A Wizard, A True Star
Released: March 1973
Chart Peak: #86
Weeks Charted: 15
With each successive album, Todd Rundgren becomes more of a wizard at playing that most complex of modern instruments, the recording studio. He is, by now, nothing less than a master of the complete book of production tricks. But, ironically, his passion for asserting technological expertise has become the major stumbling block to making the one record that will finally catapult him to the "true stardom" he seems to want so much.
The fealty of Todd's most devoted fans will be challenged by the form and content of side one of A Wizard, A True Star. It is his most experimental, and annoying, effort to date.
Having demonstrated to his cult that he was capable of cutting every vocal and instrumental track, as he did on most of last year's engaging but flawed Something/Anything? (although his work on bass and especially on drums left something to be desired), Todd has now tried to deliver a tour de force in production on his fourth solo venture -- or seventh, if you are an auteurist who sees the three Nazz sets as essentially Rundgren vehicles.
From the same song's refrain, "but there's always more," which reinforces Todd's position as rock's most unabashed eclectic. There is always more music and production techniques that Todd can borrow, from the Spectorian psychedelic soundwall (replete with phased drums) of the title cut, to the graceful Stravinsky-Zappa synthesizer arabesques on "Flamingo" to the gorgeous chimera of "Never Never Land" (from the show, Peter Pan).
And there is still more, but most of it is dreck, such as the adaptation of the silly novelty tune "Toot Toot Tootsie" to "Da Da Dali," whose art is the visual equivalent of Wizard's first side. (El Salvador obviously provided the inspiration for the cover art.) After awhile one wishes that instead of the gratuitous use of sound, more of the record had been devoted to music.
By contrast, side two ("A True Star?") fares better. Todd's excesses are controlled, his falsetto vocals have that frail and tangible quality that made his masterpiece, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren so haunting and the music is considerably more listenable.
"Sometimes I Don't Know What to Feel" is classic Rundgren. The singer is bewildered, hurt and frightened by the world but does not want to admit to his friends that he is baffled and alone. Todd uses a ten-piece backup band to play more than a secondary role in relation to studio pyro-technics. The horns build and release tension expertly as Todd confesses his self-doubts.
The highlight of the record, however, is the Soul Medley, in which Todd plays tribute to the Impressions, the Miracles, the Delphonics and the Capitols. The first three selections, "I'm So Proud," "Ooh Baby Baby" and "La La Means I Love You," feature Rundgren's plaintive singing that conveys a feeling of a kid vocalizing along with the originals late at night, fantasizing about crooning to his dream girl. The lovely synthesizer and harpsichord arrangements reveal Todd's respect for Stevie Wonder's recent recordings.
"Cool Jerk" is a sprightly send-up of the Capitol's dance party hit, done in jerky, thoroughly undanceable 7/4 time. Similarly, "Hungry For Love," with its Leon Russell piano style and "Is It My Name," a guitar rave-up that recalls Nazz' rampaging "Under The Ice," illustrate the wide gap between the puerile silliness of side one and the inspired fun on the second side.
Todd's love song, "I Don't Want to Tie You Down," sounds forced and a bit too gossamer but the finale, "Just One Victory" (whose melody line harkens back to "Birthday Carol" on the Runt album) is a production masterwork, characterized by the subtle touches such as glockenspiels, bongos and ornate backing vocals that made The Ballad of Todd Rundgren such a delight.
I doubt that even the staunchest Rundgren cultists will want to subject themselves to most of the japery on side one, which would be better suited for a cartoon soundtrack. One the other hand, side two's restraint, its brimming good humor and its ambience of innocence is irresistible, and helps save A Wizard, A True Star from total disaster.
- James Isaacs, Rolling Stone, 5-10-73.
If Paul McCartney had more of a sense of humor he would be Todd Rundgren. The first side of this album is a giddily entertaining pop concerto, some of whose lyrics might have pleased the late Sir Nöel Coward. Where the honored second side of Abbey Road was a medley of unfinished or pasted-together tunes, Rundgren's stuff seems to be carefully put together, and the jabbing, distracting, tickling instrumentals and sound collages are a deliberate part of the texture.
The first side sounds like a movie score without a movie: listening to the songs brings up visual images of characters and situations, which may have been part of Rundgren's intent. Sergeant Pepper, the root of all ambitious rock albums, was an attempt at phonographic theater. It acted on the same principle as old-time radio did: state a dramatic situation, give voices to the characters, and let the audience fill in the visuals. Rundgren has not done it the way the Beatles did; his way of bringing the audience in is to be more of an outright entertainer and more outlandish than the B's were on Pepper. But it leads to the same place -- which is very interesting, witty, and generally happy place at that. Rundgren is a harlequin; he likes and wants it that way, and his world is pleasing.
You may imagine that, after all that build-up, the second side of the album isn't as good. No, it's not, but it's not the same kind of thing either. This is mostly top-Forty material, although "Sometimes I Don't Know How To Feel" has an interesting construction and arrangement. But getting back to side one: the kid may just be a wizard, after all.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 7/73.
Certainly an unusual LP from the singer/writer/producer, filled with varying vocal styles, strange sounds courtesy of moogs and other exotic instruments, and fine songs from Rundgren and others. Set takes some time to grow, but may gain him some of the recognition as a performer that has often been overshadowed by other activities. FM stations should have a ball with this one. Best cuts: "Never Never Land" (The Peter Pan Song), "International Feel," "Ooh Baby Baby," "Cool Jerk."
- Billboard, 1973.
Todd Rundgren's new one contains 11 cuts and 53 minutes of music on one disc. A Wizard/A True Star is the usual maddening Rundgren smorgasbord of campy, cutesy-poo rock, pop harmonies, sweet shrillness, Alice Cooper visuals, tape tricks and farts. It's, maybe, the Todd Rundgren philosophy, as in "Just One Victory" and, to an extent, in the hard-rock "Is It My Name?" and in the repetitive strangeness of "Sometimes I Don't Know What to Feel," all of which are from the flip side. The first side is even more weird, incoherent, funny and, somehow, brilliant. Todd is surely not, as one of his titles would have it, "Just Another Onionhead."
- Playboy, 7/73.
I'm supposed to complain that for all his wizardry he's not a star yet, but just you wait, he can't miss, the Mozart of his generation, that last a direct quote from a fan who collared me at a concert once. Bushwa. His productivity is a pleasure, but it always makes for a mess. Examine the enclosed fifty-odd minutes and you'll find a minor songwriter with major woman problems who's good with the board and isn't saved by his sense of humor. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Rundgren's keen sense for writing tight pop songs is almost nowhere to be found on this over-the-top production job. That's not to say that A Wizard a True Star doesn't have its virtues. Rundgren's take on Peter Pan's "Never Never Land" is otherworldly, and his Philly-soul medley is quite fine. "International Feel" and "Just One Victory" are other standout tracks. * * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
A Wizard, A True Star, Todd Rundgren's follow-up effort to Something/Anything?, is a fascinating sonic collage that skews his pop-star image 180 degrees. Opening with a dizzying 30-minute medley of short songs and musical skits, the album catches its breath midway, relaxing into the Philly soul number "Sometimes I Don't Know What to Feel," a clever medley of 60s tunes and the hit anthem "Just One Victory." * * * * *
- Christopher Scapelliti, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Todd Rundgren's 1973 was clearly like no one else's. He was riding high on a wave of apparently boundless talent. He had been hoping to follow up Something/Anything? with yet another double album, but the oil crisis led to a vinyl shortage. Always one to embrace limitations, Rundgren took on a different project: a 19 to 24 track (depending on how you count) album, which, like all of Rundgren's work, showcased his exceptional abilities as a vocalist and musician, at the same time as it challenged and delighted his audience.
"There are no limitations as to what is sung about or what the music sounds like, or how long it is...or whether it is even music at all," he said at the time. So, "When The Shit Hits the Fan" harks back to Pet Sounds; "Zen Archer" (a longtime live favorite in the Seventies) is a long, loping foray into cosmic pop, all falsetto and flair. "Rock And Roll Pussy" was, apparently, about John Lennon -- famously having his "lost weekend" year in L.A. at the time; the two had a public spat about Rundgren's pronouncements on Lennon's behavior.
Jumping between styles and sounds, the album is hard to digest at first, but Rundgren's great strength is his ability to write incredible songs. The intricacy of the die-cut original sleeve does not translate well to CD: the theme, clearly, is mirrors, and there is a coded message on the front which might merely be the album title in pseudo-runes -- but who really knows?
- David Nichols, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
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