Utopia — Deface the Music
(Rhino Records RNCD 70873, 1980/1992, CD)
Utopia — Swing to the Right
(Rhino Records RNCD 70875, 1982/1990, CD)
Utopia — Adventures in Utopia
(Rhino Records RNCD 79872, 1979/1990, CD)
Utopia — Adventures In Utopia + Deface the Music + Swing to the Right
(Edsel EDSD 2129, 1982/2012, 2CD)
by Jon Davis, Published 2014-02-20
As the 70s slipped towards the 80s, progressive rock bands found their style of music increasingly unpopular, so most of them that stayed active tried to maintain relevance by making music more in line with popular tastes. Some of them made the transition successfully on a commercial level, some on an artistic level, but very few succeeded on both fronts. Utopia had a certain advantage in this process, since leader Todd Rundgren had started out as a successful pop artist and had a proven record of writing tunes that could appeal both to the radio-listening public and to art-rock aficionados. So after three studio albums of elaborate, epic prog rock, Utopia had a smooth transition into new-wave inflected short-form songs. 1977 had seen the band release both Ra (six short tracks and a side-long epic) and Oops! Wrong Planet (12 short tracks), and 1979's Adventures in Utopia took up with ten short tracks (only "Caravan" slips over seven minutes). The compositions and arrangements may eschew the willful complexity of some prog rock (one could argue that Utopia always avoided it even in their epic tracks), but the craft and skill involved maintain a uniformly high standard. There are some near-cringe-worthy moments (like "Rock Love") but all in all these are catchy tunes well played. The vocal arrangements in particular are outstanding, and the production is lush without sounding sterile — there's a reason Rundgren was even then a sought-after producer.
Deface the Music is another thing entirely. When it comes to clever, melodic pop/rock, you can't get better than the Beatles, so if you want to emulate them, why not go all out? These 13 songs are all heavily Beatles-influenced, and qualify as pastiche. Each tune will bring to mind at least a couple of Beatles gems, all slightly twisted and viewed through a somewhat modernized lens, and covering the entire catalog, from Please Please Me to Let It Be. Listening to Deface the Music can be a game of "spot the reference" if you like, but for the most part, the songs work on their own, with clever words and chord progressions. The elaborate vocal arrangements Utopia is known for always were inspired by John, Paul, and George's singing, so this tribute suits them well. The main drawback is that George Martin's sometimes quirky arrangements for strings, horns, and so on are scaled down to use then-current keyboards. But aside from these keyboards, the negative aspects of early-80s production are happily absent, and the recording sounds refreshingly direct and natural.
After that album, which was obviously a detour not to be repeated (how many Beatles pastiches can one band produce?), came Swing to the Right, a set of tunes rife with social and political commentary. Ronald Reagan had just been elected President, and a new type of conservatism was ascendant in the United States. Free-market capitalism and trickle-down economics were on everyone's mind, so Utopia gave us "Last Dollar on Earth" and a cover of the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money." The production and sound remind me a lot of The Tubes' The Completion Backwards Principle from about the same time. This kind of subject matter is bound to be divisive: to my mind, the music works well enough that it should be enjoyable regardless of your political views; others may find it preachy or abrasive.
The 2012 Edsel compilation presents all three albums on a 2CD set with a book providing a detailed look at this segment of the band's history. Adventures in Utopia fills the first disc accompanied by several live tracks from the time, including covers of such classics as "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" and "96 Tears." The second disc contains both of the other two albums without any added material. I bought these LPs as they came out, but never picked up individual CDs, so the collection is a welcome release; it would also work as an inexpensive way to discover a relatively overlooked part of Todd Rundgren's discography. Prog fans looking to investigate this band would be advised to start with the earlier material, but if your tastes allow for quality "mainstream" offerings, the set is well worth investigating.
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