Review Summary: Introductions aren't easy but Runt arrives with a strong presence. Though not Rundgren's best album, it displays many of his strengths, which are honed on later releases.
It is a rare feat when a debut breaks onto the scene so fully formed. Of Philip Roth’s debut, Saul Bellow asserted, “Goodbye Columbus
is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently.” The same disgusting imagery could be applied to Mr. Rundgren.
, now considered to be Todd Rundgren’s debut, was upon its 1970 release, originally credited as the eponymous debut of trio Runt. The band was comprised of Rundgren, guitars, keyboards and vocals (as well as producer); Hunt Sales, drums; and brother Tony Sales, bass. Like many artists before him (Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Syd Barrett, &c.), Rundgren wanted to test out his musical chops in a band setting before leaving the nest for a solo career. His pop tunes are so painstakingly crafted one can only imagine Rundgren’s career and reputation are, too.
Although wary of making a bad impression right out of the gates, Rundgren had already proved himself to be a musical auteur. Previously he had formed Philadelphia band Nazz whose single “Open My Eyes” was included on Lenny Kaye’s 1972 compilation of punk and garage rock songs Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968
After original pressings of Runt
sold out due to the popularity of single “We Gotta Get You a Woman” subsequent releases were accidentally taken from a rejected 12-track version of the album. Thus, there are two versions of the album and my review may reflect this. But enough of exposition; now: exhibition.
opens with a short intro of reverb heavy harmony that sounds like it is being performed by a choir of ghosts before starting proper with “Broke Down and Busted,” a blues inspired romper. In usual blues fashion the song features lyrics about a man who feels he has been wronged by his lover and ends in nearly two minutes of passionate, squealing guitar playing. The song also displays Sales’ impressive drum work and Rundgren’s knack for writing rich harmonies-- a trademark of his.
“Believe in Me” exemplifies another Rundgren trademark: the piano ballad. A more baroque production, the song features light guitar flutters, a flute, an accordion and a xylophone. The lyrics are sung from the point of view of a lover who must admit he is wrong, setting a sad yet hopeful mood.
is a band effort it is Rundgren who holds the reins; he wrote and produced every song on the album and his distinct sound permeates each song, though no more potently than on the album’s single, “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” It is a jaunty piano-driven song complete with handclaps and the trademark Rundgren oohhs borrowed from The Beatles' songbook. The verses are in 5/6 time while the chorus is in 2/4.
On his subsequent releases, it was common for Rundgren to play every instrument on his songs as well as to provide a symphony of multi-tracked vocals as evidenced in “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” The lyrics are drenched in irony as the singer extols the virtues of having a woman to his friend Leroy. After trying to buoy Leroy’s dour spirit and singing of how a woman will make him feel alive, it is revealed that the singer is also womanless.
“Who’s That Man?” is a rollicking rocker that displays Rundgren’s ability to seamlessly shift between genres. Rundgren employs his strong falsetto and Sales whales on the cymbals. There is some faint Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano playing and a guitar solo to boot. The lyrics, which are a series of accusations by an angry lover--as well as disparaging statements directed at a rival--give Rundgren a chance to show off his sense of humor.
Rundgren is often likened to Carole King and “Once Burned” is a soulful song that wouldn’t sound out of place in her oeuvre. Rundgren adopts a crooner’s voice while he mourns the end of a relationship, tears landing atop his organ.
“Devils Bite” opens slowly with some acoustic guitar but a drum solo soon ensues launching the song into an up-tempo number whose energy matches its line “ain't no power on earth can stop me now.” Bongos, a saxophone and a fiery guitar solo all keep this lively song grooving.
With “I’m in the Clique” Rundgren shows that he really is a master of the studio. There is a multitude of instruments including a horn section as well as drum and bass solos. Rundgren handles the production with aplomb. He manages to fit each instrument and vocal line into the right place on the track, which really brings the stereo sound to life.
“There Are No Words” lives up to its claim. It’s two minutes of the reverb heavy ghost choir aforementioned. It’s relaxing and slightly reminiscent of “Our Prayer” by The Beach Boys.
Medleys are a common feature on Rundgren’s albums: there’s one on Something/ Anything?
, one on A Wizard, a True Star
, and one on Runt
. “Baby Lets Swing/ The Last Thing You Said/ Don’t Tie My Hands” is the relatively short three-part medley on Runt.
The first section, “Baby Lets Swing,” is a tribute to singer songwriter Laura Nyro who is mentioned by name in the song. Rundgren has acknowledged Nyro’s influence on his music and has gone on record as saying that once he heard her music he “stopped writing songs like The Who and started writing songs like Laura." The song begins with a saxophone and male singer, with a gravely voice and doo-wop inspired inflection, whaling before Rundgren starts in earnest with his piano. A tambourine accompanies Rundgren’s mid-tempo call-and-response tune.
About one minute and 40 seconds into the song the tempo picks up and “The Last Thing You Said” starts. The drums kick in and Rundgren makes use of his impressive vocal range to create his choir of self-harmonization.
Part three, “Don’t Tie My Hands,” has a Velvet Underground-like organ and then slows down as Rundgren expresses tender feelings during the bridge. The songs sound like they could have been recorded in one take; they are strong enough to be their own entities, but also fit together perfectly.
The album ends with “Birthday Carol” –its longest song, clocking in at nine minutes. It begins with an orchestral introduction before giving way to a progressive instrumental section complete with horns. Three minutes in Rundgren introduces himself with lyrics about his childhood in a Christmas-y piano ballad. This brief interlude gives way to the prog-rock, which plays out until the album ends with the orchestral outro.
is not Rundgren’s best album but it is a prescient piece that displays his talent in crafting finely tuned pop songs while highlighting strengths that would eventually become trademarks of his songwriting.