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.
Im hoping you guys know what I am talking about when I bring traffic camera channels up. In case you’re somehow oblivious to the outside world, or are a 40 year old virgin playing World of Warcraft in your mom’s basement, they’re those channels where there’s hidden cameras documenting traffic, while cheesy and dull jazz funk music plays in the background. And it’s been, I dunno, 9 years since this album came out, and I’m shocked I’m not hearing it on my local traffic cam channel, as it wouldn’t be out of place there.
Which is sad. Considering Steely Dan made quite the name for themselves back in the seventies, with their own fusion of Jazz, funk, and R&B, you’d think that they wouldn’t stoop this low. Upon the second track’s arrival, titled “The Things I Miss the Most”, you’d think that by the second track the album would have progressed somewhere. Sadly it sounds like the other eight songs on the album, and it’s just tediuous.
Let’s wind the clocks a bit back to 2000. Their first album after a 20 year hiatus, Two Against Nature gets released. This is some big stuff. It’s one of their best albums since Aja. It fuses their old style with a more, newer, trendier jazz funk sounds. The eponymous track in particular has an insanely jazzy baseline and one of the catchiest vocal melodies and choruses in their career. Then in 2003, this gets released. Part of me thinks this album was either a) a label pressured album or b) they got a little too carried away with the newer, funkier style. Whatever it is, the result sure isn’t good.
True, the band’s attempts at black humor are still there. And boy, do they try with this one. “Blues Beach” is a happy song about gang violence and child prostitution, and you’d expect there to be some subtlety there, but in reality, it’s as subtle as bricks in a drying machine. “The Last Mall” is a song bout the apocalypse, and the lyrics are just boring.
Without a doubt the worst song EVER made by Steely Dan is on this disc too: “Slang of Ages”. Dear lord, what a terrible song. Walter Becker tries a hand at spoken word and it’s quite… um, embarrassing. To think that this came from the same people who made “Pretzel Logic” or “Kid Charlemagne” is just astounding. The bassline is uninspiring and that chorus has one of the most annoying vocal melodies I’ve ever heard. But the spoken word is not helped by those godawful lyrics and Becker sounding like a creepy old man lecherously pining after young girls.
Fortunately there’s some redemption here, in the form of two songs: “Green Book” is an amazingly catchy tune with a jazzy baseline and some cool lyrics. It does have that traffic-cam channel music sound to it, but it’s listenable and it’s something that I’d very well feature one best of compilation. And the eponymous track. If the band had to end their career with that song, that would be a wise choice. The clever satire of the lyrics and the overall bittersweet feel of the tune definitely make the song sound like a grand finale tune, and it does leave you with a lingering melancholy feeling.
While those tracks are indeed worth the wading through boring drones like “Godwhacker” or “Pixeleen” (whoever names their kid that should kill themselves), they’re too far and between. So in this day and age of MP3 technology, I’d gladly rip the mentioned tracks to put onto my iPod and happily sell my copy to the traffic cam channel, where boring crap like this truly belongs.