Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan Aja (1977)


Wow… now here’s one album that takes a loooong time to appreciate – but in the long run, it’s worth the wait; Aja succeeds where Royal Scam could never hope to. And why, would you ask me? Because history put it so that there are several different levels of its apperception. Initially, one might think of Aja as a nice, pleasant jazz-pop record that makes up for some good background music when you’re not too keen on paying attention – without any obvious banalities or excesses of overtly commercial pop bands. These tunes are quite danceable, and this time around, the Dan dudes come up with lyrics that are hardly offensive: they still tackle unordinary subjects, but, apart from occasional lines like ‘you were very high’, you’d hardly find anything to sue them about.

The second level is absolute disgust – like I mentioned previously in the review for Katy Lied, this album is way, way too smooth and polished to generate any true rock’n’roll excitement, hell, any excitement. It’s stuff to be played in the car! On a long long trip – preferrably in the mountains, when you shouldn’t be disturbed by anything while you’re driving! What a travesty. And this, of course, explains the immense radio popularity of the material from Aja. Which, in turn, irritates music lovers: not only is this stuff boring, it’s also overplayed. Double travesty. Even worse is the fact that you cannot really accuse the songs of anything. This is NOT CHEESE: the guys really did work hard on the album, hiring top-notch players, working on the lyrics, smoothing out all the edges, diversifying the arrangements, coming up with simple, but not cliched melodies… no wonder Aja has often been called one of the best-cared-for records of the Seventies. Triple travesty – you can’t even criticize it on a serious level.

So, how to get away with it? Now you might just as well take my advice, since, as expected, I skipped right over the first level of apperception and landed straight on to the second. In other words, my first listens left me completely unmoved – I was prepared to give this an eight, a seven, whatever. BUT – repeated listenings do manage to bring out the best in this stuff. However, in order to do so, you must be initially good-willed. If you do not want this album to turn out good (and want it with a flame and a stern will), it will never turn out good. If you feel like throwing this stuff away, better do so at once – better still, shove it under the bed, and one day you might find yourself wanting to give it one more try. Unless, of course, you hear ‘Deacon Blues’ every day on the radio, in which case there’s hardly anything to be done at all.

And thus an ounce of good will and half a dozen careful listens have slowly convinced me that this is a really good album. Now I must say a large percent of the songs still leaves me unsatisfied. The spirit of the album, as far as I’m concerned, resides in (a) its moodiness, (b) its slight, subtle menace. Therefore, tracks that are neither (a) nor (b) can go to hell for all I care. I absolutely despise ‘Peg’ – it’s actually nothing but a stupid, bland Phil Collins-style popster, and no intelligent lyrics about an (un)successful model can save it. Yeah, I know there were no Phil Collins-style popsters back in 1977; in which case they have wisely predicted a Phil Collins-style popster. And both ‘Home At Last’ and ‘I Got The News’ don’t really do much for me, either: they stick out too much with unsuitable arrangements – way too pompous for the former and way too dance-jazz-oriented for the latter, not to mention that they’re kinda generic and have no atmosphere.

The other four songs rule, though – definitely, and since they’re mostly longer than the others, this means that the great stuff really prevails over the shitty one. What I really enjoy about the first side of the album is how moody and enthralling it is – ‘Black Cow’, ‘Aja’ and ‘Deacon Blues’ are all able to send shivers down your back without sounding too dangerous. ‘Black Cow’, a story about a cheating wife (heh heh), features an incredibly heartwarming and comforting refrain, and even if I’m usually anxious about generic female backup vocals, here they sound just about right. And towards the end of the song, what’s that they’re chanting? ‘So outrageous’? Ever heard somebody chant ‘so outrageous’ in a jazz-pop song?

The title track took the longest time to get used to – but in the long run, the odd aura of the song, with Eastern-influenced vocals, mystical twangs of the bass, wonderful twirls of the keyboards, and short, but interesting solo bursts from numerous guest players, have got me under control. My favourite moment in the whole song, though, is the wonderful synthesizer riff that comes in at somewhere around 2:35 into the song – maybe because it’s the only passage on the whole album that could be called a ‘riff’, but maybe because there’s someone oddly curious and defying about it. Don’t know what, though. But the track really takes me places.

And then, of course, there’s ‘Deacon Blues’ – the number about an unlucky saxophone player who’s gonna make his name anyway. Again, a wonderful refrain and beautiful harmonies, although I prefer to concentrate on the subtle guitarwork: some of the licks in the verses are magnificent and bring me to tears sooner than the refrain itself. This might have been overplayed to death… but take me, I’m your ‘expanding man’ – I never heard it on the radio. They wouldn’t play this on Russian radio anyway, because no-one in this country really knows who Steely Dan are. (Have I unknowingly caused masses of American immigration to my country? Hope not.) Without radio overplay, this comes out as a terrific number, anyway.

But, so as to demonstrate us that they’re really the same Steely Dan that did all that murky stuff before, they finish the record off with ‘Josie’, the only more or less moderate ‘rocker’ on the whole record – a song about a gal who’s, well, er, ‘the pride of the neighbourhood’. Whether she satisfies everybody voluntarily or the song is indeed about gang rape, I don’t know, but it’s obvious this is no innocent matter of ‘Deacon Blues’. Sneering guitars, menacing synths and echoey vocals – everything is back, and if you’ve been bored to death by the previous three songs (like I was), this is a great compensation at the end.

In all, this is much, much, much more than just your typical radio fodder. You just have to get over the smoothness of the record and realize that smoothness is this band’s incarnation’s main schtick, like it or not. Smooth – atmospheric – intelligent – professional. After all, there are hundreds of other records to put on when you need real excitement. Be diverse. Get a life. Aja can be a satisfying atmospheric travel through the mind of the ‘common thinking man’, if you ever want to give it a chance.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Aja | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin London Royal Albert Hall January 9, 1970


Side A: We’re Gonna Groove; I Can’t Quit You Baby; Dazed and Confused (Part I)

Side B: Dazed and Confused (Part II); White Summer

Side C: What Is and What Should Never Be; How Many More Times (Part I)

Side D: How Many More Times (Part II); Moby Dick (Part I)

Side E: Moby Dick (Part II); Whole Lotta Love; Communication Breakdown

Side F: C’Mon Everybody; Somethin’ Else; Bring It On Home

CD 1: We’re Gonna Groove; I Can’t Quit You Baby; Dazed and Confused; White Summer; What Is and What Should Never Be; How Many More Times

CD 2: Moby Dick; Whole Lotta Love; Communication Breakdown; C’Mon Everybody; Somethin’ Else; Bring It On Home

DVD: We’re Gonna Groove; I Can’t Quit You Baby; Dazed and Confused; White Summer; What Is and What Should Never Be; How Many More Times; Moby Dick; Whole Lotta Love; Communication Breakdown; C’Mon Everybody; Somethin’ Else; Bring It On Home

Many have legitimately questioned why the powers behind Led Zeppelin’s kingdom did not market more media forms beyond the stunning DVD of the band’s incendiary 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert. As ever, there were dedicated fan productions of the audio on CD after 2003’s release of the DVD. That helped for those who wanted to hear the show while driving, on the iPod, etc. But it is widely recognized that Jimmy Page is an ardent fan and supporter of music on vinyl. This was most recently evidenced by the gorgeous 180 gram, 3 LP vinyl release of Celebration Day, which was also made available in numerous other media formats including a blu-ray audio disc. So why wasn’t similar treatment given to the Royal Albert Hall show? Hopefully the upcoming reissue of Zep’s catalog will be offered to the public like Celebration Day.

Virgin Vinyl Records have taken a stab at producing a mega-media version of the Royal Albert Hall concert. Three separately colored heavy vinyl albums, two compact discs and one dvd are presented of the show we all know and love so dearly. It’s all in a lavish box decorated with multiple stills from the video and includes a glossy, full-sized foldout booklet with beautiful pictures and reproduction of an interesting January 1970 review of the concert. The three vinyl albums are in different colors and play nicely with fidelity arguably different than what we hear on compact disc. Inclusion of the vinyl was admittedly the attraction to this release and, visually, this release is a winner for an unofficial production.

But there are also issues with this release, which is not cheap. In contrast to our ability to enjoy complete songs on compact disc, we are reminded about the format of vinyl and how sometimes songs may end on one side of an album and be completed on the next side. In order to keep the songs in the order they were played that night, Dazed and Confused, How Many More Times and Moby Dick are unfortunately split between sides of the three albums.

A strange packaging decision was also made for the two compact discs. They are housed in plastic sleeves literally glued shut on the box’s inside cover, and can only be removed by sliding them out of a side of the sleeve. Once removed, the attractive discs in this reviewed release had some adhesive on the front side. This was unfortunate, given the obvious care and thought otherwise put into this production. The discs play and sound perfect, but the tracking on disc one is bizarre. Track one is 10:38, which means it consists of both We’re Gonna Groove and I Can’t Quit You Baby. Dazed and Confused is then split between tracks two and three. As a result, the earlier fan productions of the audio on compact disc remain definitive. The DVD, which has a cool opening menu screen, is what’s available commercially and understandably nothing new.

All in all, this release is to be applauded for attempting to do what Led Zeppelin should have done in the first place. Despite its shortcomings, some legitimate and some not, we collectors may now be seeing the start of an exciting trend in full blown productions enjoyable in multiple media formats. It’s about time.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin London Royal Albert Hall January 9 1970 | , | Leave a comment

Oasis The Masterplan (1998)


I have been reviewing Oasis albums recently, and didn’t want to leave this little gem out. The Masterplan came out back in 1998 but most of the songs are older than that. This is basically a collection of B-sides and demos. You might assume that this makes it a poor album, but remember, when Oasis set out they were something special. That early period is where most of these tracks were taken from. So is it second rate rubbish or is it gold dust? Well here’s what I make of the tracks:

1. Acquiesce – This is a wonderful start to the album. Fast, powerful great beat and good lyrically. This is Oasis when they were good. They did actually release this as a single it became so popular, what a B-side! 9/10

2. Underneath The Sky – Another magical song! ‘Underneath the sky above, there’s a story teller sleeping alone, he has no face and he has no name, but his whereabouts are some what unknown.’ Great line. This is a really strong song with a nice happy melody. 8/10

3. Talk Tonight – A slower one. Noel sings on this one and it sounds silky. A really strong song that should make it onto any album. 8/10

4. Going Nowhere – Another really nice simple song. Has a great feel to it, the lyrics flow and Noel’s voice is excellent. There is a nice chilled out feel to this one. Has a real feel of when Oasis started out, before they made it big and were still dreamers. 8/10

5. Fade Away – Hard rocking magic. This is what Oasis were all about, raw sound, passion and power. This is a classic song, Liam sings out the words perfectly. 9/10

6. The Swamp Song – A live bit of instrumental with some class harmonica over the top. 8/10

7. I Am The Walrus (live) – Liam open this song by saying ‘Doesn’t matter if its out of tune, cus your cool!’. I love that attitude. Good song. 8/10

8. Listen Up – More magic. A fantastic song that grabs your attention and shakes you all around. Liam tells is ‘I’m gonna speak my mind’. And he does. Another one that could get on any album Oasis have done. 9/10

9. Rockin’ Chair – A really nice little song. Nothing special about it, it’s just plain good. 8/10

10. Half The World Away – How can this be a B-side? It’s a massive song we probably all know! It’s just a simple acoustic sung by Noel. But it’s just so good! 10/10

11. (It’s Good) To Be Free – More classic Oasis noise. A heavy song that flows brilliantly. Liam at his best whines his way through with sheer class. 9/10

12. Stay Young – This song sums up for me what Oasis were all about. ‘Hey stay young and invincible’. That is the attitude I grew up on, and maybe need to get back! A brilliant rock song that shakes you to your core! 10/10

13. Headshrinker – Oasis get very heavy with this one. It’s a little to heavy to be a classic but it still sounds very good. 8/10

14. The Masterplan – Noel thinks this is Oasis’ best song. He may well be correct. The lyrics are beautiful; the sound is pure bliss, it’s everything Wonderwall never quite was. It’s just a brilliant song and a wonderful way to finish of an incredible album. 10/10

Well, quite simply this album blows me away. To say it’s a collection of B-sides it is simply stunning. Some of the songs are easily my favourite Oasis songs and there are just no weak songs on the album. It really is something you have to listen to, it’s a real shame this album was overlooked by many. If you like Oasis and have never heard this album, you must go get a copy. It really is a hidden gem!

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Oasis The Masterplan | | Leave a comment

David Crosby If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971)


When Gene Clark’s troubled brilliance checked out of The Byrds in 1966, it left David Crosby’s syrupy baritone, which for all of the obvious guitar talents of Roger McGuinn, as the remaining great voice in one of groups who helped to define the close harmony sounds that emanated from the hazy glamour of Los Angeles at the end of that decade and into the next. While far from one of the primary songwriters in the early days of the band from which he would eventually be sacked the following year, his notable contributions to the joyously fractious Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut and then Deja Vu with notorious misanthrope Neil Young, hinted at not only the great singer and bon viveur, but a songwriter whose compositions could match his ego.

The tracks penned for those albums are archetypes of what are presented as shorthand for the counter culture concerns of the period, from threats of nuclear war in ‘Wooden Ships’; cries of revolution in ‘Long Time Gone’; long hair as a thinly veiled metaphor of non-conformity in the face of ‘the man’ in ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ and general wistful expressions of soul searching in the likes of ‘Guinnevere’ and ‘Deja Vu’. His solo debut expanded on these themes and with an assorted cast of the who’s who of the Laurel Canyon scene, it became an initially critically lambasted album which has become recognised as a curious minor classic of the period.

The album was recorded with a large ensemble cast preposterously nicknamed the ‘Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra’ and in addition to Nash and Young making appearances, it also featured members of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and CSN&Y muse Joni Mitchell. Album opener ‘Music Is Love’ simultaneously showcases the album’s strengths and weaknesses, with the chiming open-tuned guitars of Crosby, Nash and Young singing ‘Everybody’s saying that music is love’ in a round that is both gorgeous, but retrospectively hamstrung by wishy-washy hippy sentiments and therefore the cynical listener is left wondering whether they can suspend their disbelief and embrace the innocence of the author.

The song that follows, ‘Cowboy Movie’, is far from innocent, using the extended metaphor that the title suggests to explore a tale of deceit and betrayal over the love of a woman, in this case strongly suggested by most biographers to be former Crosby, and later Graham Nash partner Joni Mitchell, to the backdrop of an extended groove in the vein of the previous year’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, and the sound that characterised much of the notable moments of Neil Young’s 1969 album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’ While hardly aggressive, it’s the only one moment of even threatening to explore conventional rock music on an album which uses tonal shifts rather than bludgeoning with sheer force.

The aforementioned Mitchell casts a shadow over much of the album, whether it the aforementioned autobiographical impact or in adding her distinctive vocals to what are the more conventional elements of the album. Certainly, her soprano harmonies at the end of the luxurious ‘Laughing’ add enjoyable counterpoint to the deeper bass rumblings of Crosby’s voice, while she also makes her mark on the somewhat impotent anger of ‘What Are Their Names.’

Powered by some startling guitar interplay between Neil Young and Jerry Garcia which would put Tortoise, Slint et al to shame, the choir which dramatically, but somewhat ludicrously demands to know who the men are ‘that really run this land’, so that they can ‘give them a piece of my mind, about peace for mankind’, is earnest and heartfelt, but does conjure up images of railing against ‘the man’ for ‘the war’, while vanishing in a cloud of paranoia. A little like eating sausages, it is perhaps best to simply enjoy, rather than look too closely at what is actually there and how it was produced.

It’s perhaps the instrumental, or at least less conventional pieces on the album which make it stand out from its contemporaries. ‘Tamalpais High (At About 3)’ is all jazzy tones and bebopping along like the sound of a lazy musical researcher aiming to convey the sensation of a smoky beat cafe. The album’s final two songs ‘Orleans’, takes the fifteenth century French nursery rhyme ‘Le Carillon De Vendôme’ and multi-tracks Crosby’s voice into barely recognisable shifts in tone like a proto-Sigur Ros, while album closer ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ takes this to its logical conclusion; shorn as it is of any instrumentation and, without wishing to unduly evoke memories of Spinal Tap, takes wordless forms in Raga-like fashion to present something which is almost choric in sound. This was a far cry from the man who started his career adding harmonies to covers of folk hits from Dylan or Seeger.

Albums with various permutations of CSN&Y would follow, but this flawed but ambitious album, which came before the druggy excesses that would plague Crosby in the decades that followed, marked the end of his most lucid and engaging period which started with The Byrds ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ and ended here. It may well slip into many of the clichés of the period, but few singers of the time matched the ambition of the album. While it rarely makes many top 100 lists, it did come second in a top 10 list of The Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’s’ best albums of all time, only losing out to The Beatles ‘Revolver’.

For a self-styled iconoclast who once wrote a song about an acid trip in Winchester Cathedral and fathered a child for a lesbian couple, this is a result of sorts and shows that at least ‘the man’ can’t have been that offended.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | David Crosby If I Could Only Remember My Name | | Leave a comment

Oasis Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000)


Believe it or not, Noel Gallagher was humbled by the misfire that was 1997’s Be Here Now. Of course, it wasn’t just the record that brought Britain’s pop kings down to size. Britpop was really and truly over by 1997. That was the year of OK Computer, an album that raised the bar for every band in the UK, and like it or not pop meisters like Gallagher were hopelessly out of fashion. Even The Verve’s classical pilfering on Urban Hymns was more in tune with the times than Oasis’ set-on-10-on-the-amps, all-out rock anthems.

Noel Gallagher attempts to right the ship on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants by diversifying Oasis’ sound and soaking up some contemporary influences from the Beta Band to the Chemical Brothers. The result is a much darker-sounding effort and the throw-everything-into-the-mix and make-it-loud-as-you-can approach has been toned down… a bit, though not unfortunately on “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is,” an obvious Oasis single.

Still, the instrumentation is broader and actual restraint has been used in many of the arrangements, where in 1997 there would have been none. And restraint doesn’t just turn up in the “orchestration,” but also in the 47-minute length of the record—a welcome relief from the over-eagerness on Be Here Now to fill every last byte of the CD with every last sound squiggling out of an amplifier on Abbey Road.

As much time was not spent on the lyrics. Just look to the lead-off single “Go Let It Out,” whose patently obvious chorus “Go let it out / Go let it in” is more of the “moon in June quality of writing Gallagher often seems only to content to lob our way. But the worst of the lot, bar none, is brother Liam’s first songwriting attempt, “Little James,” an ode to his son. “Hey Jude” it is not—the lyrics are simplistic and cloying and the “na, na, na” choruses at the end are embarrassingly Beatle-esque (“Hey Jude” again).

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants kicks off with a sample-heavy instrumental (“Fucking in the Bushes”) that shows Noel’s dalliances with the Chemical Brothers have left their mark. But Noel hasn’t gone dance on us, not really. The song has the Monterey Pop Festival written all over it, from the Hendrix-like rippling lead guitar to the “ah, ah, ah, ah” choruses backed by a descending organ. The drums and rhythm have a bit of 1997/98 Big Beat to them and the samples sounds similar to the type used by Primal Scream in the early 1990s.

“Who Feels Love?” is a mid-tempo, laid-back, vaguely-Eastern, psychedelic affair that sounds, after several listenings, like the best Standing has to offer, as does the closer “Roll It Over” whose quietly building crescendos show Gallagher developing into a defter composer/arranger as each day goes by. “Gas Panic!” is another slow-grinder that oddly sounds a bit like what the Stone Roses may have sounded like today if they had held it together after Second Coming.

I guess since big brother indulged little brother and allowed “Little James” to make the cut, he felt he should get more than the requisite single lead singing track on the record. So Noel’s less brilliantly bombastic, but ultimately more affecting vocals power “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and the lazy-in-the-sun “Sunday Morning Call.”

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants isn’t the near-masterpiece the band needs to resurrect their world-conquering level of stardom and near total omnipresence in the UK, nor is it the Zeitgeist soundtrack that was (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995) or the divine slab of ballsy rock that was Definitely Maybe (1994). But it is a record that works better and better with repeated listens, a departure from the deliverance of immediate gratification that we have been taught to expect from Oasis.

It may well be a bridge to the next phase of Oasis’ career—away from the stadiums and the touring grind, just like their heroes the Beatles, and into the comfy studio confines where Noel Gallagher’s considerable pop smarts will grow and he can create the psychedelic masterpiece he’s fully capable of producing.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Oasis Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants | | Leave a comment

Oasis The Masterplan (1998)


Over the past four years, Oasis has released a slew of singles, most of which include at least two or three previously unreleased songs. Fourteen of these tracks have found their way onto The Masterplan, the band’s first B-sides collection.

Of course, with every compilation of this nature, there are bound to be significant omissions, and The Masterplan is no exception.

The most glaring absence—the band’s transcendentally moronic cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize,” quite possibly Oasis’ sole act of self-awareness—has somehow been overlooked in favor of a competent if unexceptional cover of “I Am the Walrus.” Likewise, the rollicking “Step Out Tonight,” a song excised from What’s The Story? (Morning Glory) at the last moment due to its striking similarity to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” is nowhere to be found, although such disposable fodder as “The Swamp Song,” a perfunctory blues instrumental featuring Paul Weller, is included.

Despite a sketchy song selection, The Masterplan does a nice job showcasing the band’s more eclectic side. Whereas Oasis tends to limit itself to one or two ballads per album, this collection displays a fuller range, moving from Bacharach-influenced lounge-pop with moronic lyrics (“Going Nowhere”) to Beatles-esque orchestral pop with moronic lyrics (“The Masterplan”), to such future prom-night fixtures as “Talk Tonight,” a ballad that, like “Wonderwall,” is affecting despite its inherent dopiness.

Most of these lyrics could double as yearbook inscriptions, but they serve their purpose, and on songs like the awesome first single, “Acquiesce,” that purpose is generally to not get in the way of the band’s soaring melodies and sneering attitude.

Oasis will never be The Beatles, but it could very well be this generation’s Slade, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Oasis The Masterplan | | Leave a comment

Walter Becker Circus Money (2008)


It’s really funny to notice, in real time, how history gets to be “rewritten” as it happens today in the case of 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994), the only solo album by Walter Becker before the recent release of Circus Money, which any reviewer worth his/her name has to contextualize. But to tell the truth, at the time of its original release, the reviews had been for the most part quite terrible; or, better said, few in number, and not really very favourable (I remember – at least, it was true the last time I looked – that Steely Dan’s official site had in their archives two reviews of that album, one “pro”, one “cons”, the comparison being quite useful). Of course, critics had “contextualized”: and what’s more hideous than an album that – starting with its title – appeared as if it was introducing itself as a “hack job”, with those strange drum machines and a singer (Becker himself) who sounded as somebody who had never sung a note in his life? And though the blurb on the cover read “Produced by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen” nothing in that album appeared as being remotely similar to those much-loved “Kings of Cool and Precision”. Having bought the album “used, like new” not long after its original release, I decided to wait for a sequel that could make things clearer.

But when it comes to Steely Dan time can produce quite a few surprises. There had been that unexpected hiatus (which in hindsight appeared to have been entirely logical) that came after Gaucho (1980), their “coolest” album (readers are invited to check Ian MacDonald’s perceptive analysis) released after their (tiny) big seller, Aja (1977), and their guitar opus The Royal Scam (1976). While the release of Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly (1982), still held in high esteem today, made it easier for listeners everywhere not to mourn the disappearance of the historical brand, it forced them to ask themselves a question: if The Nightfly had Steely Dan’s keyboards, Steely Dan’s lead vocals, Steely Dan’s music, Steely Dan’s moods, Steely Dan’s harmonies, and almost Steely Dan’s lyrics, what had been Walter Becker’s role in Steely Dan?

Though it may sound strange, I have to confess that I preferred 11 Tracks Of Whack to Kamakiriad (1993), Donald Fagen’s new solo album (produced by Walter Becker) after an absence of about ten years: though I was aware of the fact that Fagen’s album carried more “weight”, I found myself liking Becker’s album more. Though it was true that 11 Tracks Of Whack needed a lot of things to change in order to be called entirely successful, the album possessed a certain graceful air of faux naïveté that made it sound a lot fresher than Kamakiriad, a good album whose main problem was that of sounding like a tired copy of The Nightfly.

I can’t say I was terribly happy upon hearing that Steely Dan had come back, at first, in the 90s, as a concert attraction, then on record: Two Against Nature (2000), the winner of four Grammys, and Everything Must Go (2003) are not bad albums, but the group’s use of digital recording, their building the tracks “from the grounds up”, and their efforts of making good drummers sound just like drum machines, didn’t help the music, which (logically enough) was not as fresh-sounding as when they were in their prime. Meanwhile, Donald Fagen’s decision to produce Morph The Cat (2006) all by himself appeared to make that album the best work of that kind since The Nightfly. Hence, the question: Now, what? (A question pertaining to the albums only, since tours continue – up to now – with fine results, as I happened to witness last year.)

We all know how difficult (besides being an uncomfortable, and often not really productive, job), given its nature of “collective creation”, trying to determine “who did what” can be – check the Beatles. I think that in the case of Steely Dan it’s still possible, as a first approximation, just as a research hypothesis, without necessarily having to go back all the way to Do It Again, to try to separate those tracks that are more likely to be born while sitting in front of a keyboard than having a guitar in one’s hands – let’s say, Aja and Gaucho on one hand, and Josie and Haitian Divorce on the other. So we can ask ourselves this question: how an album featuring only tracks like the latter two would sound? (We already know how an album featuring only tracks like the former two would sound: like The Nightfly and Morph The Cat.)

With the only exception of learning of a long-standing friendship, the news that Walter Becker had chosen Larry Klein as producer for his second solo album, fourteen years after his first, were not really surprising: an experienced bassist, also a writer, step by step Klein had become an excellent, and highly regarded, producer, in a travelogue that had started with his first works with Joni Mitchell in the early 80s, up to the recent Grammy winner, Herbie Hancock’s album River: The Joni Letters, through a long series of albums by female singers, the most recent being Luciana Souza and her The New Bossa Nova.

Quite surprisingly, it was announced that the album would feature Reggae and Ska rhythms, with a pinch of Dub. Which in a way was not too surprising, since tracks that one could call “reggae” had appeared on albums by Steely Dan, Becker, and Fagen. But a whole album?

Surprise # 2, Klein was the co-composer of (almost) all tracks, in what way it was not said.

Credits don’t exactly say, but I’ve heard that the “basic tracks” for the whole album were recorded (live in the studio, in ten days) in New York by Jay Messina and Elliot Scheiner, with overdubs recorded in California, in Santa Monica, by trusted Klein collaborator Helik Hadar, who also mixed the album. Mastered by Bernie Grundman. In so mirroring these changing times, the album is self-released by Becker. It’s also available – obviously besides on CD – in two downloadable formats: so-so sounding MP3, and FLAC. I reviewed the CD edition.

Is it really a reggae album? Sure it is… up to a point. It’s obvious that here reggae works as a unifying element. Taking for granted those “up tempo”, and those “skratched” guitars, there are a few well-known items – the female vocalists coming “late” on Darkling Down is a classic move – but if the rhythm in God’s Eye View really resembles Black Uhuru’s is something this writer doesn’t know.

Walter Becker (here he’s also on guitar) is a fine bass player, and I bet he had a lot of fun “driving the group from the back”. It goes without saying that the drummer’s role is crucial, but here the choice was a no-brainer: already held in high esteem for his live playing in the most recent Steely Dan tours, Keith Carlock is at his considerable best here; it’s obviously “strict” figures we are talking about, but he performs them with a lot of verve and inventiveness, never running the risk of being mistaken for a drum machine.

Quite a few musicians featured here come from Steely Dan line ups, past and present: on guitar, Jon Herington and Dean Parks do a lot, subtly, with a nice variety of timbres and chords (listening on headphones helps), Chris Potter appears on tenor sax, and Ted Baker is on various keyboards; not as familiar to me in a Steely Dan context, Roger Rosenberg plays very well the bass clarinet and the baritone sax, while Jim Beard is on piano and on various keyboards; let’s not forget Larry Goldings on Hammond organ. Also countless female vocalists, now in a dialogue, now unison, now in a classic background role (Klein’s expertise in this field sure must have been useful), those most familiar to me being Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Cindy Mizelle.

But it’s Becker the singer that’s the real surprise. The same voice as before, sure, not really strong not with a wide range, sporting an intonation whose agility has more to do with his being an intelligent musician than with his vocal cords. But here the production has made the most of his vocal emissions, the whole becoming richer for it. Listening with attention reveals many captivating moods, so proving that the vocal performances are credible.

It goes without saying that this is the kind of album that gets richer the more attentive the listener. Not all all difficult, it reveals in time the great care that went in creating it. Dynamic mixes that don’t make themselves too apparent, snare drums whose range goes from the classic wood “thud” to the highest “brass piccolo snare”. Et cetera.

A dramatic long decay “crash” opens the first track, Door Number Two, alongside a grand piano and an electric piano (the second “crash”, at about 9″, is softer). Female vocals reminding one of Babylon Sisters, a dry bass drum, a slow tempo, “ghostly” guitars placed in the back, on the right, nice tenor sax solo, a fine vocal performance by Becker. Not to be missed: those piano arpeggios that parallel the main characters’ “desiderata”.

An elegant start for Downtown Canon: two sequenced arpeggiated chords and a drum machine give way to a drum roll and to a triumphant Becker announcing: “I cracked the code”. The track’s rhythm is reggae (rimshot, the skin gets hit in the chorus), but it’s really a Soul Ballad à la Marvin Gaye. Nice chorus, with a good use of the female background voices. Excellent Hammond organ, in combination with a soft electric piano.

I was quite surprised, last year, when I heard the way the reggae Haitian Divorce, having a surprising concert rendition starring Becker on vocals, could sound a lot like a country & western ballad, and the same thing can be said of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore. An impossible to forget bass part, an excellent rimshot/bass drum figure, a dub interlude with those echoes. With lyrics that can be described as being quite clear and “impossible to get” at the same time.

After a spectacular intro from a dry drum set sounding almost like timbales, Upside Looking Down almost sounds as a “typical early 60s ballad”, with fine guitars and an appropriate solo by Dean Parks; when the chorus arrives, with those high female vocals and Becker whispering in falsetto, it’s really time to get one’s handkerchief out.

Don’t know why, but Paging Audrey left me cold. Nice tenor solo, though.

Circus Money is the strangest track: written by Becker only, with Klein on bass, it reminded me a lot of Walkin’ The Dog by Rufus Thomas, as arranged by Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Excellent drum part, sounding a lot à la Steve Gadd, with a resonant snare drum. Also Becker’s phased vocals, and a nice tenor solo.

A Calliope and a start sounding halfway between Broadway and a cartoon for Selfish Gene (does anybody remember those theories anymore?). Lazy tempo. The music for the first two lines of each verse reminded me of a song by Tom Petty (maybe the one called You Don’t Know How It Feels – is it true? was it by chance?). Luciana Souza has a solo part, nicely performed. There’s a rare bridge at 2′ 04″, bridges being almost non-existent on this album.

“Piccolo brass snare”, and a big bass drum, for Do You Remember The Name; guitar arpeggios, a “lazy” track. A nice melody, a fine vocal unison by Becker and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery. Also an excellent slide solo by Jon Herington.

Somebody’s Saturday Night is very Zappa-like, lotsa swing, jazzy, with an excellent female chorus, quite Ellington-like, and with a fine solo by Becker.

Darkling Down (a track that features both the words “nihilism” and “Muscatel”, not easy!) has a dry snare drum and features the female vocalists. Nice Hammond organ, and a very good solo by Becker.

God’s Eye View has the most complex lyrics (quite appropriate!), a nice dialogue of male/female voices, a frenetic bass line, nice guitar, electric piano, and an excellent bass clarinet, both as colour and a solo.

A melodic piano intro tells us we’re at the end credits. A contagious rhythm, almost a Dancing In The Streets in a “Plastic Soul” version, baritone sax, piano, rhythm, keyboards that mime an organ à la Aretha Franklin, a “soul” chorus, and a fine solo by the baritone saxophone. It’s Three Picture Deal.

It’s an appropriate ending, but the “International Edition” has one more track, the bizarre-sounding Dark Horse Dub, with those expected echoes, and a strange orchestration: trombone (by the fine-as-per-his-usual Jim Pugh), and a “little band” (baritone and soprano saxophone, clarinet, alto flute) as played by Roger Rosenberg. Here, just like on the rest of the album, the excellent percussion are played by well-known Gordon Gottlieb.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Walter Becker Circus Money | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Sunken Condos (2012)


Morph The Cat, the final volume of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly Trilogy, which appeared in 2006, is introspective and jittery, reflecting the cumulative impact of 9/11 and his own sense of encroaching mortality – making it at once the darkest and most personal chapter in the Steely Dan canon. While Morph was a musically dazzling and emotionally intense work, it would have been a distressingly bleak way to close the book.

Happily, solo album number four – which arrives with little advance warning – dispenses with mortal dread as Fagen re-immerses himself in the finer things – or the “Good Stuff”, as he puts it in one song – amid the life challenges facing aging Boomers (Fagen is 64).

As these nine tracks make abundantly clear, his current mood is reassuringly effervescent and self- mocking. Sunken Condos is loaded with Fagen’s instantly familiar signature moves, as he breaks out his long-codified and precisely calibrated vocabulary. Here there’s righteously swingin’ grooves (powered by drummer “Earl Cooke, Jr.”, whose name curiously fails to come up in a Google search), extended chords (there’s no chord too obscure for this crew) from a superb (what else?) studio band led by co-producer/multi-instrumentalist and Dan mainstay Michael Leonhart, and Donald’s sharply drawn, irony-laden narratives.

The album’s bookends, “Slinky Thing” and “Planet D’Rhonda”, revisit the generation- spanning romantic escapades of Gaucho’s “Hey 19”. In the opener, fueled by a groove that matches its title, the narrator is “a burned-out hippie clown” who meets and tries to put the make on “a lithe young beauty”, to the amusement of observers as the mismatched couple makes the rounds of various public gatherings. Here and elsewhere, the rich tones of latter-day Dan guitarist Jon Herington provide the ultra- cool counterpoint to Fagen’s decidedly uncool leading man in his increasingly desperate attempts to “Hold on to that slinky thing”.

The closing “Planet D’Rhonda” finds an older guy lusting after a chick who’s “somewhere between nineteen and thirty-eight”, and “When she does the Philly Dog – I gotta have CPR”, though the poor schlub knows full well that “It’s never gonna happen”. Coursing through the track is some wild post-bop improvising from jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the aural equivalent of the narrator’s racing pulse.

The sense of yearning for the unattainable is also played out at the album’s midpoint on “The New Breed”, wherein a similarly love-struck dinosaur (“He’s ready for Jurassic Park”) is dumped by his girl in favor of the young dude who upgraded her software, so the old-timer steps aside, leaving her “To your new dotcom slash life”. Fagen’s propensity for embedded mysteries has rarely been more intriguingly manifested than it is on “Memorabilia”, a song as slippery as it is catchy, with its references to US nuclear tests in the South Pacific during the 1950s. In the hook-filled “Miss Marlene”, the protagonist finds love in a bowling alley, of all places.

The album’s most sublime piece is “Weather In My Head”, a modified midtempo blues in the manner of “Pretzel Logic” and another scintillating workout for Herington, with its slam-dunk payoff, “They may fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what’s to be done/Lord –’bout the weather in my head”. The lone misstep is a cover of Isaac Hayes’ 1978 funk workout “Out Of The Ghetto”, but the band blows through it with such exhilaration that Fagen can be forgiven for this indulgence.

What, then, does this new, post-trilogy work represent for Fagen? A second wind? A therapeutically induced acceptance of things as they are, perhaps? In any case, Dan aficionados will undoubtedly receive Sunken Condos as a fascinating new puzzle – or series of puzzles – to be endlessly debated if never actually solved. What matters is that Donald’s in back in his self-referencing sweet spot, and all’s right with the world.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Sunken Condos | , | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Gaucho (1980)

Steely Dan - Gaucho (1980)From

The last Steely Dan album before a short twenty-year pause, Gaucho is definitely not an easy listen – heck, Aja wasn’t an easy one, and this one requires even more patience and above all, a potload of good will to tolerate. I suppose that if I had to review it right after reviewing Aja, there wouldn’t have been that much good will left; fortunately, I got it long after I’d assimilated and reviewed Aja, and I had plenty of time to recuperate. Which – alas – only goes to show how much does our actual judgement depend on the spur of the moment. Dammit, I’d like to have a sterile environment to write those reviews in, but then again, how much of a soul and a heart does one have within a sterile environment? It’s a vicious circle! An exitless situation! A dead end! We’re all losers, why fake it?

Oh well, consider this a specific perverse kind of a psycho disclaimer. Whatever. Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan’s oh so often maligned 1980 offering. It’s easy to see what all the fuss is about. It is mostly in the vein of Aja, except that a) there’s even less spontaneity here (I know that’s hardly possible, but it is so – legend even has it that the record’s best guitar solo by Larry Carlton, included on ‘Third World Man’, was just lying in the studio for a long time and was artificially ‘stuck’ on by the Dansters), b) there’s not a single ‘gritty’ breath saviour like ‘Josie’, c) there are no more interesting instrumental jams like on the title track of Aja. That last point might be considered good news by some, but it actually works against the duo, as it makes the listener concentrate exclusively on the main melodies, and the main melodies aren’t all that hot, either.

So Gaucho was quickly written off as an attempt to repeat their previous success that ends in lots of meaningless, lifeless posturing and all that crap. That’s what the critics said. The critics are right, as usual. According to all those standards, this is crap – but personally speaking, I find Gaucho to be only a slight letdown from the standards of Aja. The crucial difference, I think, is in that the album emphasizes atmosphere over actual playing. There are some nice solos on here, but overall, the record is an obvious exercise in minimalism: you’ll see that many of the riffs on here are heavily syncopated, and the actual solos are often reduced to isolated notes played in bunches of two or three in a row in different tonalities. The instrumentation is laid on very sparsely as well, and so the listener should suck in the SOUND, not the actual MELODIES of all this stuff. And I, for one, dig the sound, because it’s Steely Dan for Chrissake. Their jazzy groove is impeccable from a technical point, but it’s also moody, relaxating and even soothing in some sense.

Actually, my main problem with the album are the lyrics: so far, I have been mostly successful in trying to decipher the guys’ messages (at least, not any less so than most members of the regular English-speaking commune), but the lyrics on here baffle me entirely. Okay, stuff like ‘Glamour Profession’ (about the, well, how do I say it? ‘morally corrupt fun of Hollywood’, right?) is pretty obvious, but the rest just floats by. So in the end I just disregard the lyrics and that’s that. Fuck ’em, I say. Need I spend the rest of my life worshipping Mr Fagen and Mr Becker for their deeply-encoded message? No, I needn’t do that. These snubby, high-browed pricks deserve worse than that. Have you seen their insolent letters to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame yet? The bastards! The dear old Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame actually induced them, and all they have to say is… well, just read their friggin’ presumptuous response at their official site. The shameless punks.

Nah, just kiddin’ ye, of course. I do think they really went overboard with that Hall of Fame debacle, but then again, we all know the Hall of Fame sucks, don’t we? Serve ’em right. Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan’s oh so often maligned 1980 offering. Okay now, lemme give you the lowdown on what I consider the best song on here… Ready?

‘Babylon Sisters’, of course! That one’s a real blast, and arguably the only catchy number on the whole record. A little bit of reggae-tinged guitar in the background, atmospheric synths, a little injection of perverse decadence, and a powerful ‘Babylon sisters shake it’ refrain. But seriously now, it’s not that much better than the album’s second single, ‘Hey Nineteen’, Steely Dan’s minimalistic peak, or the nearly synth-pop (what else should I call a song based on a synth riff?) epic ‘Glamour Profession’. And if you ask me, it’s hardly a coincidence that Mark Knopfler was drafted in to play lead guitar on the album’s most (and only) upbeat track, ‘Time Out Of Mind’, which certainly inspired Robert Zimmerman seventeen years later to put out an equally atmospheric, although just a wee bit more depressive album of equally shitty tunes (where ‘shitty’ = ‘unbelievably cool’, if you know what I mean).

That was a hoot, actually. I suppose that was pure coincidence. Rock music has grown so large nowadays that coincidences like that happen every day. But that’s hardly a reason for me not to have a little fun about it, right? Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan’s oh so often maligned 1980 offering. And I just wanted to say that Knopfler plays excellent lead guitar on ‘Time Out Of Mind’, and, of course, his quiet, humble minimalistic tone fits the record to a tee. So, in all, count me if not happy, at least, retaining normal blood pressure. Apart from ‘Babylon Sisters’, I couldn’t EVER hum even one of those melodies if I tried, but I’m pretty sure lots of people would find the atmosphere alone compelling enough to raise the record’s rating to a 15! Oh well, make it a FIFTEEN THOUSAND, even! Me, I’ll stay cool and award the record a ‘merely good’ overall rating of 10, but then again, that’s far better than most critics could ever come up with, so I just managed to flatter myself. How nice of you, Mr Starostin. There! I keep exposing my over-gross ego again!

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Gaucho | | Leave a comment

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (2011)

noel_gallagher_high_flying_birds_album_cover_location_beverly_hillsFrom The Guardian

Among the more interesting stories to emerge from Oasis’ split was Noel Gallagher’s claim that he felt musically constrained by the band. He told Mojo magazine that any suggestion of altering Oasis’ sound would apparently cause Liam Gallagher to “start slinging shit around the room”, which certainly isn’t the least plausible of scenarios. Liam is, after all, a man who celebrated the fresh artistic start Oasis’ split afforded him by releasing a song called Beatles and Stones.

His brother, meanwhile, has been talking up his love of Ennio Morricone and techno auteur Derrick May, and employing a bloke to play a musical saw on his solo album. Expectations therefore run high, especially now he need not nurture the egalitarian urge to cede control of the songwriting and Let Ringo Have a Go, which accounted for at least some of the makeweight stuff on Oasis’ later albums. What might Noel come up with?

It’s true the opener, Everybody’s on the Run, sounds a bit more interesting than Oasis: it is beautifully orchestrated and features the massed voices of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Alas, the arrangement is there to serve precisely the kind of song you would expect to turn up on a Noel Gallagher solo album: a wistful acoustic mid-tempo plod on which Gallagher repeatedly pleads with us to hold on, advice presumably aimed at anyone among his audience not already holding on following the repeated instruction to do so issued by Gallagher in Stop Crying Your Heart Out.

Or perhaps they’ve simply forgotten to hold on, in which case the fact that the exhortation to hold on is set to exactly the same four-note tune as it was in Stop Crying Your Heart Out should refresh their memories.

Not for the last time, the feeling that some of the advance publicity about Gallagher’s change of direction might be a little overheated comes creeping. There have been claims that Dream On represents a diversion into “Dixieland jazz”: it’s got a trombone on it – which in fairness is one trombone more than Oasis ever featured – but then so did The Floral Dance by the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Actually, it sounds a bit like the Kinks’ Dead End Street, as does Soldier Boys and Jesus Freaks, trumpeted in some quarters as Gallagher’s move into protest song. It’s nothing of the sort: it sets its cap at a Kinksy social vignette, but as a lyricist Gallagher doesn’t have the acute focus to pull that kind of thing off.

Still, better a muddled attempt at emulating Ray Davies than the fearful sound of Noel in philosophical mode. That duly turns up on the closer, Stop the Clocks. “What if I’m already dead? How will I know?” he ponders. Well, you might finally stop writing lyrics like that, although I wouldn’t bank on it.

Maybe such complaints don’t really matter. All three songs have such indelible melodies that they carry you blithely along, indifferent to the shortcomings of the rest of the song, which may have been Gallagher’s big trick as a songwriter from the off: it’s not like anyone loved Definitely Maybe for its devastating originality or lyrical insight. And that turns out to be High Flying Birds’ big selling-point: it’s got less filler and more undeniable tunes than any recent Oasis album.

It’s also got a tantalising hint of musical progression: AKA … What a Life!, a house music-inspired thump, is built around a piano riff Gallagher has claimed is inspired by Rhythim Is Rhythim’s Haçienda classic Strings of Life, though it sounds just as much like the Rolling Stones’ We Love You. Either way, the important things are that, first, it’s a genuinely different kind of song to anything he has attempted before and, second, Gallagher’s melodic facility remains intact even when detached from his guitars and his well-thumbed collection of classic rock.

It’s hard not to wish there was more here like it: High Flying Birds pushes gently at some boundaries Gallagher might have considered kicking over altogether. Perhaps his trepidation has something to do with the relative commercial failure of his brother’s album with Beady Eye. Certainly, these days Liam sounds like he’s threatening, rather than promising, to release more material. Maybe the fear that he’d end up in a similar situation if he presented anything too radical reined Noel in: you can never underestimate the power of sibling rivalry. Maybe he’s saving the big push into unknown territories for his forthcoming collaboration with psychedelic collective Amorphous Androgynous. Or maybe this is as good as it gets. For now, it’ll do that it’s a more enjoyable album than Oasis’ latter-day catalogue.

At the risk of handing out some well-worn advice, anyone hoping to hear a radical departure might be recommended to hold on.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds | , | Leave a comment