inspiration” does the same with art, somehow equating the idea that name-checking notable artists in a song is somehow clever. There’s very little shelf life with a line like “Me and Gaugin used to party down/I was hung in the Louvre, I was Renoir’s pal” after hearing it a few times. Particularly when Rundgren practically wrote the book on cleverness with that incredible “And when we’re through with you/We’ll get me one too” ending to “We Gotta Get You A Woman.”
Utopia stands as the band’s most unified piece of work, sounding like the work of four band members working together instead of the democratic arrangements of records past, where the main contributor had the majority rule on how the final mix would sound.

Gone is the stitched-up running order where the songwriter could be easily identified upon first listen. Utopia gives legs to the entire reinvention motif, impressively putting a lid on Todd’s ego for a moment while the entire band works together at selflessly helping their most notable member achieve one of his best performances of the entire decade.

It’s a pop record of decent proportions, marred only by a few missteps and the creepy marketing ploy where the band members look like over-the-hill relics dressed up in New Wave clothing for the cover shot. Every one of Utopia’s talented line-up should have known that you don’t need to dress anything up when it you tailor a perfectly good two-and-a-half minute long pop song.

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