Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)


Although Steely Dan was an entirely studio-based act by the time they received their Grammy for Aja in 1978, the band toured and had a more or less standard, permanent lineup of musicians for the first three albums. Pretzel Logic is the final album in this sequence and can be interpreted as a transition between eras. And what a transition it is.

Although the songs on both of its predecessors, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy, were both composed by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the instrumental approach on CBaT and CtE was band-centric, featuring extensive soloing by Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter, the group’s permanent guitarists. There are still plenty of juicy solos on Pretzel Logic, but instead of being flashy, the solos are short and weave into the greater backdrop of the tracks, never quite breaking their way into the fore. The album is also more grounded in jazz after Countdown to Ecstasy’s brief foray into hard(er) forms of rock.

These musical changes can largely be attributed to a growing rift between two camps in the band. Donald Fagen, who suffered from occasional bouts of stage fright, wanted to stop touring; Walter Becker agreed. The other band members, especially Baxter and Jim Hodder, the drummer, thought the opposite. In response, Becker and Fagen began to use studio musicians began to increase their use of other musicians to fill in parts for the other band members, and Steely Dan’s studio iteration was born.

Track Ratings:
{E}: Excellent/Essential/Exemplary/Other word meaning great that starts with “E” track. If this is a metal song, you should ideally be air-guitaring or headbanging your way through the entire song. If it’s pop, you should feel compelled to sing along. Any album that has at least one of these is spared from a rating lower than 2.5.

{L}: Listenable track. While these tracks don’t have the raw intensity of Es, they generally contribute to the flow of the album and are worth your time.

{F}: Filler. A marginal or poor track that simply cannot be called good. On the upper end, the track may simply drag on a bit too long for its own good or have one section that tarnishes the entire package. On the lower end, it’s probably garbage through and through.

1) Rikki Don’t Lose That Number: If you’ve listened to classic rock stations for any reasonable amount of time in the past, this is the track that you’ve probably heard off of this album. Rikki has an instantly-recognizable opening marimba solo and piano hook. Although this is isn’t one of my favorite Dan singles, Baxter’s solo and the vocal harmonies easily propel this track to classic status. {E}

2) Night By Night: The loudest track on the album, Night is driven along by a funky bass and a constant pulsating riff in the background. The guitar solos begin about halfway through and interplay with the vocals for the rest of the song. If my earlier description of solos that ‘weave into the backdrop’ didn’t make sense, this is a good primer track. {E}

3) Any Major Dude Will Tell You: Mellow. Harmonic. Catchy. Insanely so on all three counts. There are many draws here: the opening guitar riff, Fagen’s vocals during the refrain, the guitar/keyboard interplay in the lead-up to a new verse, and the brief, clear, almost Allman Brothers-esque guitar solo. {E}

4) Barrytown: The champion among champions; my personal favorite on the album. Is hypermelodic a word? No? It should be. Amazingly good piano combined with matched vocals. The “I can see by what you carry / that you come from Barrytown” phrase during the refrain bounces along perfectly with the keys. The bridge raises everything up to new heights with harmonized vocals before gently letting us down for another verse. {E! E! EEEEEEE!}

5) East St. Louis Toodle-Oo: Steely Dan’s only cover, this is a 1970s take on Duke Ellington’s classic jazz number. Completely instrumental, it provides a short break from the rest of the album’s material and is an excellent appetite-primer for the rest of the record. {E}

6) Parker’s Band: Another tribute, this time to Charlie Parker, Parker’s Band can best be described as ‘busy’ and is an excellent opener to what would have been the B-side of the album in the old days. Vocal harmonies, sax solos, fast drums, it has a little bit of something for most everyone. {E}

7) Through With Buzz: The one true low point of the album. The background horns simply don’t mesh well with the piano and vocals; a bit jarring in an album that otherwise heavily relies on interplay to make the tracks work. Fortunately, it’s only 90 seconds long. Sit through and nod your head or press skip, the distress won’t last too long. {F}

8) Pretzel Logic: The eponymous track is relatively slow and bluesy. Fagen has said the song is about time travel, but the first verse also appears to contain some not-so-subtle snarking about “traveling minstrel shows” (read: touring). More instrumental interplay here: during the second verse, a guitar is added to add a bit of flavor behind the vocals. It’s the little flourishes like this that truly make the album special. {E}

9) With A Gun: A short, sardonic number about murdering people…with a gun. You will be what you are just the same, after all. It’s an alright way to spend two minutes, especially if you share Fagen and Becker’s penchant for black humor, and the acoustic guitar underneath it all is quite nice. But it’s missing that certain something to elevate it to the standard of the rest of the tracks. {L}

10) Charlie Freak: Second-favorite track. The protagonist of this track buys a homeless man’s golden ring, the homeless man dies after using his newfound cash to buy drugs. Mortified, the narrator returns to Charlie and returns his ring. The fast-paced piano helps to add urgency to the track; combined with the sleigh bells at the end, one can almost picture Charlie sitting on the street on a cold winter day. I’m not normally one to pay attention to lyrics, but here they’re sad and beautiful. {E}

11) Monkey in Your Soul: Dirty, almost sleazy, just like the addiction the song describes. The bass lays down a funky beat while Fagen and the horns pile on top. A toe-tapping, groovy closer. {E}

March 24, 2013 - Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic |

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