Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan Katy Lied (1975)


Katy Lied is often hailed as a turning point in Steely Dan’s career, a moment when the band decided it finally had enough with ‘rock’ (not that the band was very much ‘rock’ in the first place) and veered off in the direction of a more jazz-poppy audience-friendly sound. It’s also the first record where ‘Steely Dan’ as such finally became an undisputable duo: just Donald Fagen and Walter Becker working together in the studio with tons of other session musicians, some of them past full-fledged band members, some not. They also weren’t touring at all at this point, and it’s easy to see why: this sort of music is really unfit for live playing, much more so than Can’t Buy A Thrill at least.

I’m not such a great fan of the notorious ‘trademark Dan arrangements’ of their second, session-musician dominated period, as many people seem to be: I consider all of these songs very tastefully arranged, but there’s hardly anything truly phenomenal here. If anything, one should emphasize exactly this fact: Katy Lied is a very ‘non-outstanding’ record (though certainly more ‘outstanding’ than, say, Aja, which runs along so smoothly I feel like skating on polished ice), yet it is also not pretentious and totally adequate.

Despite all the taste and smoothness, though, I didn’t feel like loving all of this record at first. The funny thing is, out of ten songs on here, I quite enjoyed the first five.. and used to quite despise the last five. Well, not ‘despise’. To a certain extent, they’re simply unmemorable. A few of these make the fatal mistake of getting on by lyrics alone, and that’s never the sign of true Dan genius. Yeah, whatever, I’m quite shocked (in the artistically-correct sense of the word) by the subject matter of ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Movies’, where a pervert waits for a child’s parents to go away and then proceeds to feed him with porno flicks; but as far as my limited musical competence is concerned, the song has no melody at all, and the stupid, vibes-driven refrain sounds like some demented dated doo-wop chanting.

Likewise, I suppose that many a broken-hearted intelligent person will happily identify himself with the protagonist in ‘Any World (I’m Welcome To)’, a song that has what might be passed for the most pessimistic refrain of all time; but the melody is routine, undistinguished lounge jazz – unmemorable, diluted piano chords with hardly any structure or serious rhythmic pattern. Now this is the kind of stuff you’ll never meet on a Bob Dylan record…

Mind you – none of these songs are nasty. After a couple hundred listens, one even starts to appreciate cute little snatches like the gentle-but-perverse refrain of ‘Throw Back The Little Ones’ or the relaxed organ of ‘Chain Lightning’ (possibly the best number on the second side, but still too soapy for me because the melody is way too primitive and the harmonies are way too unimpressive… and unexpressive, too). In a certain sense, the second side can even be extremely rewarding, as it’s the more “musically-oriented” side, with Steely trying their hand at funk and fusion and, well, all the stuff that places them in the category that I chose for them out of near-random principle. (So sue me!).

And yet don’t go away, because now I’m gonna blabber a bit about the first five songs. The best composition on here is the one that opens the album, and it’s a good thing, because this was my first Steely Dan record and you know how much depends on your first impression… ‘Black Friday’ is the hardest song on the album: a ferocious (well, ‘ferocious’ in the SD sense – no Jimi Hendrix poking around, that’s understood) blues workout, where the usually hard-hitting lyrics are ideally complemented by a brilliant guitar part and a wonderful vocal arrangement – the echoey effect on Mr Fagen’s voice was a brilliant idea, and it makes the song all the more spooky-spooky. Not that I really understand what the hell the dude is singing about; in any case, lines like “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor” sound much better when they’re echoed around the room, don’t they?

Then there’s the humbly gorgeous ‘Bad Sneakers’, a steady, solid piano ballad with… hey, you will not believe it – with a real hook. Yeah, I mean that little tricky time signature change when they sing ‘bad sneakers and a Pina Colada my friend’ – it drew my attention immediately and made me realize what a great song this is in its entirety. Good work. The guitar solos are nice, too, and Donald sounds uncannily like Dylan. Quite catchy. He also sounds very Dylanish on ‘Rose Darling’, a weird, but charming ballad where the protagonist invites his… err…. partner to… err… well.

Apparently, his wife which he lovingly calls ‘snake Mary’ is in another town and moreover she’s gone to bed, so there’s really nothing to worry about. But again, it’s not the lyrics that attract me, it might be those fully convincing vocals and the fluent guitar lines and the powerful piano chords in the refrain and… mmm, it’s very hard to discuss Steely Dan songs, they’re all so alike and yet all so different you have to choose your words very carefully.

Although it’s not too difficult to discuss the stunning blues ‘Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More’. The song’s built on an addictive guitar riff, and, again, the vocals sound so powerful and desperate you can’t help singing along. And then, of course, there’s ‘Doctor Wu’. This works as the magnum opus of the album, almost like a mini-conceptual-rock-opera in its own rights, and while I don’t find the melody as powerful as on the previous four songs, I simply won’t say anything bad about it. For trivia, there’s a very nice sax solo by Phil Woods on it which is well worth hearing.

In all, I fully agree with those who rate Katy Lied as a ‘transitional’ album: it’s almost as if they started out as a ‘rock band’ (‘Black Friday’), metamorphosed into a jazz band halfway through the album (‘Doctor Wu’) and fuzzed out into a mellow jazz-pop combo towards the end. The process is not a very pleasant one, at least, in my humble opinion; then again, the mellowed-out dudes might wanna reverse my judgements in exactly the opposite order. All the world is made of freaks, after all: it’s just that there are quite a few ways of freaking out.

March 24, 2013 - Posted by | Steely Dan Katy Lied |

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