Classic Rock Review

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Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)

MorphTheCatFrom The Village Voice

Donald Fagen’s new album, the Steely Dan co-founder’s first since 1993’s Kamakiriad, is a funky suite devoted to post–9-11 conundrums. His song cycle is framed by “Morph the Cat,” a lazy-gaited pop-jazz groove that serves as the collection’s title, opening tune, and ending reprise, and which Fagen—who in liner notes writes a brief synopsis of each track—describes as follows: “A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of ecstasy.”

This act of the imagination is a fanciful yet brutal inversion of intentionally caused smoke that was the result of enormously less innocent sources. In “Morph the Cat” Fagen’s New Yorkers experience not fear but profound entertainment. The environmental joy is there whether these New Yorkers look at the sky or encounter the phenom in their “wiggy pads” as the cat-thing “oozes down the heating duct” or “swims like seaweed down the hall.” And “Chinese cashiers,” “grand old gals at evening mass,” “young racketeers,” “teenage models/Laughing on the grass”—they all react this way.

Within the frame of this song and its conceit—as whimsical in the song as it is harrowing in its actual political basis—Fagen offers more grand and low-down tunes; the music is as free as birds and as constrained by reality as the Times. A guy late to LaGuardia falls for a security inspector, her sweeping wand and crooked smile in “Security Joan”; “Search me now,” he begs. The woman in “The Night Belongs to Mona” has become a Manhattan nocturnalist, although since “the fire downtown” she doesn’t go out clubbing but rather optionlessly stays home, dresses in black, plays her CDs, and dances alone; sometimes she telephones Fagen’s narrator to discuss all this “grim and funny stuff.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Funn” want their relationship to protect them from the cable-TV-fueled daily realm of “poison skies and severed heads.” In “Mary Shut the Garden Door”—”Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government,” Fagen’s synopsis runs—the perception of public tragedy boils down to exhausted, droll reporting: “They won/Storms raged/Things changed/Forever.”

All of this would be of impressive but still limited achievement if Fagen’s music weren’t alluring. And the music—melodic angles dissolving into dulcet straight lines and circles, Mensa harmonies skillfully made super-vivid by ’90s Steely Dan sessioneers, lapidary lead vocals gliding in deep-skull cashmere, often decorated with tiny yet plush backup chorales—refines further Fagen’s singular pop-r&b-jazz. It remains the painstaking music of a man who once pointed out to an interviewer that since computer keyboards overtook the instrumentation of most pop productions, records have gone out of tune, and that generations of listeners now take the fatally unforgiving temperament of those tunings as pitch-perfect. So is Fagen’s music good? Unfashionable, yet wicked good. And as David Geffen once famously said, there’s never a bad time to be good.

Morph the Cat has smashing tunes about death as expressed by W.C. Fields (“Brite Nitegown”), Ray Charles’s sexual genius (“What I Do”), and an eccentric old band (“H Gang”); each occupies Fagen’s sequence well but less programmatically. The music wields the musical-literary focus of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo debut, where he held court like J. D. Salinger as a jazz hipster. And it also offers the sonic kicks, if appropriately cooled off, of Kamakiriad.

But Fagen’s triumph of rendering post–9-11 New York most recalls how perfectly Steely Dan caught LA on 1980’s ‘Gaucho.’ Nothing in pop music outdoes Patti Austin’s and Valerie Simpson’s background voices there, floating through and dramatizing the maybe horrible ease and questionable unblemishedness of the money and sex and drugs and surgery of West Coast high life. Similarly, Fagen’s narrator urging that security chick to “Search me now” cinches, effortlessly, the current world of ongoing monumental worry and this afternoon’s missed flight.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Morph The Cat | , | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Aja (1977)


Upon first listen, it may be difficult to actually pin down why Aja is considered to rank among the best albums that the legendary decade of the 1970’s has produced. Being best described as “easy listening” music, not many things immediately stand out. All the different sounds, styles and influences are being blended into one simple, easy digestible package which sets the mood perfectly for a moment of peace and content.

This is an album of zero extremes: you won’t find fast riffage, long-winded guitar solos, frenetic drumming or a bombastic wall-of-sound. Lyrically, deeply personal thoughts or screams against the establishment are also absent. Again, why is it then that Aja is considered to be an absolute 70’s classic?

The answer is: just because of the very things it omits. Seemingly living on its own isolated musical island, separated from the continents of glam rock, punk and proto-metal, Aja resulted from Steely Dan’s deep love for all things jazz. Although early albums already hinted at that love, they went to the next level on this record. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (the only constant members of the group) recruited a whole army of guest musicians, all masters in their respectable fields, to make sure the combination of those jazz influences with their already established brand of soft-rock would be nothing less than magical.

Although they played live shows in their early days, in essence, Steely Dan were a studio band. The studio was their natural habitat, their playing ground. Both Becker and Fagen were classically trained musicians, who put equal parts knowledge as heart and soul in their music. Practically nothing you hear on the record results from improvisation, and every guest musician that was given a spot, was selected after a long series of auditions.

If you look at the production notes, you’ll also rarely see the same two musicians appearing on different tracks. That knowledge and technicality may come off as very sterile and it may seem as if the album would be a very boring accomplishment as a result, but in fact it’s what gives Aja such a timeless character.

What further amplifies this, is that the replayability of this record is unbelievably high. Smooth guitar licks are rapidly and seamlessly followed up with extremely funky bass lines, organs straight out of that crimi TV series, which was popular in the day, and piano parts which complement perfectly with that whiskey you just ordered in that shady bar downtown. The lyrics are splendidly sardonic, but also paint a canvas of vivid imagery in your head.

What at first listen seems to be a fairly simple but enjoyable listen, evolves with each consecutive listen into a real treasure hunt for small delights scattered across these seven tracks: the perfectly harmonized vocals on the opening track “Black Cow”, for example, and the buildup to the brilliant chorus in “Peg”, followed by the legendary guitar solo of Jay Graydon. Or the tempo changes, xylophone melodies and, ultimately, the utterly beautiful saxophone moment, provided by none other than Wayne Shorter!

In the hands of lesser gods, this would all have probably turned out very disjointed and gimmicky, but Becker and Fagen’s studio wizardry has made Aja a very cohesive album, in which the whole is still better than the sum of its uniformly quasi-perfect parts. It also should come as no surprise that the production and sound quality of the songs here is downright excellent. Although the description of jazz-meets-pop would make many a purist jump out of their skin of rage, this is not at all a case of the style being dumbed down for the masses. In fact, over the years, the record has gotten its fair share of critical acclaim, even from the jazz world and rightly so.

Aja is very close to being the perfect pop album, being both enjoyable for people seeking a lighthearted tune and music enthusiasts in search of unpredictable and amazingly executed compositions. But most of all, it’s a testament to all the great studio bands, who spend years trying to achieve perfection through countless hours of hard labor and gallons of blood, sweat and tears, and proves that such a process actually can result in a true masterpiece.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Aja | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)


Listening to Pretzel Logic, the third disc from the brainchild of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, that was the big question I found myself asking. Despite the inclusion of one of their biggest hits, this outing features tracks that sound like works in progress rather than the finely-polished gems that the collective was known for.

The one hit that you’ll instantly recognize (after the brief lead-in of what sounds like a faint jungle rhythm) is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Okay, so it’s overplayed on classic rock radio. I can’t help it, I still love this song, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.

In a sense, it’s kind of hard to explain just what makes this track succeed. Is it the catchy refrain that goes from a samba-like beat to a full-blown chorus? Is it the gentleness of the verses that clashes with the more intense guitar solo? I’ll let others argue those points.

In fact, a good portion of the first half of the disc, while not as powerful as either of Steely Dan’s two previous efforts, still evokes enough hope for the listener to make them think that the whole album will turn the corner on the very next track. Songs like “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Barrytown” hold out those glimmers of hope — if only they delivered the goods afterward.

For the bulk of Pretzel Logic, though, Steely Dan turns into a band without a solid song behind them. Jumping from an almost ragtime band style (“East St. Louis Toodle-oo”) to what sure sound like mere fragments of songs (“Through With Buzz,” “Parker’s Band,” “Monkey In Your Soul”), it’s almost like Becker and Fagen just put out these concepts in order to insure they had a disc in the stores each year.

I’ve seen it argued that Becker and Fagen were railing against the outcry over the richer instrumentation on Countdown To Ecstasy; maybe this is so. But by lopping off the instrumental development of their songs, they essentially neuter the creature of Steely Dan that they created. Whatever the case, it’s a bad mix.

Props do need to be given to the title track, even if it too does not count among the strongest efforts that Steely Dan recorded in their history. There is something about this track that feels like a backhand slap against — well, everything, almost as if Becker and Fagen are tired of being told that everything they do is wrong. Their response in this track seems to be, “The hell with you all, we’ll do it the way we want to.” Fine and dandy, boys… just don’t expect everyone to like the end result.

Daring to call Pretzel Logic anything but a masterpiece in this day and age almost invites the masses to pull out the tar and feathers against the blasphemer. Yet if one steps back and compares this disc to a lot of the material that Steely Dan recorded in their history, one can’t help but see it as a disc with half-finished ideas almost begging for closure. Had they only been granted that wish.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Everything Must Go (2003)


As Walter Becker and Donald Fagen themselves have noticed (check the interview that’s part of the cover story in the June 2003 issue of Down Beat magazine), “their second album in twenty-two years” doesn’t sound quite as sexy as “their first album in twenty years”. Hence, the decidedly reduced attention given by music media to Everything Must Go, their recently released CD, when compared to Two Against Nature: an album which got much (well-deserved) acclaim, conquered four Grammys, but whose sales – in industry parlance – can be described as “respectable” but definitely not “earthshaking”.

Which is a pity, given the fact that Everything Must Go is at least equal to its predecessor, in fact maybe better in a couple of departments, not the least on the technical side. Steely Dan albums had always sported an accurate engineering work and an excellent sound, but somehow Two Against Nature’s digital sound had appeared somewhat working against our enjoyment of the recorded material. Of course, this immediately rekindled the eternal dispute called “analogue vs digital”, even if some very qualified observers had commented on how the real culprit seemed to be an ancient version of digital, not digital itself. Anyway, Everything Must Go has a beautiful round sound that’s typically “analogue”.

What’s more important, the rhythmic base of the comeback album offered a mechanical/quantized aspect that not a few regarded as rigid and inexpressive – a real rarity for a group that had always employed the best available musicians in the most intelligent way, i.e. keeping a tight rein but letting them semi-loose when the moment was appropriate. It’s true that, starting from Gaucho (1980) – the last album recorded by the duo before their long hiatus – the duo appeared to choose a very dry, “sequenced” feel – just check Hey Nineteen or Time Out Of Mind – and things had proceeded in the same way in the albums they had recorded separately: Fagen’s The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993), Becker’s 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994).

But if the latter’s more guitaristic approach – and its being less harmonically complex than his former partner’s albums – was a somewhat better match to the “mechanized” approach, the results on Two Against Nature were not entirely satisfactory, even when the obvious practical reason for that – to build the record “from the ground up” – was taken into consideration.

It was also apparent that the duo’s stylistic co-ordinates had been left pretty much unchanged – were we expecting otherwise? That “sound” – those melodic developments that are so natural that they appear to be simple, those intricate harmonic moves that one could notice – or not, those cryptic but very musical sounding lyrics – is the fruit of a deliberate choice.

An impartial observer, however, couldn’t help but notice that Becker’s solo album had not got that many reviews that were perceptive of its (considerable) merits – this reviewer bought the CD in question as “used/brand-new” not too long after its release date. And it has to be noticed that, as reported, fans chose Becker’s unreleased solo song to “refresh themselves” during that tour.
Quite peculiarly, the duo seemed to me a bit too anxious to explain themselves during the press sessions for Two Against Nature – sometimes it made me nostalgic for those “cryptic times”. What’s more, the new songs seemed to be quite more lyrically direct than the old ones.

Well… complex harmonies, intricate melodies, excellent musicianship – hey, what’s more à la mode today? (It’s difficult not to believe that when Fagen sings – in Green Book, on the new album – “(…) I love the music/ Anachronistic but nice” he’s also talking about his own.)

Everything Must Go is as rhythmically dry as the previous album – a drum roll here is “front page news” – but the fact that the core of the group recorded at the same time (Walter Becker is always on bass) takes away some of the mechanical aspect. Fagen’s voice is obviously not what it was – and sadly missing is the ironic venom so present in many of the old songs – but the decision not to use one of those pitch-shifting software devices so common in nowadays music that we don’t even notice them anymore is to be lauded. Nor melodies have been simplified.

It’s “business as usual” when it comes to those original group traits as “singing in character” and coupling dark lyrics with serene music – wonder how many people are equipped today to notice such things. As usual, female voices are wonderfully used, with a lot of variety when it comes to timbres and approaches. Again with us are Walter Becker’s bluesy guitar solos, so distant from the be-bop scales of the Larry Carltons of yesterday, and those tasty reed charts and solos – a baritone, a tenor. Very nice-sounding keyboards, too: clavinet, organ, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, a couple of pungent synth solos by Fagen.

Quite a lot has already been said about a certain post 9/11 atmosphere that seems to define this album, which is bookended by two songs with a strong sense of “closure”. But sharing this impression is by no means necessary to talk about this album, which is defined by a sense of loss and of bitter events – see (the very communicative) The Last Mall, the melancholic (and so full of shades) Things I Miss The Most, the contagious Blues Beach.

The songs that occupy the central part of the album are to me the newest-sounding and the most stimulating. Godwhacker has a tense and sinister (diabolical?) air. Slang Of Ages has a good vocal interpretation by Walter Becker – his first solo performance for the group – and it’s nice to hear the opposition of the verse to the vistas of the chorus. Green Book (virtual sex?) is deep into a seedy atmosphere.

Then we are back to Steely Dan as usual: Pixeleen – highly contagious, it’s maybe the most classic-sounding song here, Lunch With Gina, the beautiful Everything Must Go.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Everything Must Go | | Leave a comment

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (2011)


For the majority of the time since Oasis’ acrimonious split, Noel Gallagher managed to keep a fairly low profile. As sibling and eternal rival Liam swaggered his way through the formation of Beady Eye, a fashion label and the usual smattering of crass comments in the press, Noel kept silent and bided his time; emerging periodically to bat away questions about or dispense cryptic comments alluding to that last night in Paris.

During that time however, there was the sense that Noel now fancied himself as the wise old owl of British rock. Able to count Paul Weller as a close friend the elder, famous Gallagher brother appeared to have elevated himself above his station.

Even in an industry peppered with flashes in the pan and disposable icons, seven albums and a few collaborations does not a veteran make. With the announcement of his first official solo record this felt like the chance for Noel to prove once and for all why he has always been regarded as the driving force behind Oasis (certainly until Gem Archer was recruited at least).

Whichever way you look at it, it is impossible to escape the inevitable Oasis comparisons. As a result, you can’t help but wonder how many of the songs on offer were pilfered from sessions for any future albums Oasis had planned. One of Noel’s more reprehensible traits as a songwriter, the more desperate, anything-will-do couplets, stand out. “High time/summer in the city/the kids are looking pretty/but isn’t it a pity” he sings on “The Death Of You And Me.”

This is followed by “I wanna live in a dream/in my record machine” on the song of the same name. This isn’t 60s-style psychedelia. It doesn’t even make sense in a nonsensical way; it’s a return to the kind of lazy writing that hampered Oasis’ musical progress.

…but let’s try and talk about the music, not the weight of history and reputation. The music and lyrics, bar the two above examples, display a fresh, welcome renewal of the vitality that appeared to have escaped him in the preceding years. “Dream On”, whilst not exactly the most original Gallagher composition, has a spring in its step; drums that resonate clearly and a ‘big band’ feel that sounds like it was a lot of fun to create and record.

“If I Had A Gun” evokes a maudlin sense of wonder and lead single “The Death You And Me” is the sound of Noel wiping the slate clean and declaring the start of a new era, good-time trumpet solo and all. “(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach” is propelled forwards by crunchy chords and “AKA…Broken Arrow” is a blissful, ambient number with a playful side to it that exudes the notion of an artist currently in a very comfortable frame of mind.

The album’s centrepiece and standout track is the wonderful “AKA…What A Life!” The piano led groove is unobtrusively repetitious, the underlying tune replete with many layers, and the lyrics appear to hark back to quiet reflection upon the road Noel travelled to get where he is today; “It might be a dream but it tastes like poison” he tells us.

Noel has crafted one of those rare gems in an LP where every track is a potential single. Moreover, there are a number of moods evident. It shows much more talent and awareness than his brother’s latest effort. Noel Gallagher and his solo recording output cannot be judged on its own merit just yet, but a couple more records of this quality and his past might just slide away.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds | , | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Gaucho (1980)

Steely Dan - Gaucho (1980)From

For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

“Donald and I followed a certain line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and then perhaps slightly beyond—that was what we realized when we’d finished Gaucho: it was not as much fun…It wasn’t fun at all, really.” — Walter Becker in Mojo, 1980.

You can’t have a comfortable relationship with someone who has a knife at your tit and you can’t have a comfortable relationship with Gaucho. What you could and even might have with both is something better than comfort, something more hilarious, more thrilling in its ambiguities, and ultimately more rewarding.

Consummate critics in their own right, Walter Becker himself nails Gaucho above. It wasn’t the peak of their sound, it was more like its implosion: a spotless album not only portraying and mocking, but literally embodying the shellacked vapidity of their Los Angeles lifestyles and the escape—a fantasy of breezy opulence—that their music offered to their fans. Even the band had a shitty time making it. As if matching bitter, poetic cynicism with freewheeling jazz-rock wasn’t enough, with Gaucho, Fagen and Becker approached anti-music in the same way that plastic surgery approaches being anti-human: somehow, shreds of the same ideals are in tact, but they’re pushed to queasy extremes. Plastic surgery remembers beauty, but it always makes people ugly.

There’s a prevailing air of snobbery surrounding Steely Dan that hasn’t ever really seemed to square with the fact that they’re megastars. This was something that had first occurred to me at Christmastime. I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Pennsylvania; my Aunt was sitting in the kitchen, calmly mixing salad, when A Decade of Steely Dan came up on their five-disc changer—“The girls don’t seem to care tonight, as long as the music’s right.” Was she listening at all? A zen koan: can someone hear the sound of someone else talking over them?

Robert Christgau, writing about Gaucho in the Village Voice, said, “Craftsmen this obsessive don’t want to rule the world—they just want to make sure it doesn’t get them.” Christgau didn’t like the album, but I do; my response to him would be to say that in fact, Gaucho proves that the world had already gotten Fagen and Becker. People like my Aunt and Uncle—well-meaning, wonderful, culturally-sensitive people—had already consumed the band’s aesthetic and made it a part of their suburban living rooms and vacation soundtrack. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to broach the subject of their relationship to Steely Dan since it started bothering me a couple years ago.) I mean, this is a famous rock band—surely they’ve seen more half-wits, hopeless hopefuls, market-bound bloodsuckers, quirky assholes, pussy, and lawyers than most people on the planet. These are the people that constitute the world. Furthermore, cocaine—drug addiction, how human!—had preoccupied Walter Becker. The world had swallowed them up. If anything, Gaucho is like a suicide bomber, and that’s why it’s poignant: it couldn’t have taken down a myth so powerful without having lived it first.

Everyone on Gaucho is a loser. Everyone. The protagonist of the first single, “Hey Nineteen,” is a 30-something trying to pick up a 19-year-old. That in itself isn’t pathetic or grotesque: there’s no suggestion that he’s bald, fat, unattractive, or particularly lecherous (any more than the situation would already imply). What is, is that he doesn’t care enough to bother “closing the deal”—to employ what I’d assume to be his own lingo, or his own lingo from his Gamma Phi days. Instead, he trails off: “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian make tonight a wonderful thing.” He’s got drugs, money, memories; you think that showing a co-ed a glimpse of orgasm makes any difference anymore? He’s beyond that, he’s numb. The booze makes him impotent anyway. He might be in A&R; he’s the world that got to Steely Dan. The girl? Oh right, I forgot: she’s 19 and dancing with a man 10 years her senior who couldn’t fuck her even if she wanted him to. They just hang out and she watches him glide towards unconsciousness.

And he, or his type, is driving the car in “Babylon Sisters,” a limp reggae song about an interracial affair. Even in the confines of his convertible, cruising westward, he asks her—right off the bat—to “turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town.” Jungle music. The closest he could take to “jungle music,” is, well… it’s “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan. He doesn’t give in to the taboo, he struggles with it.

If the humor of “Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen” is opaque on first listen, it’s hard not to laugh the first time you hear the sly, squirming disco of “Glamour Profession.” Drug trades and jet-setting unfolds in the evening time: “6:05 outside the stadium, special delivery for Hoops McCann / Brut and charisma poured from the shadow where he stood.” Once that line hits, well; it’s a line delivered with a disgust that veers so close to complete mockery that you can hear Fagen’s lip curl when he says it. In a Musician interview with the band, Walter Becker said that “Everytime someone’s in the next room when we’re writing a song they’d say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re fucking writing songs in there, you’re not working, ’cause you’re fucking screaming and laughing in there.’”

“My Rival” is a relentlessly tepid seabreeze number about a guy, ravaged by paranoia, who hires a private detective to spy on his lover’s new beau, who is more or less described as a pirate with a hearing aid. And as a wry testament to the incredible feeling of feeling nothing at all, the most energetic track on the album is “Time Out of Mind,” a song about the existential release of heroin.

“Gaucho” and “Third World Man” are the funniest, most depressing, and most moving tracks on the record; for me, they embody what Gaucho is about. Most readings suggest that the title track is about a love triangle. A wealthy man takes the Gaucho, but when his lover discovers them, the Gaucho is incredulously kicked out—his best offer is a ride to the edge of the highway. He sticks out—“standing there in your spangled leather poncho and your elevator shoes”—as a ridiculous character, but we can assume that there’s something about his difference (not only in style and class, but again, in race—gaucho: Spanish for “cowboy”) that makes him desirable. He’s found his way to the top of the Custerdome. We don’t know what the Custerdome is, exactly, but some people belong there and some don’t; and the cuckold even uses the language of money to shoo him off: “We’ve got heavy rollers, I think you should know, try again tomorrow.” Sax kicks in like it’s Saturday Night Live, cologne-stink wafts through the penthouse, a chorus of backing singers are forced to hold steady and intone who is the Gaucho, amigo?; take the line alone and you might think it’s Ween, it’s that funny.

But it’s not funny. None of it’s funny, really. It’s not funny, because they’re completely broken. The white picket fence, or penthouse, or whatever, isn’t enough to bring any glint of feeling into the couple’s lives; in fact, when wealth and perfection fail to bring them happiness, their spirit immediately faces a huge void. It’s Steely Dan having no fun at all, painted into their own tableau. The man, surrounded by granite countertops stacked with luxury goods, sort of wants someone real—the Gaucho. The Gaucho wants to escape his own drift. The third man tries to play up the Gaucho’s absurdity because he’s heartbroken, he’s been genuinely threatened; his partner has taken another man. Nobody wins. And Steely Dan plays it with cadences like an after-school special; there’s nothing.

And then, alchemy—there’s everything. And that’s what I hear when I listen to the record: a series of assholes puckered so tight that they ultimately burst, leaving the shit of human emotional existence to just pour out. An irony so thorough that it loses all distance on its subject. You’re surrounded by waste and all of the sudden, feeling nothing has just turned into feeling unbelievably terrible. Somehow, the disgusting weight of all of Gaucho’s losers—Fagen and Becker, included—ruptures the album’s sterility. It’s exhausting and it’s remarkable.

Gaucho isn’t for everyone. I’ve tried forcing the album on friends who reply simply by saying “It’s slick, it’s boring, it’s stupid. If there’s something there, I don’t get it and I don’t want to wait around to figure it out.” And I don’t know what to tell them, frankly; in that moment, my own responses somehow feel like perversities, though I know I’m not alone in how I feel about the album. And while I hate to challenge their reactions, I always get this feeling that people are just afraid to open up to Gaucho. Fagen’s sneer is too much to handle, the music is somehow too dead to ignore, the stink of contempt—for their surroundings and themselves—makes for an experience that upsets the most fundamental virtues of pop music; I’m not talking about “expression” or “emotion,” I’m talking about the relationship between musicians and their creation, between a band and their fans. If Fagen and Becker had actually liked making the album—whose raw materials were scrutinized so repeatedly in the studio as to wear the oxide off the magnetic tape, whose sessions had over forty backup singers—then we could accept it. As it is, Gaucho just sits in front of us, disturbingly perfect and relentlessly pathetic, emotionally radical and—in some restoration of irony—absolutely without peer.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Gaucho | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan The Royal Scam (1976)


I really want to give this album a five, but I cannot. It is not a ‘Classic’ album, but it is a fine recording. It seems that amongst this site, Steely Dan is not well known, which I fell is very unfortunate.

This album, their fifth, is by far my favorite album in their catalogue for a few reasons. Number 1: The music (I’ll start with the obvious). The music is very tightly constructed, so that the songs have a lush, seamless sound. Everything is proportionate. The music is not overly noodley, nor is it too caught up with time signatures and changing a rhythm every 2 seconds. It’s simple and straight forward to the ear, but it reveals a good deal of subtelty upon closer inspection. 2: The lyrics: It becombes apparent very quickly while listening to this that the lyrics have a bite.

The opening song for example, is about a once prosperous drug dealer who is suddenly finding his former clients moving away from him. He becomes alienated realizing that his prime has past and he is now nothing but an outlaw. “Don’t Take Me Alive,” the third cut, speaks of a man’s encounter with a brutal group of policemen, with lyrics like, “Can you hear the Eagle cying? The lies and the laughter..”

The album start with “Kid Charlemagne,” which is probably the best song on the album. The entire song has a very down-to-earth, funky sort of vibe to it. The mid-section consists of a jazzy guitar solo done by studio musician Larry Carlton. “The Caves of Altamira” follows, and while it does not compare to “Kid Charlemagne,” it is an enjoyable slab. The verses consist of maily piano chording to give it a richer, jazzier texture as opposed to the funk of the preceeding joint.

The next wedge is “Don’t Take Me Alive,” which has some of my favorite lyrics of the entire album: “I’m a bull keeper’s son, I don’t want to shoot no one. Well, I crossed my old man back in Oregon – Don’t take me alive.” This song opens up with Larry Carlton again, going for a more blues/rock style, this time. The song combines piano and guitar, but the song is less-riff based in order to let the lyrics shine through. This is a very solid track, it’s one of my favorites on the album.

The fourth selection is “Sign in Stranger,” a song which is about some utopia in which is visitors are pampered, refering to the newcomer as a “zombie.” This song is almost entirely piano, with some very tricky fingerwork going on. A guitar solo crops up at the end, which contrasts the breezy pianowork throught the rest of the song with a slightly more agressive delivery. Next is “The Fez.” This song is mostly insturmetal, with a floating sythizer melody over a choppy rhythm section serving as the verse. Gnarled blues guitar parts spring up throught the song. This is not one of my favorites, but it’s a decent song.The sixth song “Green Earrings,” is another mediocre chuck of music. Like “The Fez,” there is nothing particulary bad about it, but it is just less immediate than the previous wedges.

“Haitian Divorce,” is a great song that pulls the listener out of a minor slump. Throughout the song, guitar lines and played through a talk-box or something, and the song’s rhythm is similar to reggae music. Very cool. “Eyerthing You Did” is again, mediocre. It’s a very listenable, tasteful piece of music, moslty piano, with a few synths or keyboards or magical robots that breathe soda in the backround. It’s a good song, but not a stand-out. The last slab is the title track, “The Royal Scam.” This song has a very plodding, repetitive rhythm, but it is, I think, one of the best tracks on the album. It sounds very minor-key-ish and moody. The and sparse guitar lines are used in a very effective way, so that the point is articulated well, but the song does not become tiresome with repetition. There are also some cool keyboard and saxaphone parts thrown in for good measure.

I conclude that you can’t go wrong with Steely Dan. This is an awesome album, and I recommend it to anyone, as Steely Dan’s music is a hybrid of several different syles.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan The Royal Scam | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Katy Lied (1975)


If there is such a thing as a consensus amongst hard core Steely Dan fans as to the Dan’s best effort, almost everyone – including the general population that made it their biggest selling platter – would concede the crown to Aja. Seven tracks of perfection, each brilliantly orchestrated and executed by a cast of musician’s musicians. The lyrics were “languid and bittersweet” and if you didn’t like ‘em then “drink your big black cow and get out of here.”

Much to admire here. – Purdie’s shuffle, Graydon’s Peg solo, McDonald’s one word background vocals, and Steve Gadd’s greatest moment ever as a studio drummer. If you can get past the stock footage, Classic Albums gives the full story on this great collection of songs in rich detail with snarky comments by Becker and Fagen themselves.

Then there is Katy Lied. That sweet beauty of an album with the insect on the cover. Cameron Crowe writing in Rolling Stone said it best describing Dan’s fourth album as “Anonymous, absolutely impeccable swing-pop. No cheap displays of human emotion.”

Amongst the Dan illuminati, well-documented DBX problems aside, Lied may be their finest effort. Katy was the harbinger of what was to come with Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho. Great songs in a variety of tempos and feels, strategic placement of the perfect session people, and the emergence of Walter Becker on Black Friday and Bad Sneakers, as a lead guitarist of peer with the greats that came before him (Randall, Dias, and Baxter).

There is just so much to this album.

Nineteen year old not-yet-legendary drummer Jeff Porcaro provides a clinic in setting a rhythmic foundation though a number of styles. Jeff swings through odd time signatures in Gold Teeth, unveils his soon-to-be-signature shuffle on Black Friday, does his best Jim Gordon on Chain Lightning, and adds John Guerin flourishes on the fade out of Dr. Wu. Anyone wondering why Mr. Groove is remembered with such awe can see why on Katy Lied. It wasn’t until the new millennium that Becker and Fagin would again rely so much on just one drummer.

There is also the restrained and always-perfect melodic flourish supplied by future Grammy winner Michael Omartian on piano. He is all over that record, always complimenting the song, never drawing attention to himself or his instrument – just like he did on Rikki Don’t loose that number. His contribution to the overall tone of Katy cannot be overstated. His playing is beautiful.

Nor can contributions of guitarist Dean Parks be overlooked. Listen to Rose Darling, and pay attention to his passing tones. He swings, keeps the song harmonically centered, and manages to provide a tasty solo as well. It’s understated, and brilliant at the same time. This is why Park’s resume has literally thousands of gigs. His support is all over that record – yet Parks is often overlooked by fans in favor or the flashier axemen on Lied. Scream “Injustice!” as you go back and listen to the guitar in the background throughout the album.

Hang on Sloopy’s Rick Derringer provides a jaw dropping blues solo on Chain Lighting begging the question, “Rock and Roll and Hochie Koo? Same Guy?” Elliot Randall saves the weakest song, Throw Back the Little Ones, with his solo. Denny Dias bebops his way through an impressive bridge of changes, all with swing and melody, on Gold Teeth part 2. Walter Becker simply astonishes us all with the range showed on the Blues based shredding on Black Friday (what a tone!), and the lyrical every-note-counts break on Bad Sneakers. We also see the first appearance of soon-to-be critical (think 5th Beatle) Larry Carlton who lays down some Crusaders scratch and funk on Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More. People like to call Royal Scam “the guitar album.” Not so sure about that, this album is full of great guitar.

I wish I were done. But like an ad from the late Billy Mays, “wait, there’s still more!”

Unknown-at-the-time Michael McDonald makes his first appearance on vinyl, providing his distinctive backup vocals that would become ubiquitous 10 years hence. His remarkable multi-tracked in-tune-with-himself work on Bad Sneakers, Black Friday, and Any World that I’m Welcome is still amazing. This was a very talented find for the Dan, and “Rick Jarred Productions” whoever the heck they were. I suppose someone profiled in the book Hit Men. Still wonder why that had to be included in the credits.

The worlds most recorded drummer, Hal Blaine, sits in on Any World that I’m Welcome to and shows how rim taps are done and concludes with a tour of his toms on the fade out. Chuck Rainey is also on board, although I suppose the bass mix might be a frustration from the DBX, it is hard to hear. Check out the bass on Black Friday, if you can, it’s amazing.

Fagen sounds great in all his double tracked glory. He proves once again to be perhaps the only person who can deliver the Dan’s very peculiar lyrics (are you crazy, are you high, or just an ordinary guy?) which are everywhere on the record. So is the humor (I’ll bet she’s in Detroit with lots of money in the bank, although I could be wrong) and so is that most frustrating of Dan adjectives, irony (everyone’s gone to the movies, now we’re alone at last). It’s all there, in very tight, mostly under four minute packages.

So are the weirdest liner notes I have ever read. An inside joke to which no one but Becker, Fagen, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols understand and get. Payback for the DBX problems I guess. When you make a record as good as this one, you are entitled.

While this 1975 release went Gold, it had no singles that charted higher than #37 and was destined to become what it is today: the hidden gem of Steely Dan.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Katy Lied | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Two Against Nature (2000)


Steely Dan’s reunion album Two Against Nature is a preternatural enough stylistic reprise that it won’t inspire a whole lot of conversions. If you already hate Steely Dan, you’ll view Donald Fagen and Walter Becker as regular Rip van Winkles, still as unconscionably slick as the day they dozed off. But those of us predisposed to appreciate their subversive high standards might spin a more flattering myth as the model for their reemergence: ”Brigadoon.”

Like Gene Kelly itching to ditch the cocktail circuit for a roll in the haze with out-of-the-past lassie Cyd Charisse, we might just want to jump into the disc and let the duo take us away from all this teen choreography. Even if their particular Shangri-la IS peopled by perverts, creeps, miscreants, and clavinets.

The core elements are unchanged: white-hot chops, black humor, and a flair for the cryptic. Your guess about what exactly ”Gaslighting Abbie” involves is as good as ours, though we can assume it’s something decadent, given the sordid characters who populate the more comprehensible numbers.

The hilarious ”Janie Runaway” describes a romance even more May/December than the one in ”Hey Nineteen,” its sugar daddy serenading a now decidedly underage muse. (”Who has a friend named Melanie/Who’s not afraid to try new things/Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain/Possibly you, Janie Runaway!” sings Fagen, against such a pleasant light-jazz lilt, you croon along and cringe simultaneously.) And if you liked ”Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” you’ll love ”Cousin Dupree,” their woeful tale of unrequited intra-familial lust.

Becker and Fagen don’t play their lotharios and losers strictly for laughs. ”Nature” has honest pathos, too, though you have to hunt for it amid the arcane gags and margarita-ready jazz riffs. ”What a Shame…” begins as comedy about an aging slacker who’s the only guy from his NYU class who didn’t strike gold. But when a more successful former paramour suggests a hotel tryst, the shamed protagonist nixes the seduction, explaining ”You’re talking to a ghost.” More ambiguous narratives like ”Almost Gothic” and ”Negative Girl” ply the highs and lows of sexual obsession for something more than yuks.

”Nature” isn’t an instant classic on the level of the ”Katy Lied”/”Royal Scam”/”Aja” triumvirate. With Becker now playing virtually all the guitar — and he’s no slouch at it — you’ll at some point miss the world-class soloing their session guys used to provide. But their ensemble sound remains sharp and inimitable. If the album’s four-year making is hard evidence of anal retention, there’s more than sufficient funk even in tunes you know were as carefully constructed as a Swiss watch.

For proof their prime isn’t past, skip to the closing ”West of Hollywood,” this album’s eight-minute-plus masterpiece. ”I’m way deep into nothing special,” repeats Fagen, describing a SoCal black hole of addictive pleasure and romantic despair.

The fever-pitched music matches the lyric’s abyss-mal uncertainty, throwing out a succession of the weirdest key changes you’ve ever heard on a pop record, its roller-coaster twists topped off by a Chris Potter sax solo so good you’ll keep checking the LED display in hopes it isn’t nearly over. The Cuervo Gold, fine Colombian, and other abusable substances of Steely Dan’s ’70s heyday may all be distant history. But that final number especially is proof that, even now, you ”can” buy a thrill.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Two Against Nature | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)


Before Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took over the reigns of Steely Dan in the mid-70s, the group was very band oriented. The band’s first album, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’, featured only 9 musicians over the entire piece (by comparison, 2000’s ‘Two Against Nature’ had 28), which meant that the album felt coherent. This is in spite of the abundance of jazz, latin and rock influences that might’ve cluttered the album with styles.

The album is predominantly feelgood, toe-tapping jazz rock. “Do It Again” kicks off the album, giving a 6 minute taster for the rest of the album. Understated yet intricate, there are lots of instruments and sounds to hear, which mould into a well rounded listening experience, aided by superb production that sounds clearer than most modern albums, which would lose the different layers into the mix.

“Reelin’ In The Years” kicks off with a 30 second guitar solo that echoes Jimmy Page, another icon of the early ’70s. Not content with starting the song with a now-legendary solo, the rest of the vocals give way to Elliot Randall’s guitar twice more. Little wonder the song is #40 in Guitar World’s Greatest Solos of All Time. Is there too much showy guitar playing? Probably. It’s annoying when artists try and crowbar unnecessary solos into songs, but here they fit much better than, for example, “Jump” by ‘Van Halen which is a terrible example of knowing what’s required.

Rock music has been missing piano playing for far too long, and this album is strong evidence for having the instrument as an integral part of the setup. If there’s one track that should encourage would-be bands to hire a pianist, it’s ‘Fire In The Hole’. From the intro to the oh-so-impressive solo, Fagen hits the keys with no restraint, knowing exactly what the track deserves.

Still fairly young, the band show wisdom and appreciation for different styles beyond their years, a byproduct of being extensively trained musicians. “Only A Fool Could Say That” is a latin-influenced pop number with added jazzy guitar licks that accompany the vocals sweetly. “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” bounces from style to style with a popping bassline, sustaining the listener’s interest with a fun funk/soul groove.

“Fire In The Hole”‘s outro guitar solo feels underwhelming, as though the track deserves more than to fade to silence. Such is the case for many of the other songs. It’s a small gripe, but songs this good deserve a conclusion. Most tracks have the same feel; quick, inoffensive and catchy but as a whole it falls just short of being totally satisfying. Diversity isn’t something bands often think about on a first album, and this is no different.

Lyrically, the album is as strong as anything else the band has released since. Fagen possesses a great ability to roll off sarcastic and often cynical lines that provide the listener with a greater belief in the characters described, such as the gambling addict from “Do It Again”, “Now you swear and kick and beg us, that you’re not a gamblin’ man, Then you find you’re back in Vegas, with a handle in your hand”. It’s not personal to the writers, but it’s a good story regardless.

The band achieved pop hits with the tracks “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” and although it was 35 years ago, it’s plain to see why. The songs are accessible and poppy, and that seems part of the key as to why Steely Dan are a favourite of so many; they appeal to the mainstream because they play bouncy, cheerful tunes, and to the musos because they are so technically and creatively gifted.

‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ is a must for fans of classic rock, though, one suspects, they’ve probably already got it. Way back, before rock was a minefield of genres and labels, albums like this were what music fans listened to. And it’s timeless, still fresh from 1972.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Can't Buy A Thrill | | Leave a comment