Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)


Obviously, Steely Dan didn’t like the perspective of becoming an underground band – huge commercial success was a CRUCIAL plan of their musical career, you know. Without huge commercial success, how could Mr Becker and Mr Fagen really carry out their design to make utter dunces of the general American record buying/coke snorting/Playboy posing/life enjoying public? Thus, even if their musical instincts were drawing them towards the drawn-out lengthy jazzy jam thing, they had to compromise this time, and release an album of short three-minute songs – none of the eleven numbers on Pretzel Logic run over four.

Furthermore, by now they have learned to hide their sarcastic lyrical message even deeper than before; no more blunt lines like ‘don’t give a fuck about anybody else’ this time, in fact, without an accompanying annotated lyrics sheet you’ll have a really hard time trying to guess what lies under the surface. I mean, if the rumours about the title track being an anti-totalitarian swipe (pretzel = swastika) are true, this easily explains lines like ‘I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time’; however, without that hint you’ll never even begin decoding the message in the right direction.

Thank God this is one of those – rare – Steely albums that could easily survive on musical merit alone. It’s probably their most diverse effort, both due to the larger number of the songs and, I guess, the very wish to make it diverse. There’s pop, R’n’B, blues, jazz, even hard rock (‘Monkey In Your Soul’), and although the Steely Dan production formula kinda neutralizes the differences between styles, it’s still very much listenable throughout without getting the impression that they’re the kind of guys who never went further than the first twenty pages of whatever musical handbook they’re using.

It’s telling that the record’s biggest number, “monster” hit single and pretty much the song that is most associated with Steely Dan, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, can be regarded as one of the consciously worst on the album, with a liquidy-liquidy soft-rock melody, uninteresting lyrics and pretty much all the ‘hook power’ included in the vocal line that leads from the verse to the chorus (‘but if you have a change of hea-aart!…’).

There’s also the famous four-note piano riff, of course, but it sounds so consciously stupid and primitive I can’t get rid of the feeling that Steely Dan were just pandering towards the lowest common denominator of the epoch for that song. Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy the song as part of the ‘general strategy line’ of the band, but I guess if I had to make my introduction to the band based on that song, I’d probably hate the Danners forever, just as so many general radio listeners do.

However, just bypass ‘Rikki’ and you’ll find out that the album consists almost entirely of winners. ‘Night By Night’ gives us the first taste of Steely Dan the funk outfit – I have a feeling they took a few hints from Stevie Wonder and his ‘Superstition’-style use of synths, so just listen to the chugga-chugga of that line and to the cold mechanical preciseness of the brass section and get in the groove. ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ is a rare moment of consolation and optimism in the Dan catalog, another radio-ready classic but somewhat more valid than ‘Rikki’, with that wonderful riff linking the chorus back to the verses and stuff. (Trivia question: what’s the exclusive link between the song and post-Gabriel Genesis? Ready, steady, go!).

There’s also ‘Barrytown’, a shameless “triple rip-off” of the Byrds/Beatles/Dylan (doesn’t anybody else recognize ‘If I Needed Someone’ in the verses, not to mention typical Bobster’s Blonde On Blonde vocal intonations?) which nevertheless comes ’round as expressive, catchy and well-recorded. Some single it out as the true highlight of the album, but that would be just a little too directly derivative for me – besides, we don’t single out ‘If I Needed Someone’ as the best song on Rubber Soul, do we? – and that honour I’d rather give to the album’s instrumental composition, the cover of Duke Ellington’s ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, jazz done as has never been heard previously and a really rare experimental moment in Steely’s generally non-experimental approach.

The substitute of a talking-box enhanced guitar instead of a sax is nothing short of genius, and the short guitar/synth/piano/brass solos that interchange with each other makes up for some really inspired listening – the tune never really threatens to become boring, in fact, it’s rather short for me, I’d say.

On the contrary, ‘Parker’s Band’ has hardly anything to do with Charlie Parker, but its rocking rave-up and catchy chorus more than make up for it. It is then rapidly followed by ‘Through With Buzz’ (more memorable pop hooks, this time with a bunch of strings in the background, but they’re all right), the title track (enhanced standard blues number, the kind of which would be later improved on with ‘Black Friday’, but still effective), the folksy ‘With A Gun’ (great acoustic rhythm track, furious delivery), the music-hallish ‘Charlie Freak’ (minor song with a prominent piano line that makes it distinguishable), and the bass-heavy ‘Monkey In Your Soul’, with a lot of fuzz put on the four-string to make a Led Zeppelin impression or something.

None of these songs will shake your booty to its foundation, but the more you listen to them, the more they actually get impressed inside yourself. You know that feeling, when a particular song doesn’t seem to logically possess any unique hook, but you can remember how it goes even after several years of not listening to it? That’s the case.

So the album gets the 10 from me, ripping it from Countdown To Ecstasy after a long battle… I’ll play the easy-goin’ guy here, but really, in case you’re not aware, I’ve heard EVERY single Steely Dan album ever released, apart from Two Against Nature, being hailed as their best by at least one or two listeners (yes, even Gaucho), so take this particular 10 with a grain of salt. It’s just the most commercial album of Steely’s ever – after they solidified their reputation among the general public with that one, they obviously found it easier to follow a less compromised path.

April 15, 2013 - Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic |

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