David Fricke – “Todd Rundgren: Music from Mink Hollow” (1978)

March 11, 2010 at 8:03 am (David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles, Todd Rundgren)

One of the earliest known pieces by David Fricke, from June 22, 1978, taken from Circus magazine. He discusses Todd’s then-new album Hermit of Mink Hollow


Rundgren Produces a One Player, Pop Masterpiece

After ten years and fourteen albums, Todd Rundgren is still a cult figure, a wizard in the recording studio and a true star to a select 200,000 or so who continue to buy his records, no matter what’s on them.

As rock’s most unpredictable prodigy, Todd continually tests his fans’ loyalty with a variety of musical guises that includes the epic 1975 instrumental “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire,” hard forcible rock of the first order as heard on his various albums with Utopia, and some of this decade’s best hook-laden pop music. At one point, five years ago, a young ambitious Rundgren was shifting artistic directions as often as he changed the rainbow tint of his hair.

But Rundgren’s commercial fortunes are about to change for the better if his new solo album Hermit of Mink Hollow (Bearsville) is a reliable barometer. For this is Todd’s most immediately accessible record since his gold double-album opus in 1973, Something/Anything. Produced, engineered, written, and performed by Rundgren with help from absolutely no one, Hermit of Mink Hollow is hardly a compromise to record company powers who, he complains, insist he conform to a middle-of-the-road crossover sound. Yet new songs like the happy, harmonic. “All the Children Sing” and the more aggressive “You Cried Wolf” indicate, if nothing else, that there is a place for Todd Rundgren in a Fleetwood Mac world.

“Quite honestly, I don’t know what this record is about,” he says, his classically thin rock star frame sprawled comfortably on the living room floor of his spacious digs just outside Bearsville, New York. Located at the end of a winding drive adjacent to Mink Hollow Road with a plaque bearing the legend “Utopia” greeting you at the door, his retreat is liberally decorated with rugs, pillows, and Oriental screens. A cursory glance around the premises also reveals a number of small pyramids on bookshelves and tables, reflecting Todd’s interest in their psychic energy and Egyptology in general as displayed on Utopia albums like Ra and Oops! Wrong Planet.

“It’s one of my least conceptualized albums,” he continues, “and most of my albums have the material more or less related to a certain theme. At certain points, though, it’s just good to do whatever it is that you do and let somebody else figure out what the concept is. This time, I guess the theme is me and just some of the things I think about.”

Born in the blue collar Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby and raised on the same combination of silky urban soul and Anglophilic rock marking the work of fellow Philadelphians Daryl Hall and John Oates, Rundgren soon graduated from the mid-60′s class of that city’s Beatle-copy and suburban blues bands to join Nazz. A full 180 degrees out of step with their acid-rock contemporaries, Rundgren and Nazz emulated the foppish English energy of the Who and Small Faces, only to disband after one modest hit (“Hello It’s Me”) and three albums.

Rundgren then set course for a production career dotted with prominent names like Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, and most recently, Meat Loaf. His string of solo recordings, as he tells it, came about almost by accident, “Somewhere around the time I was working with the Band on Stage Fright, Albert Grossman started this label, Bearsville. And as a concession to me, because I was doing all their production work, he gave me a budget and said ‘Go ahead. Do an album.’ So I went to L.A. and recorded Runt. When I brought it back, Bearsville was shocked that I had actually done it and that it displayed a certain degree of originality.”

But despite the implications of reclusive genius on totally solo works like Hermit of Mink Hollow, Utopia’s synthesizer ace Roger Powell explains that “Todd is not the kind of guy who wants to totally isolate himself from everybody. He knows that he needs to work with people and he respects those people for taking care of their business.

On that account, Todd Rundgren admits to an outspoken dissatisfaction with his record company and the industry at large, insisting that his modestly successful but frustratingly static sales record is due to a lack of conviction on the part of Bearsville. “At this point, my album – even before it’s released – is a write-off to them. All my albums are. They never base any kind of faith on them because it doesn’t parallel anything that’s already successful or anything I’ve done already. So all they can do is put it out and wait for people to tell them it’s good, at which point they might promote it.”

Paul Fishkin, Bearsville’s president, denied this. “He’s changed the record’s sequence at our request and the album is going to be his biggest in years. The most frequent response of people is, ‘I love Side One.’”

Todd’s Mink Hollow has Side One labeled “The Easy Side” and the flip, “The Difficult Side.”

“That’s an ‘in’ joke,” he says with a noticeable touch of sarcasm. “When I first delivered-the album to the company, the songs were in different order. But the record company is always going on about these theories on listener response which are supposed to override whatever mood you want to create.

Nevertheless, Rundgren reluctantly conceded and re-sequenced the album, putting all those songs the company found “acceptable on the M-O-R crossover theorem” on one side and the ones “they figured were too challenging” on the other. And he says he went along with the idea because it made no difference to him in this case. Conceptually, the record didn’t suffer for it, he claims. The notion that Hermit of Mink Hollow could mean new heights in popularity doesn’t faze him either.

“I guess I’m out of sync with everybody else. And eventually, they’ll all get into sync with me.”

David Fricke

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