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Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstacy (1973)

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Well, seems like I have no choice but to go with the popular opinion that this is Steely Dan’s best album. Ah, so long, my dreams of developing a snobby indie conscience… Then again, NO. I’ll downgrade my indie conscience even lower and award that title to Pretzel Logic, because that one has more great songs. But really, it seems that this time around everything, just about everything seems to work fine for the Dan. About the only flaw one could find is that there are few songs – only eight of them – but seeing as they turn out to be, on average, more memorable than the eleven short numbers of Pretzel Logic, that can as well be an advantage. The song lengths are growing as the boys make an even huger emphasis on the instrumental side of the business, but then again, the lyrical sophistication grows with absolutely equal speed, which means you get wittier solos, and wittier and far more obscure word images.

In fact, they almost overdo the trick; not too surprisingly, this is Steely’s least commercial album, at least in terms of chart popularity: after the hooky-hooky-hoo promise of Can’t Buy A Thrill, the public were a bit disappointed with the complexity of Ecstasy, not to mention that selecting ‘Show Biz Kids’ as the main single was an unwise decision – due to the extremely controversial and, for once, pretty obvious message of the song (“show biz kids making movies of themselves you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else”), it only got restrained airplay and therefore never got far enough sales-wise. It didn’t even help that the song itself is glorious, with a masterful slide riff supporting it (guest star Rick Derringer, not just anybody!) and Fagen’s quasi-rapped lyrics almost the equivalent of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ to some extent, easily the most aggressive and let-down-your-hair moment in the Steely catalog. The endless repeated groove might get on your nerves, of course, but some songs are made for endless repeated grooves – particularly those songs which actually build upon that groove and don’t take it as an absolute value in itself.

But there’s just too many positive factors without it as well. Palmer is out of the band, and the only song on which I somewhat miss his absence is the gentle ballad ‘Pearl Of The Quarter’, which Fagen tries to do Palmer-style (i. e. with softer notes in his voice and actually trying to draaaaaaaaw out his vowels), but even so, the song works on some level, especially when you get to the end and find out that the gal in question ‘loved the million dollar words I say, she loved the candy and flowers that I bought her, she said she loved me and was on her way’… Voulez voulez voulez vous? Bring on the beignets! Oh, well, supposedly it’s just about a French Quarter prostitute or something like that.

Steely Dan are still a band at this point, though, and their guitarists are occasionally working wonders, especially on songs where Steely Dan decide to strip some of the sections from vocals and dedicate them to masterful jamming. Like ‘Bodhisattva’, for instance. That song is mainly an excuse for jamming – I don’t think that Becker and Fagen were really that keen on the world knowing their suddenly-found Far East fetish, whether it be serious or just an object of mocking – but what jamming it is, with excellent, fast, fluent and actually emotionally captivating guitar and piano solos, or those nifty call-and-response passages between the guitar and the keyboards. Pay attention to the mighty be-boppy guitar solo around the fourth minute, if you please, that one really brings the house down.

The good news is that the jams never duplicate themselves. For instance, ‘The Boston Rag’ eventually involves into a bluesy rave-up with heavy, gruffly distorted guitar riffs alternating with Zappaesque technically perfect solos. ‘Your Gold Teeth’, on the other hand, is quiet blues with a lengthy electric piano showcase from Fagen, not unlike the one you’d hear on ‘Riders On The Storm’, while Jeff Baxter comes to the forefront with somewhat muffled, but still effective Santanaesque leads. And don’t forget that both tunes work as tunes as well – not to mention that choruses like ‘do you throw out your gold teeth, do you see how they roll’ will have you thinking for hours about what it is the Danners are trying to say. The creepy thing to realize is that the songs don’t really feel disconnected – I mean, the jams kinda naturally evolve as normal continuations of the songs themselves. The gloomy “depressed nostalgia” of ‘Boston Rag’ correlates perfectly to the heavy guitar sounds, and the somewhat more relaxed and detached sarcasm of ‘Gold Teeth’ obviously conforms to the moody piano. The perfect vibe.

It’s not like this is such a radical transition to a new style, of course, because at the core you’ll still be finding the same basic pop structures you had last time around. Is the drug-bust incident dedicated ‘My Old School’ all that different from ‘Change Of The Guard’, for instance? Hardly. Is ‘Razor Boy’ in a totally different paradigm from ‘Midnite Cruiser’? Don’t think so. On the other hand, the album closer, ‘King Of The World’, pretty much sounds like an obscure Derek & The Dominos relict crossed with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, if you can imagine something like that. So I’d just like to point out that Steely Dan are a band that requires really serious, really keen listening in order for you to capture all those little evolutionary details. Oh, and note that there are EIGHT session players on here already, even if four of them are only playing saxes on ‘My Old School’.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstacy | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstacy (1973)

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No sophomore slump here, though this album wasn’t nearly as commercially successful as its predecessor, in large part because the album lacked any hit singles, though for my money “My Old School” is the best thing that these guys ever did. It sports some perky piano, choice horns, and several jaw dropping guitar solos from “Skunk” Baxter alongside a campy chorus that chugs along for six glorious minutes.

Most of the other songs here are longer, too, as the band extends their swinging grooves on tracks such as the largely instrumental “Your Gold Teeth.” Meanwhile, “Bodhisattva” and “Show Biz Kids” each sport repetitive mantras that are more than redeemed by the dazzlingly sophisticated virtuosity of their instrumental passages.

The former song also showcases the band’s sense of humor, while the latter is a sarcastic putdown of the L.A. lifestyle. Meanwhile, “Razor Boy” and “Pearl of the Quarter” effectively show off the band’s mellower side, proving that they could convey straightforward ballads effectively if the mood so moved them.

The intense “The Boston Rag” (which, in a typical Steely Dan wink of the eye manner, takes place in New York) is another album highlight, while the jazzy but rocking “King of the World” closes things out with an unforgettable synthesizer melody. Overall, Countdown To Ecstasy contains consistently inventive songwriting and inspired performances by the 21 musicians credited, and Fagen’s soothing voice has settled in nicely as being a signature part of their sound.

The end result is an exceptional second effort that expands upon their excellent debut.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstacy | | Leave a comment