Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

cantbuyathrillFrom starling

This one really came close to getting the ten from me, but after serious consideration, I still decided to award it to Countdown To Ecstasy. The fact is that, if we’re speaking essentially, Steely Dan arrive fully armed and equipped right from the very beginning. They were evolving in certain ways, sure, but they weren’t actually growing as songwriters or lyricists or whatever. If your Dan implies satiric venomous lyrics, solid vocal hooks and archi-professional musical backing, and I know my Dan really doesn’t imply anything else, you got it all here in spades. What you have not got is the sonic experimentation, or, as some Steely haters would have it, sonic meandering, but you know why? Because at this point in their career, Steely Dan were a real band. They had Becker and Fagen at the forefront for sure, but they also had TWO guitarists – Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a drummer in Jim Hodder and, uh, an additional vocalist in David Palmer (no, not the Jethro Tull guy, I’m afraid).

The actual role of David Palmer can be unclear to those unaware of the band’s story: he only gets to sing a couple songs on this album and disappears shortly afterwards. Mother History says that the guy was actually hired when Fagen felt he couldn’t be the band’s frontman during live shows, so Palmer had to fill in that role and sang live even the songs that he didn’t sing in the studio. However, he was sacked very soon after the album’s chart success – maybe Fagen actually improved his piano playing and singing at the same time, or they were just pissed off at each other or whatever. And anyway Steely Dan didn’t last long as a touring group, so… as for the singing itself, I kinda like Palmer’s voice, although it is way too smooth, melodic and even sappy for such an outfit as Steely Dan. He makes ‘Brooklyn’ sound as a tender love song for Chrissake.

So anyway, the songs are mostly good, but without the jazzy/bluesy/whatever elements of Dan’s later work, they just lack a tiny bit of that class the band managed to acquire later on without actually sacrificing any of the catchiness or “edge-cutting”. It’s more or less straightforward pop/R’n’B, not particularly impressive in terms of actual melody but certainly getting by on the strength of the band’s vocal performances and atmosphere and lyrics. Oh yeah, and the actual SOUND of it all – the way they cared about the production from the very start, you’d think they were targeting acoustics labs assistants. The two hits were ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, both of them ace Becker/Fagen creations, but particularly the former, slightly Latin-tinged (mostly due to the percussion rhythms, I’d say) and notable for the magnificent ringing piano rhythm that helps make Fagen’s vocals sound even more decisive and powerful as he narrates the, well, story of a loser – you have to pardon me for not offering more detailed interpretations of the songs because you probably have your own, so why should I interfere anyway. The chorus ‘you go back Jack, do it again’ opens the glorious line of insanely catchy Steely Dan choruses and is thus twice welcome. ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ is far more uptempo, far more guitar-heavy and even more well-known, I’d warrant, so maybe there’s no need in introducing this one to you, unless you aren’t American, in which case I probably won’t get you interested in Steely Dan anyway. Heh heh. Too bad.

That’s just the top of the iceberg though. The two Palmer-sung tracks are surprisingly effective, particularly the gentle ballad ‘Dirty Work’ where David’s mild croon is marvelously shaded by gentle bluesy guitar licks and culminates in that cute chorus. And while ‘Brooklyn’, though nobody quotes it, is melodically a rewrite of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ (I spent several hours painfully trying to wrack my brain – now where, oh where, oh where have I heard that vocal melody? Dammit, what’s the use of having three thousand records lie beside you when you can’t figure out a thing like that? GOSHDARNIT! Some of life’s most miserable moments are spent in that way, believe me), it still invites you to sing along like every solid Dylan rip-off should. I could never understand the line ‘Brooklyn owes the charmer under me’, and have always considered it semantically questionable, but as an aural tease, I’d say it works.

There’s also ‘Kings’, dealing with King Richard and King John (everybody thinks it’s about Nixon, but I’d say this is carrying the twisted warped mind of Fagen a bit too far – maybe it’s just, uh, about relations between rulers and people?), and there’s ‘Midnite Cruiser’ whose chorus is ripped off from the Hollies’ ‘Dear Eloise’, and the sneery uptempo ‘Change Of The Guards’ which is also ripped off from some British Invasion tune I can’t recall yet (ah brains burning! brains burning!), anyway, you get the idea, i.e. they are a bit unprotective of displaying their influences on here, but I more or less forgive them for it because they do it well and add the Steely Dan spirit into everything they do anyway. And in case you get bored towards the end, pay attention to the fact that they inserted one of their greatest lyrics into the chorus to the album closer, ‘Turn That Heartbeat Over Again’: ‘Love your mother, love your brother, love ’em till they run for cover!’.

And for all there is, the liner notes include FOUR extra session players (not counting backing vocals)! A guitarist, a percussionist, and two saxes. For comparison, I have this record paired together with Gaucho on one CD and this four-player list is set right next to the list of Gaucho session players, which includes thirty-one player (not counting backing vocals). Just goes to show you – these guys had a looooong way to go.


March 25, 2013 - Posted by | Steely Dan Can't Buy A Thrill |

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