YOU don’t have to look far to spot the fact that, pop-wise at least, we’re living in the past. While Simon Reynolds’s recent Retromania — written in support of the idea, expressed with its tongue only half in its cheek, that pop might end, not with a bang but a box set whose fourth disc you never get round to playing — investigates and explains, in 400 eruditely entertaining pages, the cultural theory behind the phenomenon, you need only glance at critics’ albums of the year lists from the past couple of years to see the evidence.
Contemporary rock acts such as Destroyer, Midlake, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Dawes, Jonathan Wilson, Yuck, Blitzen Trapper and several others make sounding like they come from another decade cool, and do so with great skill, enthusiasm and often without even a trace of irony.
Although Destroyer and Yuck, for example, have located themselves firmly in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, most recently the 1970s, and especially the frequently maligned pre-punk 1970s, have emerged as the decade du jour.
Although it does seem unusually prevalent right now, the concept is by no means new, of course. In fact, the best work of arguably pop’s best exponent of deliberately sounding like the music of an entire period focused on the very period in which it was itself made. Todd Rundgren’s frequently brilliant 1972 double album Something/Anything? sounds both like a terrific various artists compilation — a kind of Everything You Wanted to Know about 1972 But Were Afraid to Ask — and creatively individual enough to stand out as not only a great Todd Rundgren record but perhaps a great rock record too.
Rundgren, an in-demand engineer and producer who might have been an important figure even if he hadn’t sung, played or written a note himself, has a considerable catalogue of his own.
But it’s seriously patchy and spotted, possibly littered, with chunks of technically clever self-congratulation. His undeniable and, at times, unmatched studio wizardry quite often outstripped his musical ideas so that, for example, one side of his 1976 album Faithful — where he performed note-perfect imitations of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Yardbirds, Hendrix and the "wild, mercury" Bob Dylan — is impressive once or twice, but seems unnecessary in the light of the easy availability of the originals.
Nor is Faithful by any means alone in that regard, but on Something/Anything? — three of whose vinyl sides contain no sound, vocal or instrumental, that wasn’t made by Rundgren himself, right down to the Motownesque "female" backing voices on Wolfman Jack — Rundgren strikes the balance, song after song, between studio genius and musical engagement.
Focusing with uncanny accuracy on the lush and adult end of piano-driven pop, in the vein of Carole King, Laura Nyro and Elton John, he also nails both generic Motown and the more specific Motown of Stevie Wonder and the early 1970s psych-funk of the Temptations and brings out his guitar for adventures in power pop — where his previous group, the Nazz, whose Hello It’s Me is updated by half a decade, was an important touchstone — melodic hard rock, carefully crafted pop psychedelia and several other substyles.
Critically, however, though there is obvious self-deprecating humour in a song such as Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me, he does so without disappearing into pastiche or too broadly drawn satire.
He’s a sort of pop chameleon in reverse, not so much adapting to the rest of the musical landscape as moulding and shaping specific elements from all over its spectrum to fit whichever song he happens to be working on. He does it so well that the fourth side, a slightly self-indulgent pop operetta with a studio band that includes, inevitably, the Brecker Bothers on horns, sounds no louder, denser or more convincing than Rundgren flying solo.