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Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1983), Kamakiriad (1993) & Morph The Cat (2006)


There are those who bemoan the apparent lack of sophistication in contemporary pop music, although there are plenty of examples proving that it’s not all about ‘dumbing down’ for the masses. Steely Dan—the rock group that emerged in the 1970s as a collective but ultimately whittled itself down to its two songwriting components, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—has demonstrated it’s possible to write contemporary songs that have commercial appeal but, at the same time, possess the kind of harmonic depth that make them more than simple pop confections of the moment.

Though Becker and Fagen’s pre-Steely Dan stint as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill in Los Angeles was more in line with their aspiration to be professional songwriters (as opposed to performing musicians) a la New York’s The Brill Building, producer Gary Katz’s suggestion that they form a band to record their songs ended up turning them into a group with an identity. Still, after Steely Dan’s tour in support of Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974), the group was disbanded and Steely Dan became a studio-only group, with Becker and Fagen developing a reputation as perfectionists who were prepared, after conducting sessions with a particular line-up, to discard the sessions entirely and start again from scratch.

Subsequent Steely Dan albums, most notably the outstanding triptych of The Royal Scam (MCA, 1976), Aja (MCA, 1977) and Gaucho (MCA, 1980), may have been created from lengthy sessions with a seeming cast of thousands, but what made them so successful and, thirty-plus years on, so enduring, is how they combined sharp lyrics, uncompromisingly sophisticated music that had as much to do with jazz as it did pop, and undeniable groove. One can accuse Becker and Fagen of being perfectionists, and the music certainly sounds flawless; but equally, there’s none of the sterility one might expect from work of such consideration and detail.

The Dan disbanded after Gaucho—though it would reconvene for tours with various line-ups in the 1990s, releasing Alive In America (Giant, 1995) and studio records beginning with the Grammy Award-winning Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000). But in the intervening years between Gaucho and Alive In America, Fagen released two albums under his own name—the critically acclaimed The Nightfly (Warner Bros., 1982) and less well-received but equally superb Kamikiriad (Reprise, 1993). In the midst of revived Dan activity, Fagen released his last album, Morph The Cat (Reprise) in 2006, winning a Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album. While it was well-deserved, it’s a shame the disc was recognized for how good it sounded rather than how good the music was.

While there’s really nothing conceptual to link Fagen’s three solo albums together, there are differentiators that distinguish the music from Steely Dan. The sleek production values are similar and, while Fagen’s pencil could hardly be called anything remotely resembling dull, a defining characteristic of Steely Dan’s lyrics has always been an acerbic and, at times, idiosyncratic wit. Fagen’s lyrics are no less cryptic, but there’s a greater romanticism, even as he continues to demonstrate a unique way of turning a phrase.

But what makes Fagen’s albums not Steely Dan records (despite the participation of Becker on Kamikiriad as producer, bassist/lead guitarist and co-writer of one tune), and ties them together as a small but significant body of work, is an even greater jazz-centricity than found on most Steely Dan albums, making the bringing of the three titles together as The Nightfly Trilogy a logical move.

Those who already own the three albums may wonder what this box set can possibly offer. By making each of the three releases a double-disc set—one disc a traditional CD, the other an MVI (Music Video Interactive) DVD disc with 5.1 surround and uncompressed PCM Stereo mixes, bonus audio and video tracks, complete lyrics and more—plus an added CD with all ten bonus audio tracks from the MVI discs, The Nightfly Trilogy represents the definitive versions of all three discs, plus nearly fifty minutes of additional music including demos, live material and songs found in film soundtracks.

The MVI discs also feature complete liner notes, including newly-written material by Fagen, complete track-by-track musician credits, ringtones, photos, and 192Kbps files that can be downloaded in seconds for use with an MP3 player. In a time where illegal downloads are taking a chunk out of CD sales, with MVI the label is clearly aiming to provide a wealth of features that wouldn’t be available otherwise. The individual discs have no printed liner notes or credits, so the only place to get the information is on the MVI disc. And with portable DVD players becoming more prevalent along with home theater sound systems, the MVI versions of the albums become very attractive. It’s an intriguing approach; only time will tell if it’s one that will draw at least some percentage of the music listening public back to hard media.

The only complaint is that the CD versions of the music (which are clearly the source for the MP3 download format) are not remixed, remastered or even sonically equalized across the box. This means that if you grab the MP3 files and pop them onto your MP3 player, the bonus tracks at the end of each release (three on The Nightfly, four on Kamikiriad and three on Morph The Cat are at significantly different levels, though in order to flow together on the bonus CD, the levels of the extra tracks are normalized. The best approach is to rip the audio files from the bonus CD and have them as a separate album on your MP3 player. There will still be level differences from one disc to the next, but at least there will be consistency within each.

While there are certain markers that date most albums—in particular, production values including how drums are recorded and period-specific synthesizer tones—listening the The Nightfly it becomes clear just how undated the album is, with the same applying to Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat. Fagen’s music, rather than sounding of any particular time, seems to feel comfortable in any post-1970s period, but its especially true of The Nightfly, with its avoidance of the cheesy synthesizer tones that now dates so many 1980s albums.

There are some who believe that the best pop music is played by musicians with a jazz background, and there’s plenty of support for that on The Nightfly. Fagen has always made astute choices, picking some of the best jazz/session players of the time, and there are some remarkable performances here. The line-up includes bassists Anthony Jackson, Abraham Laboriel and Marcus Miller, drummer Jeff Porcaro, a horn section featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker, and guitarists Larry Carlton and Steve Khan. Carlton, by this time, had already established a reputation for concise solos, making only a few bars mean far more than an extended solo ever could. His fills and solos on the bright “Green Flower Street” and “New Frontier,” and the funkier title track, are marvels of economy and construction, as relevant today as they were a quarter century ago.

The Nightfly’s conceptual premise is a look back to the culture—popular and political—of the 1950s, with the title track’s tender look at the importance of radio now especially poignant, given that medium’s decreasing importance in getting new music heard. The lyrics represent a departure for Fagen in terms of content; but the music—while recognizable as coming from the Steely Dan space—is still distanced. “Walk Between Raindrops” swings in a way The Dan never has, “The Goodbye Look” has an unexpected Caribbean vibe, and “Maxine” is a pure jazz ballad, albeit one with a backbeat that features some of Fagen’s most lush vocal arrangements, and a brief but soulful tenor solo from the late Michael Brecker.

The three bonus tracks help complete the picture of 1980s Fagen. “True Companion,” from the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal (1981), is a largely instrumental track that features a terrific performance by Steve Khan on both acoustic and electric guitars. “Century’s End,” from the soundtrack to Bright Lights, Big City (1988), is a piece of greasy funk that features the same synth harmonica that Fagen uses on The Nightfly’s opener, “I.G.Y.” A live version of “Green Flower Street” is taken from Fagen’s New York Rock & Soul Review album, Live At The Beacon (Giant, 1991), and while Fagenâ’s group of the time didn’t have the star power of the musicians who played on the studio version, it proves he had the ability to put together a top notch live band—and that he’d gotten over the aversion to live performance that turned Steely Dan into a studio band for most of its career during the 1970s.

The MVI disc also features videos for “New Frontier” and “Century”s End.”

Kamikiriad also had a concept, this time looking into the near future rather than the near past. The songs revolve around a road trip in Fagen’s new titular car and, while it didn’t get the same critical reception as The Nightfly, time has proven it to have its own unique charms.

With Walter Becker in the producer’s chair, in addition to playing bass and lead guitar, one significant change from The Nightfly is the presence of a core group that, with the exception of the drum chair being shared by Leroy Clouden, Christopher Parker and Dennis McDermott, remains consistent throughout the album’s eight tracks. Another is that the tracks are, on average, longer—none less than five minutes and one, the ballad “On the Dunes,” over eight. Longer solo sections and lengthier fades could be criticized as excessive, but the grooves are so compelling that none of the songs ever overstays its welcome.

Harmonically, Kamikiriad may be even more complex than The Nightfly, with sharper horn and vocal arrangements. While there’s nothing about any Fagen (or Dan) album that could be considered raw, and it’s an exercise in futility to try counting the number of individual tracks used on any song, Fagen’s ability to create arrangements rich in texture but never cluttered is in sharp contrast to others, for whom the infinite possibilities of the studio result in “kitchen sink” albums, where it’s clear that they simply throw ideas at a track, hoping some of them will work.

The Kamikiriad MVI disc features twenty minutes of bonus tracks. “Big Noise New York” is a demo from 1994, originally written for filmmaker Spike Lee. It’s a window into Fagen’s writing process, with only Fagen layering synthesizers, drum programs and vocals. If his demos are this complete, it’s no surprise that finished songs on his albums sound so full. “Confide In Me,” a lively shuffle, is a publishing demo from 1994, but this time with a group of live players who were be part of the Live At The Beacon group—organist Jeff Young, guitarist Drew Zingg, bassist Lincoln Schleiffer and drummer Dennis McDermott. “Blue Lou” is an instrumental written for the film Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), with the Frank Roccisano Orchstra and ace session saxophonist Lou Marini. “Shanghai Confidential,” another instrumental, was written for a dance troupe directed by Marianne Bachmann. A rare occasion where it’s dated by the drum program, it’s still a solid feature for guitarist Steve Khan, with a band that also includes bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Manolo Badrena.

Videos of “Tomorrow”s Girls” and “Snowbound” are included, along with a promotional audio interview with Fagen from 1993, for the release of Kamikiriad.

AAJ has already published a number of reviews of Morph The Cat, but in context of The Nightfly and Kamikiriad, it’s important to note that, like Kamikiriad, it features a consistent core group, this time with keyboardist Ted Baker, guitarists Jon Herrington and Wayne Krantz, bassist Freddie Washington and drummer Keith Carlock. Sonically it’s the best of the three, no surprise given it’s a recent recording, but still, the sound literally leaps out of the speakers. it’s no surprise that it won the Grammy for Best Surround Sound.

The three bonus tracks include an outstanding, groove-heavy version of Al Green”s “Rhymes,” for a planned revue that never materialized with Todd Rundgren as musical collaborator and co-producer. Technologically it demonstrates just how far drum programming has evolved, with a sound so natural and flexible that it’s hard to believe it’s not being played by a live drummer. “Hank”s Pad” is a swinging retake of Henry Mancini”s “Pete”s Pad,” but with added lyrics by Fagen. “Viva Viva Rock “n” Roll” is, not surprisingly, a hard-rocking live track from Fagen’s tour in support of Morph, with an uncharacteristically raw vocal performance from Fagen. A World Café interview with Fagen, promoting the album, is also included.

Assessing Fagen’s three solo albums, the additional album’s worth of bonus material, and his ongoing work with Becker in Steely Dan, there are two lasting impressions. With rare exception, The Nightfly, Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat are all remarkably enduring and fresh; with songs that will continue to sound relevant—and of no particular time—well into the future.

But perhaps most important, these albums, along with the Steely Dan catalogue, represent the craft of songwriting at its best—well-conceived songs with harmonic sophistication and polish far above most pop fare, while not losing sight of a visceral physicality. While there are many fine songwriters at work today, in the realm of popular song there are few writers—with the exception of his partner in Dan, Walter Becker—who embody the spirit and soul of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building as well as Fagen; honoring the tradition while bringing it forward into the 21st Century.

March 27, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Kamakiriad, Donald Fagen Morph The Cat, Donald Fagen The Nightfly | , | Leave a comment

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

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)


When the composing duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—usually known as “Steely Dan”—re-emerged in 2000 after a 20-year absence from recording, it became immediately apparent that there would be no Keeping Up with Joneses. Steely Dan was uninterested in sounding like other bands during their 1970s heyday, and Mssrs. Becker and Fagen are even less interested in being “contemporary” today. They make slick, harmonically sophisticated, sardonic pop music that is deeply informed by jazz and rock but that—ultimately—is its own cul-de-sac in American music.

Morph the Cat is the latest product from the Dan imprint. And though it is a solo album written and produced only by Donald Fagen (The Dan’s singer and co-composer), it is inarguably a Steely Dan album in musical approach. Recorded by the very nearly the same band as Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (particularly, Jon Herrington on guitar, Keith Carlock on drums, Walt Weiskoff on saxophones, and many others), Morph brims with tight but light funk grooves, astonishing harmonic twists going into choruses or bridges, and creepy, funny, mad lyrics that tell stories too dark for most pop music. The guitar and saxophone solos are serpentine and brilliant, and the singing—both Mr. Fagen’s flexible but sneering lead and the gorgeously layered backgrounds—is pitch-lovely.

The question of whether you’ll like this music will be based almost wholly on your gut-level feeling about Steely Dan as a whole. If you’re one of those in-my-DNA Steely Dan-haters (you know who you are: you are under 40, think Steely Dan sounds like smoove jazz with vocals, and find the whole thing contrived and plastic, utterly without soul), then this is a big-time PASS for you. It is slick-o-rific. But for those who love The Dan’s bop-cum-funk mixtures juxtaposed with sick stories, well—you’re in for the usual treat.

Lyrically, Morph the Cat is a logical successor to the first two Donald Fagen solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad. While Nightfly was set nostalgically in the 1950s and ‘60s of Mr. Fagen’s youth, Kamakiriad and Morph are present tense missives from middle-age and late middle-age, respectively. The one significant difference between “Steely Dan” and “Donald Fagen” is the personal cast to the stories Mr. Fagen chooses to tell on his own. This time around, our narrator faces mortality on his home turf of 9/11-shaken New York City. The Old Bastard Death hangs around many of these songs like a bad smell, mixed whenever possible with the usual Dan/Fagen sense of creepy horniness.

Thus, in “Security Joan”, a slippery blues with all manner of harmonic elaboration, the narrator tries to explain to the alluring airport security officer both that “I’m not a terrorist” and that she is more than welcome to confiscate his shoes and perhaps his other clothes too. “The Night Belongs to Mona” describes a “child of the night” who’s become a hermit in her 40th-floor New York apartment, likely because of “the fire downtown / that turned her world around.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Fun” also cloister themselves “inside this house of light”, hiding from “psycho-moms / and dying stars / and dirty bombs”. No doubt, it’s an album of nightmares wrapped in crystalline music—particularly “Brite Nightgown”, a series of three dreams of Donald Fagen’s meetings with the Grim Reaper: a deadly fever, a sucker’s mugging, and an overdose. Fagen dresses this tune in a jumpy vocal that sounds as much like Prince as it does like Steely Dan—a falsetto octave syncopatedly set against the funk.

The title track is about a ghostly feline who floats over the whole city, visiting upscale apartments, playground basketball courts, and even Yankee Stadium, maybe a cousin to the devil who pads about the Russian novel The Master and Margherita cutting deals and promising a reprieve from the hardest thing there is. And Morph offers a few reprieves of its own. The “single” is “H Gang”, a story of a charismatic band that rises and then fades into MTV obscurity—perhaps the opposite of Steely Dan. It bops with fine pop pleasure. Better, though, is “What I Do”, a dastardly clever conversation between the ghost of Ray Charles and a young Donald Fagen seeking romantic tips. “I say, Ray, why do girls treat you nice that way?” Brother Ray replies: “It’s not what I know, what I think or say / It’s what I do.” You won’t find a better description of Ray’s music than this: “Well, you bring some church, but you leave no doubt / As to what kind of love you love to shout about.” This one is also a blues, but a gorgeous catchy blues with tasty stop-time for the piano and guitar.

Despite the craft in this music—no, because of the craft in this music—most younger fans will run from Morph like it carried the very plague. No question, this album sounds uniform and rather overpleasant—engineered to a sheen of perfection by Elliott Scheiner. If that makes baby-boomers nostalgic and cozy, remembering cruising in their 1974 Camero listening to Aja, it’s not really Donald Fagen’s fault. He is still making—unapologetically—some very beautiful and very weird music that comes through the gate like a Trojan Horse and then explodes with disturbing imagery.

Indeed, “Mary Shut the Garden Door” is about that very topic: “They came in under the radar / When our backs were turned around / In a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars / They rolled into our town / Confounded all six senses / Like an opiate in the brain”. Morph the Cat works very much the same way. At first it sounds perhaps too much like Two Against Nature or Gaucho, but it insinuates. The melody of “The Night Belongs to Mona” is unique and sturdy as rock, the intimacy of “What I Do” is as vulnerable and intimate as anything on The Nightfly, and the death-groove of “Brite Nightgown” is sung and played with good nastiness. All this great stuff creeps out of the belly of Morph at midnight. My recommendation: keep your eyes—and ears—open.

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

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)


At the end of 1980’s Gaucho you’ll find Steely Dan’s best song—the slow fade of Johnny, the protagonist of “Third World Man.” The denizen of a prosperous coastal city, hidden in a room which hasn’t seen sunlight in months: enervated, willing himself to die, smothered as layer upon layer of guitar lines, metronomic drumming, and multi-tracked bleating settles over his corpse like silt over a crustacean. Johnny should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas; he’s an outcast, his lot indistinguishable from that of the hundred thousand brown-skinned valets, gardeners, and rough trade taking the bus that morning.

Donald Fagen’s voice—in this instance a smirk so contorted with irony that it has no choice but to revert to empathy—is key here. Burying his cynicism with Johnny, he reconstituted himself on 1982’s The Nightfly as a hip nostalgist, thus demonstrating that a cynic is always a closeted nostalgist. Apparently Fagen gets gooey only on his solo work; his two recent Steely Dan records showcased the jolly lech who snaps at vowels like a turtle at lettuce. On Morph the Cat, only the third album to bear his name, he returns to lavishing a fantasy world with all the supple snap of the considerable arranging and recording prowess at his command; a world in which discrete note upon discrete note unfurls for your audio pleasure until their mephitic fumes lull you into catatonia.

As poses cynicism and romanticism have their uses, especially when smart alecks like Fagen and collaborator Walter Becker chronicle every one of their permutations with the zeal of sadists on the Dan’s middle-period albums (roughly, Pretzel Logic through The Royal Scam). But Morph the Cat is too complacent, too enamored with its own lacquered contours. Fagen isn’t singing about Johnny anymore: he’s become Johnny, saved by a helpful skim through The Power of Now, he and his new girlfriend safe in their Great Pagoda of Funn, where, he says, “we make up our own storyline.” At least the duet between the muted trumpet and melancholy saxophones in that pagoda song evinces attrition of a kind; that house of light in which Fagen and his companion are interred must have wild parties on the upper floors.

Morph the Cat maintains the determined stasis of an Eno ambient, its pulse as unacquainted with hypertension as a masseuse’s. It’s some kind of achievement to record the most inert dialogue-with-Brother-Ray ever recorded (“What I Do”); didn’t Fagen remember that Pepsi commercial from the early ‘90s? The clean, disgusting funk of “Brite Nitegown” deserves special praise too. “Security Joan” summons some of the old “Hey Nineteen” lubriciousness. The spectre of Johnny darkens the chorus glissandos of “The Night Belongs To Mona,” until it engulfs the rest of the record.

Hating Fagen’s album means it actually bestirred passion. Listening to the eighteenth electric piano run and those fucking drums pitter-pattering like Moe Tucker supporting Spyro Gyra dulled my nerves. Morph the Cat is the ideal answer record to people like my buddy Jose, who upon hearing the first minute of “Kid Charlemagne” in his car snarled, “What is this dentist-office bullshit?” He’s right. Steely Dan circa 1980 is perfect dentist-office bullshit. The cheerful receptionist whistling “Hey Nineteen” just before she ushers you in for your root canal plays right into the dentist’s hands: you’ll think twice about not flossing before returning anytime soon. Glistening and immobile, Morph the Cat reveals that Johnny was the dentist after all, and what he thought in 1980 was crippling ennui was merely sunstroke. Air conditioning rocks.

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

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)


When Steely Dan debuted in 1972, it was one of dozens of slicked-up boogie bands playing an eclectic mix of roots-rock, jazz-fusion, and pop-R&B. Later, co-founder Donald Fagen began focusing more on the fusion, such that he’s now narrowed his sound to a single synthetic funk groove with jazzy overtones.

The Fagen of the ’00s doesn’t seem capable of easy-flowing pop songs like “Reelin’ In The Years” or “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” or even a light-rock confection like “I.G.Y.” On Morph The Cat, his latest solo album, Fagen limits himself to popping bass and hanging brass, obsessively building and rebuilding the sound he’d most like to live in.

Which doesn’t make Morph The Cat a bad album. If anything, there’s something weirdly compelling about hearing Fagen settle into this particular rut, especially on a set of songs about growing old in an age of terror. Throughout Morph The Cat, Fagen recalls his days as a young lothario—on the album’s best song, “What I Do,” he even chats with Ray Charles about music’s power to seduce—and he takes selfish pleasure in society’s decline, because even though he can’t tomcat around like he used to, soon nobody else will be able to, either.

Longtime Steely Dan fans might be frustrated by Morph The Cat’s lack of musical diversity, or might pick through it for standout touches like the hard-rock guitar stings on “What I Do,” or the long wah-wah guitar solo on “Brite Nitegown.” But Morph The Cat is primarily a sublime act of self-indulgence on Fagen’s part. The album’s horn-and-harmonica accents sound nice, but they’re only there because it’s what Fagen would like to hear in his—and the world’s—final hours.

The record ends with a succession of paeans to security people, the suicidal, and “lovers with something left to lose,” all of whom intrigue Fagen because they care more than he can manage.

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