Classic Rock Review

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Steely Dan Katy Lied (1975)


If there is such a thing as a consensus amongst hard core Steely Dan fans as to the Dan’s best effort, almost everyone – including the general population that made it their biggest selling platter – would concede the crown to Aja. Seven tracks of perfection, each brilliantly orchestrated and executed by a cast of musician’s musicians. The lyrics were “languid and bittersweet” and if you didn’t like ‘em then “drink your big black cow and get out of here.”

Much to admire here. – Purdie’s shuffle, Graydon’s Peg solo, McDonald’s one word background vocals, and Steve Gadd’s greatest moment ever as a studio drummer. If you can get past the stock footage, Classic Albums gives the full story on this great collection of songs in rich detail with snarky comments by Becker and Fagen themselves.

Then there is Katy Lied. That sweet beauty of an album with the insect on the cover. Cameron Crowe writing in Rolling Stone said it best describing Dan’s fourth album as “Anonymous, absolutely impeccable swing-pop. No cheap displays of human emotion.”

Amongst the Dan illuminati, well-documented DBX problems aside, Lied may be their finest effort. Katy was the harbinger of what was to come with Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho. Great songs in a variety of tempos and feels, strategic placement of the perfect session people, and the emergence of Walter Becker on Black Friday and Bad Sneakers, as a lead guitarist of peer with the greats that came before him (Randall, Dias, and Baxter).

There is just so much to this album.

Nineteen year old not-yet-legendary drummer Jeff Porcaro provides a clinic in setting a rhythmic foundation though a number of styles. Jeff swings through odd time signatures in Gold Teeth, unveils his soon-to-be-signature shuffle on Black Friday, does his best Jim Gordon on Chain Lightning, and adds John Guerin flourishes on the fade out of Dr. Wu. Anyone wondering why Mr. Groove is remembered with such awe can see why on Katy Lied. It wasn’t until the new millennium that Becker and Fagin would again rely so much on just one drummer.

There is also the restrained and always-perfect melodic flourish supplied by future Grammy winner Michael Omartian on piano. He is all over that record, always complimenting the song, never drawing attention to himself or his instrument – just like he did on Rikki Don’t loose that number. His contribution to the overall tone of Katy cannot be overstated. His playing is beautiful.

Nor can contributions of guitarist Dean Parks be overlooked. Listen to Rose Darling, and pay attention to his passing tones. He swings, keeps the song harmonically centered, and manages to provide a tasty solo as well. It’s understated, and brilliant at the same time. This is why Park’s resume has literally thousands of gigs. His support is all over that record – yet Parks is often overlooked by fans in favor or the flashier axemen on Lied. Scream “Injustice!” as you go back and listen to the guitar in the background throughout the album.

Hang on Sloopy’s Rick Derringer provides a jaw dropping blues solo on Chain Lighting begging the question, “Rock and Roll and Hochie Koo? Same Guy?” Elliot Randall saves the weakest song, Throw Back the Little Ones, with his solo. Denny Dias bebops his way through an impressive bridge of changes, all with swing and melody, on Gold Teeth part 2. Walter Becker simply astonishes us all with the range showed on the Blues based shredding on Black Friday (what a tone!), and the lyrical every-note-counts break on Bad Sneakers. We also see the first appearance of soon-to-be critical (think 5th Beatle) Larry Carlton who lays down some Crusaders scratch and funk on Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More. People like to call Royal Scam “the guitar album.” Not so sure about that, this album is full of great guitar.

I wish I were done. But like an ad from the late Billy Mays, “wait, there’s still more!”

Unknown-at-the-time Michael McDonald makes his first appearance on vinyl, providing his distinctive backup vocals that would become ubiquitous 10 years hence. His remarkable multi-tracked in-tune-with-himself work on Bad Sneakers, Black Friday, and Any World that I’m Welcome is still amazing. This was a very talented find for the Dan, and “Rick Jarred Productions” whoever the heck they were. I suppose someone profiled in the book Hit Men. Still wonder why that had to be included in the credits.

The worlds most recorded drummer, Hal Blaine, sits in on Any World that I’m Welcome to and shows how rim taps are done and concludes with a tour of his toms on the fade out. Chuck Rainey is also on board, although I suppose the bass mix might be a frustration from the DBX, it is hard to hear. Check out the bass on Black Friday, if you can, it’s amazing.

Fagen sounds great in all his double tracked glory. He proves once again to be perhaps the only person who can deliver the Dan’s very peculiar lyrics (are you crazy, are you high, or just an ordinary guy?) which are everywhere on the record. So is the humor (I’ll bet she’s in Detroit with lots of money in the bank, although I could be wrong) and so is that most frustrating of Dan adjectives, irony (everyone’s gone to the movies, now we’re alone at last). It’s all there, in very tight, mostly under four minute packages.

So are the weirdest liner notes I have ever read. An inside joke to which no one but Becker, Fagen, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols understand and get. Payback for the DBX problems I guess. When you make a record as good as this one, you are entitled.

While this 1975 release went Gold, it had no singles that charted higher than #37 and was destined to become what it is today: the hidden gem of Steely Dan.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Katy Lied | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Katy Lied (1975)


This is my favorite Steely Dan album. This is a collection of immaculately-written, immaculately-performed, stinging, satirical, sarcastic compositions. There really aren’t enough stars in the world to describe how I PERSONALLY feel about this record, a mainstay in my Top 5.

“Black Friday” is a blistering bit of almost-social commentary, featuring great guitar workouts from Walter Becker; “Bad Sneakers” is a tasty pop tune with a mourning and pensive solo by, I believe, Larry Carlton, “Rose Darling” is about hiding an affair and it rules, “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” is a nasty number whose intentions are as impure as any the Dan ever concocted, “Dr. Wu” is one of those songs to journey off on a country road to and is, to me, the funnest song in their entire catalog to interpret.

My own judgment tells me the protagonist has gone to a psychologist, Dr. Wu, to examine his relationship with Katy. Rather than helping the patient, Wu absconds off somewhere with Katy and leaves the protagonist to contemplate his relationship with both parties.

The second side of the album is just a bit weaker. “Your Gold Teeth II” and the Caribbean-tinged jangly “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” are by no means bad songs, but they don’t hold up to the quality of the rest of the album. “Chain Lightning” is a groovy blues number, but the album thankfully closes as strong as it began with the album’s strongest and most personally-identifiable hook in “Any World That I’m Welcome To” and the brilliant “Throw Back the Little Ones”, one of those songs whose lyrics are fun for their own sake. You’d probably be disappointed if you found out what they’re actually supposed to mean, if they’re actually supposed to mean anything.

A great, great album. George Starostin described it as “A dangerous, yet strangely peaceful record – then again, be warned, as ‘peaceful’ often alternates with ‘boring’.” I don’t much agree with him after the hyphen, but the first part of it hits the nail right about on the head. The album is dangerous, perhaps their most dangerous, in fact, and Steely Dan have always been a slightly dangerous band.

This aspect of them is lost on many people, but they can really say some unnerving things if you’re bothering to listen closely, and nowhere is that side of Dan more prominent than on Katy Lied.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Katy Lied | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Katy Lied (1975)


Katy Lied is often hailed as a turning point in Steely Dan’s career, a moment when the band decided it finally had enough with ‘rock’ (not that the band was very much ‘rock’ in the first place) and veered off in the direction of a more jazz-poppy audience-friendly sound. It’s also the first record where ‘Steely Dan’ as such finally became an undisputable duo: just Donald Fagen and Walter Becker working together in the studio with tons of other session musicians, some of them past full-fledged band members, some not. They also weren’t touring at all at this point, and it’s easy to see why: this sort of music is really unfit for live playing, much more so than Can’t Buy A Thrill at least.

I’m not such a great fan of the notorious ‘trademark Dan arrangements’ of their second, session-musician dominated period, as many people seem to be: I consider all of these songs very tastefully arranged, but there’s hardly anything truly phenomenal here. If anything, one should emphasize exactly this fact: Katy Lied is a very ‘non-outstanding’ record (though certainly more ‘outstanding’ than, say, Aja, which runs along so smoothly I feel like skating on polished ice), yet it is also not pretentious and totally adequate.

Despite all the taste and smoothness, though, I didn’t feel like loving all of this record at first. The funny thing is, out of ten songs on here, I quite enjoyed the first five.. and used to quite despise the last five. Well, not ‘despise’. To a certain extent, they’re simply unmemorable. A few of these make the fatal mistake of getting on by lyrics alone, and that’s never the sign of true Dan genius. Yeah, whatever, I’m quite shocked (in the artistically-correct sense of the word) by the subject matter of ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Movies’, where a pervert waits for a child’s parents to go away and then proceeds to feed him with porno flicks; but as far as my limited musical competence is concerned, the song has no melody at all, and the stupid, vibes-driven refrain sounds like some demented dated doo-wop chanting.

Likewise, I suppose that many a broken-hearted intelligent person will happily identify himself with the protagonist in ‘Any World (I’m Welcome To)’, a song that has what might be passed for the most pessimistic refrain of all time; but the melody is routine, undistinguished lounge jazz – unmemorable, diluted piano chords with hardly any structure or serious rhythmic pattern. Now this is the kind of stuff you’ll never meet on a Bob Dylan record…

Mind you – none of these songs are nasty. After a couple hundred listens, one even starts to appreciate cute little snatches like the gentle-but-perverse refrain of ‘Throw Back The Little Ones’ or the relaxed organ of ‘Chain Lightning’ (possibly the best number on the second side, but still too soapy for me because the melody is way too primitive and the harmonies are way too unimpressive… and unexpressive, too). In a certain sense, the second side can even be extremely rewarding, as it’s the more “musically-oriented” side, with Steely trying their hand at funk and fusion and, well, all the stuff that places them in the category that I chose for them out of near-random principle. (So sue me!).

And yet don’t go away, because now I’m gonna blabber a bit about the first five songs. The best composition on here is the one that opens the album, and it’s a good thing, because this was my first Steely Dan record and you know how much depends on your first impression… ‘Black Friday’ is the hardest song on the album: a ferocious (well, ‘ferocious’ in the SD sense – no Jimi Hendrix poking around, that’s understood) blues workout, where the usually hard-hitting lyrics are ideally complemented by a brilliant guitar part and a wonderful vocal arrangement – the echoey effect on Mr Fagen’s voice was a brilliant idea, and it makes the song all the more spooky-spooky. Not that I really understand what the hell the dude is singing about; in any case, lines like “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor” sound much better when they’re echoed around the room, don’t they?

Then there’s the humbly gorgeous ‘Bad Sneakers’, a steady, solid piano ballad with… hey, you will not believe it – with a real hook. Yeah, I mean that little tricky time signature change when they sing ‘bad sneakers and a Pina Colada my friend’ – it drew my attention immediately and made me realize what a great song this is in its entirety. Good work. The guitar solos are nice, too, and Donald sounds uncannily like Dylan. Quite catchy. He also sounds very Dylanish on ‘Rose Darling’, a weird, but charming ballad where the protagonist invites his… err…. partner to… err… well.

Apparently, his wife which he lovingly calls ‘snake Mary’ is in another town and moreover she’s gone to bed, so there’s really nothing to worry about. But again, it’s not the lyrics that attract me, it might be those fully convincing vocals and the fluent guitar lines and the powerful piano chords in the refrain and… mmm, it’s very hard to discuss Steely Dan songs, they’re all so alike and yet all so different you have to choose your words very carefully.

Although it’s not too difficult to discuss the stunning blues ‘Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More’. The song’s built on an addictive guitar riff, and, again, the vocals sound so powerful and desperate you can’t help singing along. And then, of course, there’s ‘Doctor Wu’. This works as the magnum opus of the album, almost like a mini-conceptual-rock-opera in its own rights, and while I don’t find the melody as powerful as on the previous four songs, I simply won’t say anything bad about it. For trivia, there’s a very nice sax solo by Phil Woods on it which is well worth hearing.

In all, I fully agree with those who rate Katy Lied as a ‘transitional’ album: it’s almost as if they started out as a ‘rock band’ (‘Black Friday’), metamorphosed into a jazz band halfway through the album (‘Doctor Wu’) and fuzzed out into a mellow jazz-pop combo towards the end. The process is not a very pleasant one, at least, in my humble opinion; then again, the mellowed-out dudes might wanna reverse my judgements in exactly the opposite order. All the world is made of freaks, after all: it’s just that there are quite a few ways of freaking out.

March 24, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Katy Lied | | Leave a comment