CD Review of Party of Two by The Rubinoos

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Party of Two
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Wounded Bird
Released: 1983
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The Rubinoos are a band that’s had its share of career ups and downs, but, at the very least, you can’t say the group’s life hasn’t been an adventure.

First, they made it into the Billboard Top 100 in the late ‘70s with their cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” then followed it up by writing and recording one of the definitive power pop songs of all time: “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” The ‘80s brought a Warner Brothers record deal (with Todd Rundgren sitting behind the console, no less), as well as the opportunity to provide the theme song for one of the defining comedies of the decade: “Revenge of the Nerds.” And while the ‘90s and beyond may not have resulted in tremendous commercial success for the Rubinoos, the band continues to maintain a strong fanbase both in North America and in Japan, in no small part because of studio albums like 1998’s Paleophonic and 2005’s Twist Pop Sin. Hey, even 2002’s covers album, Crimes Against Music, had its moments!

For the moment, however, let’s focus on the band’s experience with Mr. Rundgren.

The Party of Two EP emerged in 1983 as the first – and, as it turned out, last – fruits of the Rubinoos’ deal with Warner Brothers. Whether that was because it didn’t live up to the label’s sales expectations or because the band chose to dissolve of their own accord, we don’t know, though, as of this writing, we’re waiting for an answer, and we presume we’ll be able to add a post-script sooner than later. (Thank God for MySpace; it makes artists so much more approachable.) In the meantime, we’re presuming that it was more the latter than the former, since the mini-LP – that’s what they called it back then – scored some pretty solid airplay with its single, “If I Had You Back.” Although that particular song has turned up on a collection of Rundgren’s best productions, Party of Two has never managed to score release on CD; fortunately, Wounded Bird Records has finally remedied that situation, even going to so far as to tack on an additional six songs, bringing the grand total to 11 tracks.

 “If I Had You Back” is a great pop song, if one which comes off as slightly dated; the track opens with a brief bit of heavy metal guitar shredding, but it’s otherwise driven by the slightly-cheesy keyboard sound that was de rigueur for most hit singles during the ‘80s. Still, the harmonies are spot-on – that would’ve been a given for the Rubinoos, anyway, but Rundgren’s presence meant it was required by law – and the chorus made it an instant classic, particularly with its unexpectedly dark lead-in lines, “Maybe it’s a nightmare / Or maybe I’m in Hell.” “Faded Dream,” unfortunately, hasn’t aged as well; it sounds programmed from start to finish, floating by without leaving much of a mark. Conversely, “The Girl” is as catchy and bouncy as ‘80s keyboard pop gets, with a hook that’s with you for the long haul. The last two original tracks, “Crash Landing” and “The Magic’s Back,” are a hit and an almost-miss; the former is a sweeping, mournful ballad, while the latter that narrowly coasts by on the charm of the harmonies in its chorus.

Ultimately, the most telling thing about the Rundgren sessions is the fact that, over the years, the Rubinoos have let slip the original demos for several of the songs that Todd put his indelible stamp upon, and, frankly, they sound better than the final versions…or, perhaps more specifically, they sound more like the Rubinoos. This couldn’t have come as too much of a shock to the band, though; after all, Rundgren was notorious for taking artists and basically making them sound like him. (Bringing along the other three members of Utopia – Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton, and Willie Wilcox – can’t have helped the situation any.) Three of the demos appear as bonus tracks on this reissue, and you’ll find that, in particular, “The Girl” and “Crash Landing” find Rubin and Dunbar sounding far more at ease; the resulting sound of the songs would’ve found them fitting in much easier on the band’s previous albums. In addition to the demos, we get three other tracks from the era: “Over You,” “Facts of Love,” and “Stop Before We Start.” Of the trio, “Over You” is definitely the best of the bunch, with a vocal from Jon Rubin that would make any girl swoon, but the other two are plenty catchy and well worth hearing.

Diehards will have already accumulated most of the bonus tracks, as they can be found on various rarities compilations, but “Stop Before We Start” hasn’t been previously anthologized, and, as noted, just having the original Party of Two on CD is an accomplishment in and of itself. All in all, Rubinoos fans will be quite glad to have this reissue.

~Will Harris