Classic Rock Review

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Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

cantbuyathrillFrom sputnikmusic.com

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

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

cantbuyathrillFrom sputnikmusic.com

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

Steely Dan Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

cantbuyathrillFrom starling rinet.ru

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 | | Leave a comment