Todd Rundgren, “Love in Vain” (2011): One Track Mind

They used to call what Muddy Waters did electric blues. What would that make this sizzling new arc-flash of Todd Rundgren-played Robert Johnson tunes? Electrocuted blues?

Recorded essentially alone — with Rundgren playing everything as he had on 2008’s Arena, save for some bass work by Utopia’s Kasim Sulton — Todd Rundgren’s Johnson has a similarly layered, robust sound. There’s a loose, impromptu feel to the record, too, surprising considering how composed so much of Rundgren’s music has been. On Johnson, he just bangs the songs out. And I do mean bangs. Often, quite frankly, it seems too flipping loud to be just one guy. That made the space and poise of “Love In Vain,” with its moaning Diddley beat and sawing riff, particularly intriguing.

He sings the familiar lines with a fierceness that might surprise anyone who hasn’t checked in on Rundgren since the AM hitmaking days of “Hello, It’s Me.” But, at the same time, he dials back into a slurred, moaning guitar sound that perfectly suits the moment when Johnson makes that desolate realization about his disappearing lover at a lonely rail station.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Digging into a trio of old Todd Rundgren favorites from ‘Rust,’ ‘Something/Anything?,’ and ‘Back to the Bars.’]

Johnson’s powerful imagery, recorded in a burst of activity in the late 1930s before the blues legend was poisoned by a jealous rival, still resonates like a clanging punch to the center of your chest: “When the train pulled out the station,” Rundgren howls, in a moment of vibrating anguish, “it had two lights on behind — the blue light was my blues, and the red one was my mind.”

Whereas much of Todd Rundgren’s Johnson seems to owe more to the 1960s’ retro Brit-blues of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, “Love In Vain” gets closer to the dusty Delta backroads that the doomed subject of this tribute once walked.

At least, in terms of atmosphere. It’s still pretty flipping loud.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso