Bearsville is back! Even as Edsel Records has been tackling Todd Rundgren's catalogue, both solo and with Utopia, the enterprising label hasn’t stopped there. This month has brought two releases related to the Rundgren mystique but still capable of standing on their own considerable merits. Roger Powell may be the most well-known of Utopia’s keyboard/synthesizer players, but he was actually preceded in the band by Jean Yves “M. Frog” Labat. Both Labat and Powell recorded solo albums at Bearsville, and so the former’s M. Frog and the latter’s Air Pocket have been joined together on one disc by Edsel.
Though it comes first on the new CD, Roger Powell’s Air Pocket arrived in 1980, seven years after M. Frog’s solo album. Like much of Utopia’s best work, Air Pocket is atmospheric, shimmering, ethereal, and futuristic. Largely self-created by Powell, it does feature some special guests, such as John Holbrook (rhythm guitar and also the album’s engineer), Mark Styles (RMI keyboard computer), Clive Pozar (drums) and a certain Mr. Rundgren (E-bow guitar solo).
The first side of the original LP betrayed the pop influence of the changing Utopia, with fully developed songs still true to Powell’s spacey synthesizer sound; the second side emphasized more esoteric instrumental compositions. Each and every track was written entirely by the artist, who also produced this unique effort. Of the more accessible tracks, “Windows” is a very Utopia-like soft rock song with prominent harmonies (one could easily hear Todd having contributed) and oblique lyrics that lend an air of mystery. “Emergency Splash-Down” boasts a harder-edged, jagged melody (“Warning light flashes/Emergency splashdown/It’s every man for himself now!”). Rundgren makes his presence known via a subtle but recognizable guitar solo to the brief “Morning Chorus.”
Though there’s a coherence of sound among the album’s ten tracks, each song also has enough dynamics to keep the album interesting. “March of the Dragonslayers” is a rather playful cut, though it doesn’t sound medieval at all, despite its title! (Another title just begging to be a prog-rock song, “Dragons ‘n Griffins,” appears a couple of tracks later!) Its B-side, a then-modern update of the surf-rock hit “Pipeline,” has been appended to this reissue.
A little of Air Pocket might go a long way for listeners less inclined to Utopia’s more far-out explorations, but the album is positively conservative compared to Jean Yves “M. Frog” Labat’s self-titled release, previously available on CD only in Japan. Like Powell, Labat self-produced his debut effort, but Rundgren was on hand to mix the album. (In case you’re wondering, Bearsville impresario Albert Grossman had suggested “Maestro Frog” as Labat’s moniker, but only the initial stuck!) John Holbrook was heavily involved in M. Frog’s album, as well, but he was hardly the only member of the Bearsville family to contribute. John Simon and Paul Butterfield make appearances, as do Garth Hudson and Rick Danko on “Welcome Home” and Rundgren on both “Suckling-Pigs Game” and “Hey Little Lady.” In addition to his short-lived tenure as a member of Utopia, Labat also repaid the favor to Rundgren by playing EMS synthesizer on Todd’s 1973 solo album A Wizard, A True Star.
Hit the jump for much, much more including track listing with discography and an order link!
The freewheeling, loose and anarchic spirit of A Wizard is very much in evidence on M. Frog. The album’s opening “We Are Crazy” sets the tone, a cacophonic song that could have come from a dystopian musical: “We are crazy…we are stupid…we are lazy…we are dirty…if you understand, you’re gonna win a prize!” (Too bad the French language single version wasn’t appended as a bonus track!) Instrumentals as well as vocal pieces abound, with the vocals in English, French and something resembling gibberish! “Champegarpaen” shares a futuristic sound with the Powell album before it adds odd voices and chanting for a Zappa-like “underground” feel. In fact, that avant-garde musical auteur’s work might be the closest touchstone for this eccentric LP. (Rundgren’s affinity for Zappa was clear even in 2011, when he recently was a guest DJ for Sirius/XM satellite radio.) Instruments are manipulated and processed, and no one style stays in place for too long. The carnival-esque, boisterous “Takatykitakite” offers more bizarro freak-out vocals, while “Suckling-pigs” features monastic chanting, jazzy, shifting melodies and Rundgren’s prominent guitar. When Rundgren is playing, there’s almost a “traditional” and accessible feel, at least momentarily! “Hey, Little Lady,” with more blazing guitar from the wizard/true star himself, also veers close to pop territory.
The haunting “Welcome Home” benefits not only from hushed vocals and gentle acoustic guitar, but the presence of The Band’s Garth Hudson and Rick Danko. On the other end of the spectrum is the lengthy “Relax Goliath,” light on melody but heavy on disquieting atmosphere. A trippy, adventurous spirit permeates the whole of the bizarro M. Frog; “La Marseille” is even referenced in “Amphibian Chaff” before it turns into a twangy country piece with spoken word (“Gee, I found a frog…”).
The marvelously detailed booklet (over 18 pages in total covering both the Powell and Labat albums, including Paul Myers’ copious notes) reprint Jim Rooney’s lengthy note from the book originally affixed to the front of the M. Frog album sleeve, as well as pages of sheet music in Labat’s bizarre personal musical notation style, based on colors rather than traditional musical notes! If all of this demented frippery sounds like your bag, M. Frog will be an album you’ll never forget!
Air Pocket/M. Frog is available now in the U.K. and hits American shores next week. You'll find an order link just below! And be sure to watch this space for more Bearsville/Edsel news later today!
- Lunar Plexus
- Air Pocket
- Emergency Splashdown
- Morning Chorus
- March of the Dragonslayers
- Sons of Arrakis
- Dragons ‘n’ Griffins/Mr. Triscuits Theme
- Pipeline ‘78
- We Are Crazy
- Suckling-pigs Game
- Amphibian Chaff
- We Are Crazy (Instrumental)
- Hey Little Lady
- Monkey People
- Welcome Home
- Relax Goliath
Tracks 1-10 from Air Pocket, Bearsville LP BR 6994, 1980
Track 11 from Bearsville single BSS 0323, 1980
Tracks 12-22 from M. Frog, Bearsville LP BR 2140, 1973