It’s really funny to notice, in real time, how history gets to be “rewritten” as it happens today in the case of 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994), the only solo album by Walter Becker before the recent release of Circus Money, which any reviewer worth his/her name has to contextualize. But to tell the truth, at the time of its original release, the reviews had been for the most part quite terrible; or, better said, few in number, and not really very favourable (I remember – at least, it was true the last time I looked – that Steely Dan’s official site had in their archives two reviews of that album, one “pro”, one “cons”, the comparison being quite useful). Of course, critics had “contextualized”: and what’s more hideous than an album that – starting with its title – appeared as if it was introducing itself as a “hack job”, with those strange drum machines and a singer (Becker himself) who sounded as somebody who had never sung a note in his life? And though the blurb on the cover read “Produced by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen” nothing in that album appeared as being remotely similar to those much-loved “Kings of Cool and Precision”. Having bought the album “used, like new” not long after its original release, I decided to wait for a sequel that could make things clearer.
But when it comes to Steely Dan time can produce quite a few surprises. There had been that unexpected hiatus (which in hindsight appeared to have been entirely logical) that came after Gaucho (1980), their “coolest” album (readers are invited to check Ian MacDonald’s perceptive analysis) released after their (tiny) big seller, Aja (1977), and their guitar opus The Royal Scam (1976). While the release of Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly (1982), still held in high esteem today, made it easier for listeners everywhere not to mourn the disappearance of the historical brand, it forced them to ask themselves a question: if The Nightfly had Steely Dan’s keyboards, Steely Dan’s lead vocals, Steely Dan’s music, Steely Dan’s moods, Steely Dan’s harmonies, and almost Steely Dan’s lyrics, what had been Walter Becker’s role in Steely Dan?
Though it may sound strange, I have to confess that I preferred 11 Tracks Of Whack to Kamakiriad (1993), Donald Fagen’s new solo album (produced by Walter Becker) after an absence of about ten years: though I was aware of the fact that Fagen’s album carried more “weight”, I found myself liking Becker’s album more. Though it was true that 11 Tracks Of Whack needed a lot of things to change in order to be called entirely successful, the album possessed a certain graceful air of faux naïveté that made it sound a lot fresher than Kamakiriad, a good album whose main problem was that of sounding like a tired copy of The Nightfly.
I can’t say I was terribly happy upon hearing that Steely Dan had come back, at first, in the 90s, as a concert attraction, then on record: Two Against Nature (2000), the winner of four Grammys, and Everything Must Go (2003) are not bad albums, but the group’s use of digital recording, their building the tracks “from the grounds up”, and their efforts of making good drummers sound just like drum machines, didn’t help the music, which (logically enough) was not as fresh-sounding as when they were in their prime. Meanwhile, Donald Fagen’s decision to produce Morph The Cat (2006) all by himself appeared to make that album the best work of that kind since The Nightfly. Hence, the question: Now, what? (A question pertaining to the albums only, since tours continue – up to now – with fine results, as I happened to witness last year.)
We all know how difficult (besides being an uncomfortable, and often not really productive, job), given its nature of “collective creation”, trying to determine “who did what” can be – check the Beatles. I think that in the case of Steely Dan it’s still possible, as a first approximation, just as a research hypothesis, without necessarily having to go back all the way to Do It Again, to try to separate those tracks that are more likely to be born while sitting in front of a keyboard than having a guitar in one’s hands – let’s say, Aja and Gaucho on one hand, and Josie and Haitian Divorce on the other. So we can ask ourselves this question: how an album featuring only tracks like the latter two would sound? (We already know how an album featuring only tracks like the former two would sound: like The Nightfly and Morph The Cat.)
With the only exception of learning of a long-standing friendship, the news that Walter Becker had chosen Larry Klein as producer for his second solo album, fourteen years after his first, were not really surprising: an experienced bassist, also a writer, step by step Klein had become an excellent, and highly regarded, producer, in a travelogue that had started with his first works with Joni Mitchell in the early 80s, up to the recent Grammy winner, Herbie Hancock’s album River: The Joni Letters, through a long series of albums by female singers, the most recent being Luciana Souza and her The New Bossa Nova.
Quite surprisingly, it was announced that the album would feature Reggae and Ska rhythms, with a pinch of Dub. Which in a way was not too surprising, since tracks that one could call “reggae” had appeared on albums by Steely Dan, Becker, and Fagen. But a whole album?
Surprise # 2, Klein was the co-composer of (almost) all tracks, in what way it was not said.
Credits don’t exactly say, but I’ve heard that the “basic tracks” for the whole album were recorded (live in the studio, in ten days) in New York by Jay Messina and Elliot Scheiner, with overdubs recorded in California, in Santa Monica, by trusted Klein collaborator Helik Hadar, who also mixed the album. Mastered by Bernie Grundman. In so mirroring these changing times, the album is self-released by Becker. It’s also available – obviously besides on CD – in two downloadable formats: so-so sounding MP3, and FLAC. I reviewed the CD edition.
Is it really a reggae album? Sure it is… up to a point. It’s obvious that here reggae works as a unifying element. Taking for granted those “up tempo”, and those “skratched” guitars, there are a few well-known items – the female vocalists coming “late” on Darkling Down is a classic move – but if the rhythm in God’s Eye View really resembles Black Uhuru’s is something this writer doesn’t know.
Walter Becker (here he’s also on guitar) is a fine bass player, and I bet he had a lot of fun “driving the group from the back”. It goes without saying that the drummer’s role is crucial, but here the choice was a no-brainer: already held in high esteem for his live playing in the most recent Steely Dan tours, Keith Carlock is at his considerable best here; it’s obviously “strict” figures we are talking about, but he performs them with a lot of verve and inventiveness, never running the risk of being mistaken for a drum machine.
Quite a few musicians featured here come from Steely Dan line ups, past and present: on guitar, Jon Herington and Dean Parks do a lot, subtly, with a nice variety of timbres and chords (listening on headphones helps), Chris Potter appears on tenor sax, and Ted Baker is on various keyboards; not as familiar to me in a Steely Dan context, Roger Rosenberg plays very well the bass clarinet and the baritone sax, while Jim Beard is on piano and on various keyboards; let’s not forget Larry Goldings on Hammond organ. Also countless female vocalists, now in a dialogue, now unison, now in a classic background role (Klein’s expertise in this field sure must have been useful), those most familiar to me being Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Cindy Mizelle.
But it’s Becker the singer that’s the real surprise. The same voice as before, sure, not really strong not with a wide range, sporting an intonation whose agility has more to do with his being an intelligent musician than with his vocal cords. But here the production has made the most of his vocal emissions, the whole becoming richer for it. Listening with attention reveals many captivating moods, so proving that the vocal performances are credible.
It goes without saying that this is the kind of album that gets richer the more attentive the listener. Not all all difficult, it reveals in time the great care that went in creating it. Dynamic mixes that don’t make themselves too apparent, snare drums whose range goes from the classic wood “thud” to the highest “brass piccolo snare”. Et cetera.
A dramatic long decay “crash” opens the first track, Door Number Two, alongside a grand piano and an electric piano (the second “crash”, at about 9″, is softer). Female vocals reminding one of Babylon Sisters, a dry bass drum, a slow tempo, “ghostly” guitars placed in the back, on the right, nice tenor sax solo, a fine vocal performance by Becker. Not to be missed: those piano arpeggios that parallel the main characters’ “desiderata”.
An elegant start for Downtown Canon: two sequenced arpeggiated chords and a drum machine give way to a drum roll and to a triumphant Becker announcing: “I cracked the code”. The track’s rhythm is reggae (rimshot, the skin gets hit in the chorus), but it’s really a Soul Ballad à la Marvin Gaye. Nice chorus, with a good use of the female background voices. Excellent Hammond organ, in combination with a soft electric piano.
I was quite surprised, last year, when I heard the way the reggae Haitian Divorce, having a surprising concert rendition starring Becker on vocals, could sound a lot like a country & western ballad, and the same thing can be said of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore. An impossible to forget bass part, an excellent rimshot/bass drum figure, a dub interlude with those echoes. With lyrics that can be described as being quite clear and “impossible to get” at the same time.
After a spectacular intro from a dry drum set sounding almost like timbales, Upside Looking Down almost sounds as a “typical early 60s ballad”, with fine guitars and an appropriate solo by Dean Parks; when the chorus arrives, with those high female vocals and Becker whispering in falsetto, it’s really time to get one’s handkerchief out.
Don’t know why, but Paging Audrey left me cold. Nice tenor solo, though.
Circus Money is the strangest track: written by Becker only, with Klein on bass, it reminded me a lot of Walkin’ The Dog by Rufus Thomas, as arranged by Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Excellent drum part, sounding a lot à la Steve Gadd, with a resonant snare drum. Also Becker’s phased vocals, and a nice tenor solo.
A Calliope and a start sounding halfway between Broadway and a cartoon for Selfish Gene (does anybody remember those theories anymore?). Lazy tempo. The music for the first two lines of each verse reminded me of a song by Tom Petty (maybe the one called You Don’t Know How It Feels – is it true? was it by chance?). Luciana Souza has a solo part, nicely performed. There’s a rare bridge at 2′ 04″, bridges being almost non-existent on this album.
“Piccolo brass snare”, and a big bass drum, for Do You Remember The Name; guitar arpeggios, a “lazy” track. A nice melody, a fine vocal unison by Becker and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery. Also an excellent slide solo by Jon Herington.
Somebody’s Saturday Night is very Zappa-like, lotsa swing, jazzy, with an excellent female chorus, quite Ellington-like, and with a fine solo by Becker.
Darkling Down (a track that features both the words “nihilism” and “Muscatel”, not easy!) has a dry snare drum and features the female vocalists. Nice Hammond organ, and a very good solo by Becker.
God’s Eye View has the most complex lyrics (quite appropriate!), a nice dialogue of male/female voices, a frenetic bass line, nice guitar, electric piano, and an excellent bass clarinet, both as colour and a solo.
A melodic piano intro tells us we’re at the end credits. A contagious rhythm, almost a Dancing In The Streets in a “Plastic Soul” version, baritone sax, piano, rhythm, keyboards that mime an organ à la Aretha Franklin, a “soul” chorus, and a fine solo by the baritone saxophone. It’s Three Picture Deal.
It’s an appropriate ending, but the “International Edition” has one more track, the bizarre-sounding Dark Horse Dub, with those expected echoes, and a strange orchestration: trombone (by the fine-as-per-his-usual Jim Pugh), and a “little band” (baritone and soprano saxophone, clarinet, alto flute) as played by Roger Rosenberg. Here, just like on the rest of the album, the excellent percussion are played by well-known Gordon Gottlieb.