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Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)


Obviously, Steely Dan didn’t like the perspective of becoming an underground band – huge commercial success was a CRUCIAL plan of their musical career, you know. Without huge commercial success, how could Mr Becker and Mr Fagen really carry out their design to make utter dunces of the general American record buying/coke snorting/Playboy posing/life enjoying public? Thus, even if their musical instincts were drawing them towards the drawn-out lengthy jazzy jam thing, they had to compromise this time, and release an album of short three-minute songs – none of the eleven numbers on Pretzel Logic run over four.

Furthermore, by now they have learned to hide their sarcastic lyrical message even deeper than before; no more blunt lines like ‘don’t give a fuck about anybody else’ this time, in fact, without an accompanying annotated lyrics sheet you’ll have a really hard time trying to guess what lies under the surface. I mean, if the rumours about the title track being an anti-totalitarian swipe (pretzel = swastika) are true, this easily explains lines like ‘I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time’; however, without that hint you’ll never even begin decoding the message in the right direction.

Thank God this is one of those – rare – Steely albums that could easily survive on musical merit alone. It’s probably their most diverse effort, both due to the larger number of the songs and, I guess, the very wish to make it diverse. There’s pop, R’n’B, blues, jazz, even hard rock (‘Monkey In Your Soul’), and although the Steely Dan production formula kinda neutralizes the differences between styles, it’s still very much listenable throughout without getting the impression that they’re the kind of guys who never went further than the first twenty pages of whatever musical handbook they’re using.

It’s telling that the record’s biggest number, “monster” hit single and pretty much the song that is most associated with Steely Dan, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, can be regarded as one of the consciously worst on the album, with a liquidy-liquidy soft-rock melody, uninteresting lyrics and pretty much all the ‘hook power’ included in the vocal line that leads from the verse to the chorus (‘but if you have a change of hea-aart!…’).

There’s also the famous four-note piano riff, of course, but it sounds so consciously stupid and primitive I can’t get rid of the feeling that Steely Dan were just pandering towards the lowest common denominator of the epoch for that song. Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy the song as part of the ‘general strategy line’ of the band, but I guess if I had to make my introduction to the band based on that song, I’d probably hate the Danners forever, just as so many general radio listeners do.

However, just bypass ‘Rikki’ and you’ll find out that the album consists almost entirely of winners. ‘Night By Night’ gives us the first taste of Steely Dan the funk outfit – I have a feeling they took a few hints from Stevie Wonder and his ‘Superstition’-style use of synths, so just listen to the chugga-chugga of that line and to the cold mechanical preciseness of the brass section and get in the groove. ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ is a rare moment of consolation and optimism in the Dan catalog, another radio-ready classic but somewhat more valid than ‘Rikki’, with that wonderful riff linking the chorus back to the verses and stuff. (Trivia question: what’s the exclusive link between the song and post-Gabriel Genesis? Ready, steady, go!).

There’s also ‘Barrytown’, a shameless “triple rip-off” of the Byrds/Beatles/Dylan (doesn’t anybody else recognize ‘If I Needed Someone’ in the verses, not to mention typical Bobster’s Blonde On Blonde vocal intonations?) which nevertheless comes ’round as expressive, catchy and well-recorded. Some single it out as the true highlight of the album, but that would be just a little too directly derivative for me – besides, we don’t single out ‘If I Needed Someone’ as the best song on Rubber Soul, do we? – and that honour I’d rather give to the album’s instrumental composition, the cover of Duke Ellington’s ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’, jazz done as has never been heard previously and a really rare experimental moment in Steely’s generally non-experimental approach.

The substitute of a talking-box enhanced guitar instead of a sax is nothing short of genius, and the short guitar/synth/piano/brass solos that interchange with each other makes up for some really inspired listening – the tune never really threatens to become boring, in fact, it’s rather short for me, I’d say.

On the contrary, ‘Parker’s Band’ has hardly anything to do with Charlie Parker, but its rocking rave-up and catchy chorus more than make up for it. It is then rapidly followed by ‘Through With Buzz’ (more memorable pop hooks, this time with a bunch of strings in the background, but they’re all right), the title track (enhanced standard blues number, the kind of which would be later improved on with ‘Black Friday’, but still effective), the folksy ‘With A Gun’ (great acoustic rhythm track, furious delivery), the music-hallish ‘Charlie Freak’ (minor song with a prominent piano line that makes it distinguishable), and the bass-heavy ‘Monkey In Your Soul’, with a lot of fuzz put on the four-string to make a Led Zeppelin impression or something.

None of these songs will shake your booty to its foundation, but the more you listen to them, the more they actually get impressed inside yourself. You know that feeling, when a particular song doesn’t seem to logically possess any unique hook, but you can remember how it goes even after several years of not listening to it? That’s the case.

So the album gets the 10 from me, ripping it from Countdown To Ecstasy after a long battle… I’ll play the easy-goin’ guy here, but really, in case you’re not aware, I’ve heard EVERY single Steely Dan album ever released, apart from Two Against Nature, being hailed as their best by at least one or two listeners (yes, even Gaucho), so take this particular 10 with a grain of salt. It’s just the most commercial album of Steely’s ever – after they solidified their reputation among the general public with that one, they obviously found it easier to follow a less compromised path.

April 15, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)

steely_dan_pretzel_logic_lgFrom Rolling Stone

Steely Dan is the most improbable hit-singles band to emerge in ages. On its three albums, the group has developed an impressionistic approach to rock & roll that all but abandons many musical conventions and literal lyrics for an unpredictable, free-roving style. While the group considered the first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, a compromise for the sake of accessibility, and the second, Countdown To Ecstasy, to emphasize extended instrumental work, the new Pretzel Logic is an attempt to make complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format.

Like the earlier LPs, Pretzel Logic makes its own kind of sense: On a typical track, rhythmic patterns that might have worked for Astrud Gilberto, elegant pop piano, double lead guitars, and nasal harmony voices singing obscure phrases converge into a coherent expression. When the band doesn’t undulate to samba rhythms (as it did on ‘Do It Again’, its first Top Ten single), it pushes itself to a full gallop (as it did on ‘Reelin’ in the Years’, its second). These two rhythmic preferences persist and sometimes intermingle, as on ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, which jumps in mid-chorus from ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ into ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Great transition.

Steely Dan’s five musicians seem to play single-mindedly, like freelancers, but each is actually contributing to a wonderfully fluid ensemble sound that has no obvious antecedent in pop. These five are so imaginative that their mistakes generally result from too much clever detail. This band is never conventional, never bland.

And neither is its material. Despite the almost arrogant impenetrability of the lyrics (co-written by the group’s songwriting team, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker), the words create an emotionally charged atmosphere, and the best are quite affecting. While it’s disconcerting to be stirred by language that resists comprehension, it’s still difficult not to admire the open-ended ambiguity of the lyrics.

But along with Pretzel Logic’s private-joke obscurities (like the made-up jargon on ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ and ‘Through With Buzz’), there are concessions to the literal: ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ makes sense as a conventional lover’s plea, while ‘Barrytown’ takes a satirical look at class prejudice. But each has an emotional cutting edge that can’t be attributed directly to its viewpoint or story. As writers, Fagen and Becker may be calculating, but they aren’t cold.

As the group’s two foremost members, Fagen sings, plays keyboards and leads the band; Jeff Baxter, a brilliant musician on guitar, pedal steel and hand drums, powers it.

As a vocalist, Fagen (who looks like a rock & roll version of Montgomery Clift) is as effective as he is unusual. With a peculiar nasal voice that seems richer at the top of its range than in the middle, Fagen stresses meter as well as sense, so much so that his singing becomes another of the group’s interlocked rhythmic elements. At the same time, there’s a plaintive aspect to his singing that expands the impact of even his most opaque lines.

Baxter, an expert electric guitarist with a broad background in rock & roll and jazz, draws on these influences with pragmatic shrewdness. Even on these short tracks he’s impressive. On one of the band’s more conventional songs, ‘Pretzel Logic’ (a modified blues), he improvises on the standard patterns without referring to a single ready-made blues. And he does things with pedal steel that have nothing to do with country music. At one point – in the vintage ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’ – he duplicates note-for-note a ragtime mute-trombone solo. His command of technique is impressive, but it’s his use of technique to heighten the dynamic and emotional range of the group’s songs that makes him Steely Dan’s central instrumental force.

When Fagen, Baxter and the rest can’t give a track the right touch, they send out for it. The exotic percussion, violin sections, bells and horns that augment certain cuts are woven tightly into the arrangements, each with a clear function. Producer Gary Katz provides a sound that’s vibrant without seeming artificial. The band uses additional instrumentation in its live sets as well as on record, traveling with a different array each time they tour. For the current one, they’ve added a second drummer, a second pianist (who also sings) and a vocalist, so that now there are four singers and every instrument but bass is doubled. I don’t think any of their records can equal this band on a good night.

While Steely Dan for the most part succeeds in its efforts to force its character into the strict limitations of the short pop song, the music would benefit from more elaboration. Here they can only begin to convey the moods and textures that made Countdown To Ecstasy their most impressive album. But at the very least, ‘Rikki …’, ‘Any Major Dude …’, ‘Barrytown’ and ‘Through With Buzz’ are fine oddball pop songs, any of which would make a terrific single.

In a short time, Steely Dan has turned into one of the best American bands, and surely one of the most original. Their only problem is the lack of a visual identity to go with their musical one – as pop personalities, they’re practically anonymous. But with music as accessible and sophisticated as Steely Dan’s, no one should care.

March 31, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)


Listening to Pretzel Logic, the third disc from the brainchild of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, that was the big question I found myself asking. Despite the inclusion of one of their biggest hits, this outing features tracks that sound like works in progress rather than the finely-polished gems that the collective was known for.

The one hit that you’ll instantly recognize (after the brief lead-in of what sounds like a faint jungle rhythm) is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Okay, so it’s overplayed on classic rock radio. I can’t help it, I still love this song, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.

In a sense, it’s kind of hard to explain just what makes this track succeed. Is it the catchy refrain that goes from a samba-like beat to a full-blown chorus? Is it the gentleness of the verses that clashes with the more intense guitar solo? I’ll let others argue those points.

In fact, a good portion of the first half of the disc, while not as powerful as either of Steely Dan’s two previous efforts, still evokes enough hope for the listener to make them think that the whole album will turn the corner on the very next track. Songs like “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Barrytown” hold out those glimmers of hope — if only they delivered the goods afterward.

For the bulk of Pretzel Logic, though, Steely Dan turns into a band without a solid song behind them. Jumping from an almost ragtime band style (“East St. Louis Toodle-oo”) to what sure sound like mere fragments of songs (“Through With Buzz,” “Parker’s Band,” “Monkey In Your Soul”), it’s almost like Becker and Fagen just put out these concepts in order to insure they had a disc in the stores each year.

I’ve seen it argued that Becker and Fagen were railing against the outcry over the richer instrumentation on Countdown To Ecstasy; maybe this is so. But by lopping off the instrumental development of their songs, they essentially neuter the creature of Steely Dan that they created. Whatever the case, it’s a bad mix.

Props do need to be given to the title track, even if it too does not count among the strongest efforts that Steely Dan recorded in their history. There is something about this track that feels like a backhand slap against — well, everything, almost as if Becker and Fagen are tired of being told that everything they do is wrong. Their response in this track seems to be, “The hell with you all, we’ll do it the way we want to.” Fine and dandy, boys… just don’t expect everyone to like the end result.

Daring to call Pretzel Logic anything but a masterpiece in this day and age almost invites the masses to pull out the tar and feathers against the blasphemer. Yet if one steps back and compares this disc to a lot of the material that Steely Dan recorded in their history, one can’t help but see it as a disc with half-finished ideas almost begging for closure. Had they only been granted that wish.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Pretzel Logic (1974)


Although Steely Dan was an entirely studio-based act by the time they received their Grammy for Aja in 1978, the band toured and had a more or less standard, permanent lineup of musicians for the first three albums. Pretzel Logic is the final album in this sequence and can be interpreted as a transition between eras. And what a transition it is.

Although the songs on both of its predecessors, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy, were both composed by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the instrumental approach on CBaT and CtE was band-centric, featuring extensive soloing by Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter, the group’s permanent guitarists. There are still plenty of juicy solos on Pretzel Logic, but instead of being flashy, the solos are short and weave into the greater backdrop of the tracks, never quite breaking their way into the fore. The album is also more grounded in jazz after Countdown to Ecstasy’s brief foray into hard(er) forms of rock.

These musical changes can largely be attributed to a growing rift between two camps in the band. Donald Fagen, who suffered from occasional bouts of stage fright, wanted to stop touring; Walter Becker agreed. The other band members, especially Baxter and Jim Hodder, the drummer, thought the opposite. In response, Becker and Fagen began to use studio musicians began to increase their use of other musicians to fill in parts for the other band members, and Steely Dan’s studio iteration was born.

Track Ratings:
{E}: Excellent/Essential/Exemplary/Other word meaning great that starts with “E” track. If this is a metal song, you should ideally be air-guitaring or headbanging your way through the entire song. If it’s pop, you should feel compelled to sing along. Any album that has at least one of these is spared from a rating lower than 2.5.

{L}: Listenable track. While these tracks don’t have the raw intensity of Es, they generally contribute to the flow of the album and are worth your time.

{F}: Filler. A marginal or poor track that simply cannot be called good. On the upper end, the track may simply drag on a bit too long for its own good or have one section that tarnishes the entire package. On the lower end, it’s probably garbage through and through.

1) Rikki Don’t Lose That Number: If you’ve listened to classic rock stations for any reasonable amount of time in the past, this is the track that you’ve probably heard off of this album. Rikki has an instantly-recognizable opening marimba solo and piano hook. Although this is isn’t one of my favorite Dan singles, Baxter’s solo and the vocal harmonies easily propel this track to classic status. {E}

2) Night By Night: The loudest track on the album, Night is driven along by a funky bass and a constant pulsating riff in the background. The guitar solos begin about halfway through and interplay with the vocals for the rest of the song. If my earlier description of solos that ‘weave into the backdrop’ didn’t make sense, this is a good primer track. {E}

3) Any Major Dude Will Tell You: Mellow. Harmonic. Catchy. Insanely so on all three counts. There are many draws here: the opening guitar riff, Fagen’s vocals during the refrain, the guitar/keyboard interplay in the lead-up to a new verse, and the brief, clear, almost Allman Brothers-esque guitar solo. {E}

4) Barrytown: The champion among champions; my personal favorite on the album. Is hypermelodic a word? No? It should be. Amazingly good piano combined with matched vocals. The “I can see by what you carry / that you come from Barrytown” phrase during the refrain bounces along perfectly with the keys. The bridge raises everything up to new heights with harmonized vocals before gently letting us down for another verse. {E! E! EEEEEEE!}

5) East St. Louis Toodle-Oo: Steely Dan’s only cover, this is a 1970s take on Duke Ellington’s classic jazz number. Completely instrumental, it provides a short break from the rest of the album’s material and is an excellent appetite-primer for the rest of the record. {E}

6) Parker’s Band: Another tribute, this time to Charlie Parker, Parker’s Band can best be described as ‘busy’ and is an excellent opener to what would have been the B-side of the album in the old days. Vocal harmonies, sax solos, fast drums, it has a little bit of something for most everyone. {E}

7) Through With Buzz: The one true low point of the album. The background horns simply don’t mesh well with the piano and vocals; a bit jarring in an album that otherwise heavily relies on interplay to make the tracks work. Fortunately, it’s only 90 seconds long. Sit through and nod your head or press skip, the distress won’t last too long. {F}

8) Pretzel Logic: The eponymous track is relatively slow and bluesy. Fagen has said the song is about time travel, but the first verse also appears to contain some not-so-subtle snarking about “traveling minstrel shows” (read: touring). More instrumental interplay here: during the second verse, a guitar is added to add a bit of flavor behind the vocals. It’s the little flourishes like this that truly make the album special. {E}

9) With A Gun: A short, sardonic number about murdering people…with a gun. You will be what you are just the same, after all. It’s an alright way to spend two minutes, especially if you share Fagen and Becker’s penchant for black humor, and the acoustic guitar underneath it all is quite nice. But it’s missing that certain something to elevate it to the standard of the rest of the tracks. {L}

10) Charlie Freak: Second-favorite track. The protagonist of this track buys a homeless man’s golden ring, the homeless man dies after using his newfound cash to buy drugs. Mortified, the narrator returns to Charlie and returns his ring. The fast-paced piano helps to add urgency to the track; combined with the sleigh bells at the end, one can almost picture Charlie sitting on the street on a cold winter day. I’m not normally one to pay attention to lyrics, but here they’re sad and beautiful. {E}

11) Monkey in Your Soul: Dirty, almost sleazy, just like the addiction the song describes. The bass lays down a funky beat while Fagen and the horns pile on top. A toe-tapping, groovy closer. {E}

March 24, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Pretzel Logic | | Leave a comment