A variety of guest performers and a bigger variety of musical styles do not make for a cohesive album.
There’s a new trend with old rock stars. At least once a week now, I’ll get a press release announcing some new album by a name from the past – or sometimes a no-name from the present – that is littered with guest appearances from a variety of equally ‘legacy’ performers. Whereas in the past, you might have had one or two ‘special guests’ appearing to fill in a missing role on an album track – or the odd collaborative single – now we have entire albums where the main act is joined by someone on every track. In fact, some bands now exist only as nebulous studio entities that are filled out by guest performers – often taken from the same core of talent that have ties to a specific record label rather than people who might be personal chums with the main performer, presumably more motivated by a pay cheque than a love of the music. Well, nothing wrong with that, of course.
This new form of band line-up has been made possible by the rise of home recording software – meaning that actual studios are no longer a necessity – and the rise of distance recording, with everyone filling in their part at home, often never even meeting the other performers involved in the tracks other than on Zoom. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? There is a downside to this, of course. Musical dynamism tends to develop through direct collaboration, working out ideas together, arguing the toss and then bouncing off each other in the recording, sometimes creating tracks that crackle with tension and competition. Everyone sitting at home recording their parts to order to pre-arranged backing tracks by people that they don’t even know can not only sand off the rough edges that sometimes are the making of tracks, but it can also result in blandness. Not always, of course – but often enough to suggest that this brave new world of recording should at least be approached with caution.
Naturally, the actual music plays its part. If the track itself is smoothly empty muzak, then no level of collaboration will help. I was thinking this when listening to the opening track of Todd Rundgren’s new album Space Force. Why did I pick this one out of the glut of neo-collaborations to check out? Well, it had a nice cover and a more eccentric list of guest stars, so seemed worth 38 minutes or so of my time. This was a gamble, admittedly, and one I began to immediately regret while listening to the opening track Puzzle, featuring Adrian Belew (of King Crimson and Frank Zappa fame), a song so smoothly dull that you could sell it as a sleep aid. Who needs rainfall sounds when you have this turgid effort to help you nod off? It felt like a bold gesture to open the album with – beginning with a bang than with a snore.
Weirder still, it’s not exactly indicative of what is to come. It’s immediately followed by Down with the Ship, featuring Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, a bouncily eccentric ska number complete with a cod-Jamaican accent that would probably be all sorts of problematic if younger people ever heard it – but what are the chances of that? Artist in Residence, with Neil Finn, is a slightly more up-tempo return to the bland, and as I listen to it I start to get the odd feeling that this is possibly supposed to be a conceptual piece of space rock. Don’t think I mean Hawkwind there, by the way, and don’t ask me what the concept actually is. But I suspect that this is supposed to be ethereal and trippy – but there is nothing dynamic or psychedelic or interesting going on here. Dammit, Todd Rundgren is better than this – or was, at least. Everything here feels empty and pointless because I can’t imagine who this is aimed at.
Worse still, there are moments that suggest something better is hidden away in this. The mildly funky Godiva Girl with The Roots is actually pretty good, even if it’s Al Jarreauesque soul rather than James Brown (I say that because at one point, it rather reminded me of the theme from Moonlighting). Your Fandango, with Sparks, is a bit more pleasingly eccentric – though it might just be clutching at straws at this point. Nevertheless, it feels at least like a song that Sparks should be on and at this stage, I started to wonder if the tracks actually are collaborative efforts in some way. The review copy does not include writing credits so who can say for sure who is responsible for the songs – but it certainly feels as though some guests are making rather more effort than others. Or maybe Rundgren saved his more inventive tracks for suitably inventive performers – I’m Not Your Dog with Thomas Dolby is also one of the more impressively quirky moments on a generally very unquirky album, even if the backing track makes a valiant effort to drag things back into the shopping mall backing track area. STFU with Rick Neilsen is a shouty and abrasive rocker, entirely out of place on the album as a whole and especially when placed between two overly-polished, background music synth numbers.
To have these little gems – I use that term very loosely – buried in the middle of so much sluggish blandness is frustrating. The album is a somewhat schizophrenic affair, to say the least, and no sooner does it seem to have turned a corner than it goes back to soporific pointlessness on tracks like Espionage (featuring Narcy, proving that furious rapping can’t breathe into the lifeless), Head in the Ocean (with Alfie) and the closing number, Eco Warrior Goddess with Steve Vai – no attempt of guitar-noodling can save this directionless sub-prog effort. The music is all over the place and has no cohesion or continuation – it feels more like a compilation album than anything else, and not one put together with any care or attention when it comes to track sequencing.
Part of the problem here seems to be massive overproduction, with Rundgren presumably trying to show that he still has his finger on the pulse of modern music, piling on huge levels of autotune and digital trickery that simply doesn’t work. Who, I wonder, does he think is in the market for a Todd Rundgren album in 2022? Or, for that matter, for an album as messy and incohesive as this? I’ll be damned if I can work out just who this is aimed at, other than Todd Rundgren, who I assume is impressed by it. I suppose he’s earned the right to make records just for himself by this time but I’m not sure anyone else should be expected to listen to them.
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