TONY BENNETT: Rundman creates a meticulous album in 'Look Up'
Last time Jonathan Rundman came to town, it was as a part of the acoustic folk duo Kaivama, who played century-old Finnish songs. This time, he's visiting as a solo artist, and the music of his current guise is largely glossy, tres moderne pop, with gurgling synths and big beats. Rundman's new release is "Look Up," and, rather than being totally quiet and folky and reverent, it's something more akin to the music of bands like Death Cab for Cutie or Fountains of Wayne.
From the outset, it's obvious that Finnish folk isn't the order of the day. "Prioritize Us" starts with a chintzy-catchy Casio keyboard line that is soon bolstered by crashing drums and Pete Townshend guitar chording. "I want you and I want us / so much that I must discuss / my desire and our design / lay my soul out on the line," Rundman sings, his voice just above a whisper in the style of Ben Gibbard or maybe Colin Meloy from The Decemberists. The chorus asks a significant other to up the stakes of a relationship, as "everything we see will be history." It's an interesting angle, to push a romantic partner for extra closeness and devotion because the world will eventually end.
"Northbound Traffic" is more pop-punk, with a big, blaring intro that leads into car-centric lyrics that may or may not be metaphorical: "If I take the scenic route / would it help me figure out / what this love is all about?" Rundman asks. It's a little belabored, but it's undeniably well-written and assembled, especially in the melody department.
Same goes for "The Science of Rockets," which just takes the idea of something not being rocket science and screws it up, so it sounds like someone who doesn't speak English as a first language is trying to write a pop song using a slang phrase. (Hey, it's not the science of rockets, man!) But the song is still effective — the production is as crisp and professional as it gets, the performances are good, and the ear-candy overdubs push the song forward.
But it's on the quieter, more contemplative material that the album seems to find a kind of sweet spot. "The Ballad of Nikolaus Rungius" tells a specific, true story of a Finnish preacher. It's a long way from the science of rockets and rush-hour traffic in the city. It's a basic folk song, but the production takes it in spacey directions with snappy, martial drums, icy synths and tasteful guitar. Similarly, "Second Shelf Down" stays in a folkier mode, with double-tracked vocals, a gentle, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a fantastic slide-guitar line that brings it all together.
"Look Up" is a meticulous album that's simultaneously able to not sound agonized-over. It's alternatingly power pop and contemplative folk, and from song to song, there are effective moments that draw you in. While some of it is lacking in the lyrical area, and some of Rundman's restrained vocal performances could have a bit more spirit and teeth, it's a sturdily constructed collection from a guy who is able to work pretty well in a number of modes.
Artist: Jonathan Rundman
Album: "Look Up"
Recorded by Matt Patrick at The Library, Minneapolis, MN
Personnel: Jonathan Rundman (vocals, guitar), numerous others
Upcoming show: 10 p.m. tonight with Walter Salas-Humara at Fitger's Brewhouse, 600 E. Superior St.
Click here to listen to "Prioritize Us"