The weathered, bearded face on the cover of Rainbow Ends is a far cry from the boyish figure that used to grace Emitt Rhodes albums. Sporting a full white beard and a kind, grandfatherly expression, Rhodes looks nothing like the consummate pop underdog last seen on 1973’s Farewell to Paradise. After listening to his latest album, it’s hard to believe that 43 years have passed since the world last heard anything new from this perennially underappreciated melodic genius.

In an age where nearly every sound ever captured is easy to access, Rhodes’ cult following has grown in prominence and stature. Some late-career revitalizations have emerged through a fetish for nostalgia; at best, this gives listeners a chance to rediscover overlooked performers, but at worst, this tarnishes an already questionable reputation.

That Rhodes is still operating in fine form should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his career, which began at age 14 as a member of the Palace Guard. Following the dissolution of the criminally overlooked Merry-Go-Round, by the end of the ‘60s, the 20-year old Rhodes had been through several groups, and had had his fair share of disappointment. When it came time to launch a well-deserved solo career, he took full control, building a recording studio in a shed in his parents’ backyard, where he proceeded to lay down every note on what would become his self-titled debut.

Released in 1970, the pure pop gem Emitt Rhodes is the album for which he is best known. That it didn’t resonate with the listening and buying public at the time is no fault of Rhodes. Full of Beatles-esque melodies, stellar arrangements and Rhodes’ angelic voice, his debut has deservedly earned a devoted cult following. Yet subsequent releases were met with greater apathy, and by 1973, at the age of 23, Rhodes essentially walked away from what should have been a successful career.

The intervening years saw more bad fortune as Rhodes failed to get backing for an album in 1980. When he was finally able to secure a deal and begin recording, Rocktopia records, the label scheduled to release the completed album, went bankrupt, taking his album down with it. A lesser performer would’ve taken the hint and stayed down. Thankfully Rhodes is anything but.

This year Rhodes received a fine birthday present, his new album released the day after he turned 66. Given the amount of time since he last recorded, one would be forgiven for approaching Rainbow Ends with trepidation. However, from the opening notes of “Dog on a Chain,” it’s readily apparent that the years have done little to diminish his melodic gifts.

Rhodes could be forgiven his share of introspective navel-gazing, but ever the pop craftsman, he forgoes wallowing in favor of sunny hooks, witty lyrics and an unbridled sense of optimism. Only “If I Knew Then” hints at any setbacks, through an extended metaphor recalling the end of a relationship. Even this is given a positive spin in its defiantly walking left-hand piano line and minor key melody that opens up into a glorious harmony on the song’s uniquely structured chord progression.

Similarly jovial and hook-laden, “Put Some Rhythm to It” is vintage Rhodes. Sounding every bit the lost pop classic it was likely destined to be, it never once takes itself too seriously. Over a note-perfect pop chorus Rhodes advises, “If you want to learn to dance/ If you want to find romance/ All you gotta do is shake your ass/ And put some rhythm to it.” As on the rest of the album, Rhodes shows no hard feelings for what could have been. Instead, he seems content to be living in the moment and not dwelling on an imagined career. “Now you’re all upset/ Let’s forgive and forget/ What’s it matter anyhow?” On “It’s All Behind Us Now,” he sings “It was long ago/And we both know it’s all behind us now,” rationalizing with a feuding partner who could just as easily be the personification of his career.

Joining Rhodes in a triumphant victory lap, and his first album recorded with a band since the Merry-Go-Round, are devotees Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs (who covered Rhodes’ “Live” with the Bangles), Jon Brion and Jason Faulkner, among others. Each owes a great deal to Rhodes’ legacy, and makes their admiration and respect known, laying back and enjoying the ride, their presence known only through the album’s liner notes. Students of the form, they know this is Rhodes’ well-deserved show, and his alone. Rainbow Ends is a note-perfect coda to his career. A solid set of subtle pop gems loaded with hooks and impeccable song craft, it’s every bit the album Rhodes has always been capable of producing.

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