Classic Rock Review

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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 |

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