Classic Rock Review

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Steely Dan Two Against Nature (2000)


Steely Dan’s reunion album Two Against Nature is a preternatural enough stylistic reprise that it won’t inspire a whole lot of conversions. If you already hate Steely Dan, you’ll view Donald Fagen and Walter Becker as regular Rip van Winkles, still as unconscionably slick as the day they dozed off. But those of us predisposed to appreciate their subversive high standards might spin a more flattering myth as the model for their reemergence: ”Brigadoon.”

Like Gene Kelly itching to ditch the cocktail circuit for a roll in the haze with out-of-the-past lassie Cyd Charisse, we might just want to jump into the disc and let the duo take us away from all this teen choreography. Even if their particular Shangri-la IS peopled by perverts, creeps, miscreants, and clavinets.

The core elements are unchanged: white-hot chops, black humor, and a flair for the cryptic. Your guess about what exactly ”Gaslighting Abbie” involves is as good as ours, though we can assume it’s something decadent, given the sordid characters who populate the more comprehensible numbers.

The hilarious ”Janie Runaway” describes a romance even more May/December than the one in ”Hey Nineteen,” its sugar daddy serenading a now decidedly underage muse. (”Who has a friend named Melanie/Who’s not afraid to try new things/Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain/Possibly you, Janie Runaway!” sings Fagen, against such a pleasant light-jazz lilt, you croon along and cringe simultaneously.) And if you liked ”Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” you’ll love ”Cousin Dupree,” their woeful tale of unrequited intra-familial lust.

Becker and Fagen don’t play their lotharios and losers strictly for laughs. ”Nature” has honest pathos, too, though you have to hunt for it amid the arcane gags and margarita-ready jazz riffs. ”What a Shame…” begins as comedy about an aging slacker who’s the only guy from his NYU class who didn’t strike gold. But when a more successful former paramour suggests a hotel tryst, the shamed protagonist nixes the seduction, explaining ”You’re talking to a ghost.” More ambiguous narratives like ”Almost Gothic” and ”Negative Girl” ply the highs and lows of sexual obsession for something more than yuks.

”Nature” isn’t an instant classic on the level of the ”Katy Lied”/”Royal Scam”/”Aja” triumvirate. With Becker now playing virtually all the guitar — and he’s no slouch at it — you’ll at some point miss the world-class soloing their session guys used to provide. But their ensemble sound remains sharp and inimitable. If the album’s four-year making is hard evidence of anal retention, there’s more than sufficient funk even in tunes you know were as carefully constructed as a Swiss watch.

For proof their prime isn’t past, skip to the closing ”West of Hollywood,” this album’s eight-minute-plus masterpiece. ”I’m way deep into nothing special,” repeats Fagen, describing a SoCal black hole of addictive pleasure and romantic despair.

The fever-pitched music matches the lyric’s abyss-mal uncertainty, throwing out a succession of the weirdest key changes you’ve ever heard on a pop record, its roller-coaster twists topped off by a Chris Potter sax solo so good you’ll keep checking the LED display in hopes it isn’t nearly over. The Cuervo Gold, fine Colombian, and other abusable substances of Steely Dan’s ’70s heyday may all be distant history. But that final number especially is proof that, even now, you ”can” buy a thrill.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Two Against Nature | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Two Against Nature (2000)


Steely Dan was one of the most curious—and, by nature of its mammoth popularity, most subversive—bands of the ’70s. Songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen refused to tour, choosing instead to retreat to the studio with some of the world’s finest session players to perfect their smooth fusion of jazz, R&B, and rock. (Legend has it that they did so many takes, it wore the emulsion right off the tapes.)

Wolves in sheepskin, Steely Dan’s songs, full of dark and strange subjects and sung by the relatively unpolished Fagen, were at odds with what constituted hits at that time. But what would you expect from a group named after a dildo in Naked Lunch? Despite a fervent following, Becker and Fagen disbanded after the release of 1980’s Gaucho and went on to solo careers and peripheral projects, working intermittently but never reuniting.

In the meantime, Steely Dan’s fan base continued to expand, while the band’s ’70s work ironically and both inadvertently ushered in an era of lite-jazz and somehow became a touchstone for several hip-hop producers. Go figure.

Becker and Fagen did eventually reteam as Steely Dan in the ’90s, but—ever the contrarians—solely as a live act. Now, a full 20 years after its last studio release, Steely Dan is back with Two Against Nature, an album that sounds like the ’80s and ’90s never happened, which, in light of Becker and Fagen’s scant output, might as well be true. The album’s resemblance to Steely Dan’s most popular Aja-era music is uncanny, with “What A Shame About Me,” “Jack Of Speed,” “Cousin Dupree,” and “Negative Girl” sounding like lost tapes rather than new compositions.

In this sense, Two Against Nature is less a comeback than a pick-up, cause for all those closet Steely Dan fans to finally peer out from their backrooms and bachelor pads, leave the house, and head to the record store for the first time in two decades.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Two Against Nature | | Leave a comment

Steely Dan Two Against Nature (2000)


Sure, Steely Dan are a decade or two late in delivering Two Against Nature, their follow-up to 1980’s Gaucho. But time may finally be on the side of rock’s most illustrious music geeks. The old knock on Steely Dan was that they were too good for their own good — if Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had recorded a studio album during rock’s extended Amateur Hour of the early Nineties, they might have been publicly flogged.

Unlike their El Lay-based muso contemporaries, Steely Dan managed to mix their craft with some truly crazy shit — slick-sounding songs about perverts, assassins, divorcees and other non-strangers. We should have expected no less from a band named after a dildo, albeit a hugely literary one.

Two Against Nature is Dan defined. The album mixes world-class chops and jazzy, postgraduate soul sound with some wonderful, vague storytelling (sample simile: “sizzling like an isotope”). As always in Steely Dan’s marvelously impressionistic world, we often don’t know what the hell the people in the songs are actually doing, but we’re pretty damn certain that they shouldn’t be doing it at all. Still, what makes Two Against Nature work isn’t its cerebral ellipticity but its stunning musical clarity.

That’s all the more impressive because the album is less a summit of super sessioneers (… la the group’s past efforts) than it is a showcase for what Steely Dan’s core twosome can do — reluctant guitar god Becker remains a fluid, precise player, while Fagen covers the keyboard waterfront with a variety of jazz and R&B styles. Also shining are the assorted drummers, including Vinnie Caliuto, Ricky Lawson and particularly the great Sonny Emory.

The immediate grabber here is “Cousin Dupree” — a bouncy midtempo charmer that has a little of the dirty-older-man magic that helped make Gaucho’s “Hey Nineteen” an enduring anthem for every Humbert Humbert wanna-be. Also memorable are “What a Shame About Me,” which has a “Deacon Blues”-like charm, and the more luxurious, autobiographical sounding “West of Hollywood.”

Two Against Nature gets a little chilly here and there, but that sort of cool has long been a part of the Dan’s distinctive nature. Here’s hoping these two kids pick up the pace so we can get a few more albums out of them before all of us stop reelin’ in the years.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Steely Dan Two Against Nature | | Leave a comment