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Donald Fagen The Nightfly (1983)


“Your independent station,WJAZ/With jazz and conversation,” Donald Fagen croons on the title track of his 1982 solo album, The Nightfly. Indeed, the modern classic involves conversation about hope and disillusionment; the past, present, and future; and confidence and uncertainty, all set to an irresistible jazz beat.

Each track on the album stands out for its complex lyrics and arrangements, along with Fagen’s superb piano and vocals. While some of The Nightfly’s contents include echoes of Steely Dan (“The New Frontier” being a prime example), it established Fagen’s unique identity apart from the legendary group. Twenty-six years later, the impeccable album sounds as fresh today as it did in the early ’80s.

The album kicks off with “I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year),” perhaps one of the most thematically complex—and least likely—hits of his career. Fagen narrates the piece from the perspective of a starry-eyed young man from the past, dazzled by visions of a technologically advanced future. “What a beautiful world this will be/What a glorious time to be free,” he sings. He envisions space travel, cities “powered by the sun,” and a machine “to make big decisions/Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.” Typical of Fagen, he throws in a seemingly sarcastic line amidst this optimism: “Perfect weather for a streamlined world/There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone.” The jaunty piano-dominated arrangement suggests this positivity .Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Yet the cover of The Nightfly reflects the opposite of the song’s sentiment; a black-and-white image of Fagen, cigarette dangling from one hand, in an anonymous radio broadcasting studio. His downcast look suggests disillusionment and cynicism, a man who has lived through disappointments as well as upbeat times.

“Green Flower Street” further represents this disappointment, from the perspective of a man lamenting the innocent times of his youth: “Since May there’s trouble every night…Where we once danced our sweet routine/It reeks of wine and kerosene.” Instead of finding “murder in the street,” he longs for a place where he and his lover “wear neon bends in daylight sky.” The shuffling rhythm does recall such Steely Dan gems as “Peg,” but the nostalgia is all Fagen. Incidentally, he performed a live version of “Green Flower Street” during his tour with the all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue back in 1991. Their live album Live at the Beacon contains a catchy revision of this classic jam.

Reverting to his role as DJ, Fagen trots out a jazzy makeover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby,” which tells of teenage frustration, particularly of rejection. “I got a girl and Ruby is her name/She don’t love me, but I love her just the same,” he complains, adding that “like a ghost” he will haunt the object of his affections. In the next song, “Maxine,” the narrator gets the girl and dreams of a future with her. Featuring harmonies worthy of the Four Freshman or Manhattan Transfer, the song recounts the young man’s idealistic visions of life after graduation. “We’ll move up to Manhattan/And fill the place with friends/Drive to the coast and drive right back again,” he sings in a wistful tone. Yet certain images puncture this perfect scene—he mentions he and his lover meet at the mall and “try to make sense of the suburban sprawl.” Will they really reach this perfect state of domestic bliss? Uncertainty seeps through Fagen’s lyrics.

Next comes the standout track of The Nightfly, “The New Frontier.” A deceptively cheerful ditty, the song’s lyrics detail the hapless narrator’s attempt to seduce a woman into joining him in his bomb shelter. “We’ll pretend that it’s the real thing/And stay together all night long,” Fagen sings. The man prepares for the new frontier by stating his desires to “learn design and study overseas.” Whether the woman who has “a touch of Tuesday Weld” is buying the man’s story is unclear. Fagen even gives a shout-out to Dave Brubeck, stating that he hears that the woman likes him, too. “He’s an artist, a pioneer/We’ve got to have some music for the new frontier,” he sings. Is Fagen suggesting that jazz will figure prominently in the future, or is it just a cheesy pickup line? No matter what, Fagen’s salute to Brubeck perfectly suits the rest of the album.

The DJ returns on the title track, cutting a lonely and detached figure. He fields calls about “a race of men in the trees” and “tough legislation,” eventually sneering, “I wait all night for calls like these.” He brags that “tonight the night is mine,” but admits heartbreak: “I wish I had a heart like ice,” he laments. He recounts a long lost love, stating that despite his cool, jaded exterior, “Once there was a time/When love was in my life,” and that “the answer’s still the same/It was you.” But he immediately returns to his DJ patter about “jazz and conversation,” presumably puffing on his cigarette and awaiting that next phone call.

This jaded outlook resumes in “The Goodbye Look,” a calypso-infused track that details a man’s futile attempts to seduce a woman in tropical paradise. “I know what happens, I’ve read the book/I believe I just got the goodbye look,” he sneers. But with images of a colonel “standing in the sun/With his stupid face the glasses and the gun” and talk of “action after dark,” this hardly seems like a vacation. I love the seemingly throwaway line, “Would you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen,” evoking images of a dejected man sitting at a bar, befuddled by the world. Romance and revolution clash, prompting the narrator to complain that “the rules have changed, it’s not the same/It’s all new players in a whole new ball game.” Innocence is gone, replaced by cynicism.

Ending on a nostalgic note, The Nightfly concludes with “Walk Between Raindrops,” a charming tune which functions as a more jaded take on “Singing in the Rain.” The lovers, walking in Miami, fight but make up as they “watched the regulars rush the big hotels.” The romantic scene includes the “causeway by the big hotels,” an unlikely environment for an intimate moment. But an idealistic, romantic view returns when Fagen sings that “you opened your umbrella/But we walked between the raindrops back to your door,” hardly the jaded perspective of the other songs. Thus Fagen ends on an optimistic note, suggesting through nostalgia that there may be hope for the future after all.

The Nightfly spawned two sequels, 1993’s Kamakiriad and 2006’s Morph the Cat, both meditations on middle age and mortality. But The Nightfly remains Fagen’s solo masterpiece, an album that still entrances with its jazz and rock mix, complex lyrics, and contradictory philosophies (namely optimism versus pessimism). In other words, The Nightfly contains all the elements that make it a modern classic.

April 18, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen The Nightfly | | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (1983), Kamakiriad (1993) & Morph The Cat (2006)


There are those who bemoan the apparent lack of sophistication in contemporary pop music, although there are plenty of examples proving that it’s not all about ‘dumbing down’ for the masses. Steely Dan—the rock group that emerged in the 1970s as a collective but ultimately whittled itself down to its two songwriting components, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—has demonstrated it’s possible to write contemporary songs that have commercial appeal but, at the same time, possess the kind of harmonic depth that make them more than simple pop confections of the moment.

Though Becker and Fagen’s pre-Steely Dan stint as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill in Los Angeles was more in line with their aspiration to be professional songwriters (as opposed to performing musicians) a la New York’s The Brill Building, producer Gary Katz’s suggestion that they form a band to record their songs ended up turning them into a group with an identity. Still, after Steely Dan’s tour in support of Pretzel Logic (MCA, 1974), the group was disbanded and Steely Dan became a studio-only group, with Becker and Fagen developing a reputation as perfectionists who were prepared, after conducting sessions with a particular line-up, to discard the sessions entirely and start again from scratch.

Subsequent Steely Dan albums, most notably the outstanding triptych of The Royal Scam (MCA, 1976), Aja (MCA, 1977) and Gaucho (MCA, 1980), may have been created from lengthy sessions with a seeming cast of thousands, but what made them so successful and, thirty-plus years on, so enduring, is how they combined sharp lyrics, uncompromisingly sophisticated music that had as much to do with jazz as it did pop, and undeniable groove. One can accuse Becker and Fagen of being perfectionists, and the music certainly sounds flawless; but equally, there’s none of the sterility one might expect from work of such consideration and detail.

The Dan disbanded after Gaucho—though it would reconvene for tours with various line-ups in the 1990s, releasing Alive In America (Giant, 1995) and studio records beginning with the Grammy Award-winning Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000). But in the intervening years between Gaucho and Alive In America, Fagen released two albums under his own name—the critically acclaimed The Nightfly (Warner Bros., 1982) and less well-received but equally superb Kamikiriad (Reprise, 1993). In the midst of revived Dan activity, Fagen released his last album, Morph The Cat (Reprise) in 2006, winning a Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album. While it was well-deserved, it’s a shame the disc was recognized for how good it sounded rather than how good the music was.

While there’s really nothing conceptual to link Fagen’s three solo albums together, there are differentiators that distinguish the music from Steely Dan. The sleek production values are similar and, while Fagen’s pencil could hardly be called anything remotely resembling dull, a defining characteristic of Steely Dan’s lyrics has always been an acerbic and, at times, idiosyncratic wit. Fagen’s lyrics are no less cryptic, but there’s a greater romanticism, even as he continues to demonstrate a unique way of turning a phrase.

But what makes Fagen’s albums not Steely Dan records (despite the participation of Becker on Kamikiriad as producer, bassist/lead guitarist and co-writer of one tune), and ties them together as a small but significant body of work, is an even greater jazz-centricity than found on most Steely Dan albums, making the bringing of the three titles together as The Nightfly Trilogy a logical move.

Those who already own the three albums may wonder what this box set can possibly offer. By making each of the three releases a double-disc set—one disc a traditional CD, the other an MVI (Music Video Interactive) DVD disc with 5.1 surround and uncompressed PCM Stereo mixes, bonus audio and video tracks, complete lyrics and more—plus an added CD with all ten bonus audio tracks from the MVI discs, The Nightfly Trilogy represents the definitive versions of all three discs, plus nearly fifty minutes of additional music including demos, live material and songs found in film soundtracks.

The MVI discs also feature complete liner notes, including newly-written material by Fagen, complete track-by-track musician credits, ringtones, photos, and 192Kbps files that can be downloaded in seconds for use with an MP3 player. In a time where illegal downloads are taking a chunk out of CD sales, with MVI the label is clearly aiming to provide a wealth of features that wouldn’t be available otherwise. The individual discs have no printed liner notes or credits, so the only place to get the information is on the MVI disc. And with portable DVD players becoming more prevalent along with home theater sound systems, the MVI versions of the albums become very attractive. It’s an intriguing approach; only time will tell if it’s one that will draw at least some percentage of the music listening public back to hard media.

The only complaint is that the CD versions of the music (which are clearly the source for the MP3 download format) are not remixed, remastered or even sonically equalized across the box. This means that if you grab the MP3 files and pop them onto your MP3 player, the bonus tracks at the end of each release (three on The Nightfly, four on Kamikiriad and three on Morph The Cat are at significantly different levels, though in order to flow together on the bonus CD, the levels of the extra tracks are normalized. The best approach is to rip the audio files from the bonus CD and have them as a separate album on your MP3 player. There will still be level differences from one disc to the next, but at least there will be consistency within each.

While there are certain markers that date most albums—in particular, production values including how drums are recorded and period-specific synthesizer tones—listening the The Nightfly it becomes clear just how undated the album is, with the same applying to Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat. Fagen’s music, rather than sounding of any particular time, seems to feel comfortable in any post-1970s period, but its especially true of The Nightfly, with its avoidance of the cheesy synthesizer tones that now dates so many 1980s albums.

There are some who believe that the best pop music is played by musicians with a jazz background, and there’s plenty of support for that on The Nightfly. Fagen has always made astute choices, picking some of the best jazz/session players of the time, and there are some remarkable performances here. The line-up includes bassists Anthony Jackson, Abraham Laboriel and Marcus Miller, drummer Jeff Porcaro, a horn section featuring trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Michael Brecker, and guitarists Larry Carlton and Steve Khan. Carlton, by this time, had already established a reputation for concise solos, making only a few bars mean far more than an extended solo ever could. His fills and solos on the bright “Green Flower Street” and “New Frontier,” and the funkier title track, are marvels of economy and construction, as relevant today as they were a quarter century ago.

The Nightfly’s conceptual premise is a look back to the culture—popular and political—of the 1950s, with the title track’s tender look at the importance of radio now especially poignant, given that medium’s decreasing importance in getting new music heard. The lyrics represent a departure for Fagen in terms of content; but the music—while recognizable as coming from the Steely Dan space—is still distanced. “Walk Between Raindrops” swings in a way The Dan never has, “The Goodbye Look” has an unexpected Caribbean vibe, and “Maxine” is a pure jazz ballad, albeit one with a backbeat that features some of Fagen’s most lush vocal arrangements, and a brief but soulful tenor solo from the late Michael Brecker.

The three bonus tracks help complete the picture of 1980s Fagen. “True Companion,” from the soundtrack to the movie Heavy Metal (1981), is a largely instrumental track that features a terrific performance by Steve Khan on both acoustic and electric guitars. “Century’s End,” from the soundtrack to Bright Lights, Big City (1988), is a piece of greasy funk that features the same synth harmonica that Fagen uses on The Nightfly’s opener, “I.G.Y.” A live version of “Green Flower Street” is taken from Fagen’s New York Rock & Soul Review album, Live At The Beacon (Giant, 1991), and while Fagenâ’s group of the time didn’t have the star power of the musicians who played on the studio version, it proves he had the ability to put together a top notch live band—and that he’d gotten over the aversion to live performance that turned Steely Dan into a studio band for most of its career during the 1970s.

The MVI disc also features videos for “New Frontier” and “Century”s End.”

Kamikiriad also had a concept, this time looking into the near future rather than the near past. The songs revolve around a road trip in Fagen’s new titular car and, while it didn’t get the same critical reception as The Nightfly, time has proven it to have its own unique charms.

With Walter Becker in the producer’s chair, in addition to playing bass and lead guitar, one significant change from The Nightfly is the presence of a core group that, with the exception of the drum chair being shared by Leroy Clouden, Christopher Parker and Dennis McDermott, remains consistent throughout the album’s eight tracks. Another is that the tracks are, on average, longer—none less than five minutes and one, the ballad “On the Dunes,” over eight. Longer solo sections and lengthier fades could be criticized as excessive, but the grooves are so compelling that none of the songs ever overstays its welcome.

Harmonically, Kamikiriad may be even more complex than The Nightfly, with sharper horn and vocal arrangements. While there’s nothing about any Fagen (or Dan) album that could be considered raw, and it’s an exercise in futility to try counting the number of individual tracks used on any song, Fagen’s ability to create arrangements rich in texture but never cluttered is in sharp contrast to others, for whom the infinite possibilities of the studio result in “kitchen sink” albums, where it’s clear that they simply throw ideas at a track, hoping some of them will work.

The Kamikiriad MVI disc features twenty minutes of bonus tracks. “Big Noise New York” is a demo from 1994, originally written for filmmaker Spike Lee. It’s a window into Fagen’s writing process, with only Fagen layering synthesizers, drum programs and vocals. If his demos are this complete, it’s no surprise that finished songs on his albums sound so full. “Confide In Me,” a lively shuffle, is a publishing demo from 1994, but this time with a group of live players who were be part of the Live At The Beacon group—organist Jeff Young, guitarist Drew Zingg, bassist Lincoln Schleiffer and drummer Dennis McDermott. “Blue Lou” is an instrumental written for the film Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), with the Frank Roccisano Orchstra and ace session saxophonist Lou Marini. “Shanghai Confidential,” another instrumental, was written for a dance troupe directed by Marianne Bachmann. A rare occasion where it’s dated by the drum program, it’s still a solid feature for guitarist Steve Khan, with a band that also includes bassist Marcus Miller and percussionist Manolo Badrena.

Videos of “Tomorrow”s Girls” and “Snowbound” are included, along with a promotional audio interview with Fagen from 1993, for the release of Kamikiriad.

AAJ has already published a number of reviews of Morph The Cat, but in context of The Nightfly and Kamikiriad, it’s important to note that, like Kamikiriad, it features a consistent core group, this time with keyboardist Ted Baker, guitarists Jon Herrington and Wayne Krantz, bassist Freddie Washington and drummer Keith Carlock. Sonically it’s the best of the three, no surprise given it’s a recent recording, but still, the sound literally leaps out of the speakers. it’s no surprise that it won the Grammy for Best Surround Sound.

The three bonus tracks include an outstanding, groove-heavy version of Al Green”s “Rhymes,” for a planned revue that never materialized with Todd Rundgren as musical collaborator and co-producer. Technologically it demonstrates just how far drum programming has evolved, with a sound so natural and flexible that it’s hard to believe it’s not being played by a live drummer. “Hank”s Pad” is a swinging retake of Henry Mancini”s “Pete”s Pad,” but with added lyrics by Fagen. “Viva Viva Rock “n” Roll” is, not surprisingly, a hard-rocking live track from Fagen’s tour in support of Morph, with an uncharacteristically raw vocal performance from Fagen. A World Café interview with Fagen, promoting the album, is also included.

Assessing Fagen’s three solo albums, the additional album’s worth of bonus material, and his ongoing work with Becker in Steely Dan, there are two lasting impressions. With rare exception, The Nightfly, Kamikiriad and Morph The Cat are all remarkably enduring and fresh; with songs that will continue to sound relevant—and of no particular time—well into the future.

But perhaps most important, these albums, along with the Steely Dan catalogue, represent the craft of songwriting at its best—well-conceived songs with harmonic sophistication and polish far above most pop fare, while not losing sight of a visceral physicality. While there are many fine songwriters at work today, in the realm of popular song there are few writers—with the exception of his partner in Dan, Walter Becker—who embody the spirit and soul of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building as well as Fagen; honoring the tradition while bringing it forward into the 21st Century.

March 27, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Kamakiriad, Donald Fagen Morph The Cat, Donald Fagen The Nightfly | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)

MorphTheCatFrom The Village Voice

Donald Fagen’s new album, the Steely Dan co-founder’s first since 1993’s Kamakiriad, is a funky suite devoted to post–9-11 conundrums. His song cycle is framed by “Morph the Cat,” a lazy-gaited pop-jazz groove that serves as the collection’s title, opening tune, and ending reprise, and which Fagen—who in liner notes writes a brief synopsis of each track—describes as follows: “A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of ecstasy.”

This act of the imagination is a fanciful yet brutal inversion of intentionally caused smoke that was the result of enormously less innocent sources. In “Morph the Cat” Fagen’s New Yorkers experience not fear but profound entertainment. The environmental joy is there whether these New Yorkers look at the sky or encounter the phenom in their “wiggy pads” as the cat-thing “oozes down the heating duct” or “swims like seaweed down the hall.” And “Chinese cashiers,” “grand old gals at evening mass,” “young racketeers,” “teenage models/Laughing on the grass”—they all react this way.

Within the frame of this song and its conceit—as whimsical in the song as it is harrowing in its actual political basis—Fagen offers more grand and low-down tunes; the music is as free as birds and as constrained by reality as the Times. A guy late to LaGuardia falls for a security inspector, her sweeping wand and crooked smile in “Security Joan”; “Search me now,” he begs. The woman in “The Night Belongs to Mona” has become a Manhattan nocturnalist, although since “the fire downtown” she doesn’t go out clubbing but rather optionlessly stays home, dresses in black, plays her CDs, and dances alone; sometimes she telephones Fagen’s narrator to discuss all this “grim and funny stuff.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Funn” want their relationship to protect them from the cable-TV-fueled daily realm of “poison skies and severed heads.” In “Mary Shut the Garden Door”—”Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government,” Fagen’s synopsis runs—the perception of public tragedy boils down to exhausted, droll reporting: “They won/Storms raged/Things changed/Forever.”

All of this would be of impressive but still limited achievement if Fagen’s music weren’t alluring. And the music—melodic angles dissolving into dulcet straight lines and circles, Mensa harmonies skillfully made super-vivid by ’90s Steely Dan sessioneers, lapidary lead vocals gliding in deep-skull cashmere, often decorated with tiny yet plush backup chorales—refines further Fagen’s singular pop-r&b-jazz. It remains the painstaking music of a man who once pointed out to an interviewer that since computer keyboards overtook the instrumentation of most pop productions, records have gone out of tune, and that generations of listeners now take the fatally unforgiving temperament of those tunings as pitch-perfect. So is Fagen’s music good? Unfashionable, yet wicked good. And as David Geffen once famously said, there’s never a bad time to be good.

Morph the Cat has smashing tunes about death as expressed by W.C. Fields (“Brite Nitegown”), Ray Charles’s sexual genius (“What I Do”), and an eccentric old band (“H Gang”); each occupies Fagen’s sequence well but less programmatically. The music wields the musical-literary focus of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo debut, where he held court like J. D. Salinger as a jazz hipster. And it also offers the sonic kicks, if appropriately cooled off, of Kamakiriad.

But Fagen’s triumph of rendering post–9-11 New York most recalls how perfectly Steely Dan caught LA on 1980’s ‘Gaucho.’ Nothing in pop music outdoes Patti Austin’s and Valerie Simpson’s background voices there, floating through and dramatizing the maybe horrible ease and questionable unblemishedness of the money and sex and drugs and surgery of West Coast high life. Similarly, Fagen’s narrator urging that security chick to “Search me now” cinches, effortlessly, the current world of ongoing monumental worry and this afternoon’s missed flight.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Morph The Cat | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)


When the composing duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen—usually known as “Steely Dan”—re-emerged in 2000 after a 20-year absence from recording, it became immediately apparent that there would be no Keeping Up with Joneses. Steely Dan was uninterested in sounding like other bands during their 1970s heyday, and Mssrs. Becker and Fagen are even less interested in being “contemporary” today. They make slick, harmonically sophisticated, sardonic pop music that is deeply informed by jazz and rock but that—ultimately—is its own cul-de-sac in American music.

Morph the Cat is the latest product from the Dan imprint. And though it is a solo album written and produced only by Donald Fagen (The Dan’s singer and co-composer), it is inarguably a Steely Dan album in musical approach. Recorded by the very nearly the same band as Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (particularly, Jon Herrington on guitar, Keith Carlock on drums, Walt Weiskoff on saxophones, and many others), Morph brims with tight but light funk grooves, astonishing harmonic twists going into choruses or bridges, and creepy, funny, mad lyrics that tell stories too dark for most pop music. The guitar and saxophone solos are serpentine and brilliant, and the singing—both Mr. Fagen’s flexible but sneering lead and the gorgeously layered backgrounds—is pitch-lovely.

The question of whether you’ll like this music will be based almost wholly on your gut-level feeling about Steely Dan as a whole. If you’re one of those in-my-DNA Steely Dan-haters (you know who you are: you are under 40, think Steely Dan sounds like smoove jazz with vocals, and find the whole thing contrived and plastic, utterly without soul), then this is a big-time PASS for you. It is slick-o-rific. But for those who love The Dan’s bop-cum-funk mixtures juxtaposed with sick stories, well—you’re in for the usual treat.

Lyrically, Morph the Cat is a logical successor to the first two Donald Fagen solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad. While Nightfly was set nostalgically in the 1950s and ‘60s of Mr. Fagen’s youth, Kamakiriad and Morph are present tense missives from middle-age and late middle-age, respectively. The one significant difference between “Steely Dan” and “Donald Fagen” is the personal cast to the stories Mr. Fagen chooses to tell on his own. This time around, our narrator faces mortality on his home turf of 9/11-shaken New York City. The Old Bastard Death hangs around many of these songs like a bad smell, mixed whenever possible with the usual Dan/Fagen sense of creepy horniness.

Thus, in “Security Joan”, a slippery blues with all manner of harmonic elaboration, the narrator tries to explain to the alluring airport security officer both that “I’m not a terrorist” and that she is more than welcome to confiscate his shoes and perhaps his other clothes too. “The Night Belongs to Mona” describes a “child of the night” who’s become a hermit in her 40th-floor New York apartment, likely because of “the fire downtown / that turned her world around.” The couple in “The Great Pagoda of Fun” also cloister themselves “inside this house of light”, hiding from “psycho-moms / and dying stars / and dirty bombs”. No doubt, it’s an album of nightmares wrapped in crystalline music—particularly “Brite Nightgown”, a series of three dreams of Donald Fagen’s meetings with the Grim Reaper: a deadly fever, a sucker’s mugging, and an overdose. Fagen dresses this tune in a jumpy vocal that sounds as much like Prince as it does like Steely Dan—a falsetto octave syncopatedly set against the funk.

The title track is about a ghostly feline who floats over the whole city, visiting upscale apartments, playground basketball courts, and even Yankee Stadium, maybe a cousin to the devil who pads about the Russian novel The Master and Margherita cutting deals and promising a reprieve from the hardest thing there is. And Morph offers a few reprieves of its own. The “single” is “H Gang”, a story of a charismatic band that rises and then fades into MTV obscurity—perhaps the opposite of Steely Dan. It bops with fine pop pleasure. Better, though, is “What I Do”, a dastardly clever conversation between the ghost of Ray Charles and a young Donald Fagen seeking romantic tips. “I say, Ray, why do girls treat you nice that way?” Brother Ray replies: “It’s not what I know, what I think or say / It’s what I do.” You won’t find a better description of Ray’s music than this: “Well, you bring some church, but you leave no doubt / As to what kind of love you love to shout about.” This one is also a blues, but a gorgeous catchy blues with tasty stop-time for the piano and guitar.

Despite the craft in this music—no, because of the craft in this music—most younger fans will run from Morph like it carried the very plague. No question, this album sounds uniform and rather overpleasant—engineered to a sheen of perfection by Elliott Scheiner. If that makes baby-boomers nostalgic and cozy, remembering cruising in their 1974 Camero listening to Aja, it’s not really Donald Fagen’s fault. He is still making—unapologetically—some very beautiful and very weird music that comes through the gate like a Trojan Horse and then explodes with disturbing imagery.

Indeed, “Mary Shut the Garden Door” is about that very topic: “They came in under the radar / When our backs were turned around / In a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars / They rolled into our town / Confounded all six senses / Like an opiate in the brain”. Morph the Cat works very much the same way. At first it sounds perhaps too much like Two Against Nature or Gaucho, but it insinuates. The melody of “The Night Belongs to Mona” is unique and sturdy as rock, the intimacy of “What I Do” is as vulnerable and intimate as anything on The Nightfly, and the death-groove of “Brite Nightgown” is sung and played with good nastiness. All this great stuff creeps out of the belly of Morph at midnight. My recommendation: keep your eyes—and ears—open.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Morph The Cat | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)


At the end of 1980’s Gaucho you’ll find Steely Dan’s best song—the slow fade of Johnny, the protagonist of “Third World Man.” The denizen of a prosperous coastal city, hidden in a room which hasn’t seen sunlight in months: enervated, willing himself to die, smothered as layer upon layer of guitar lines, metronomic drumming, and multi-tracked bleating settles over his corpse like silt over a crustacean. Johnny should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas; he’s an outcast, his lot indistinguishable from that of the hundred thousand brown-skinned valets, gardeners, and rough trade taking the bus that morning.

Donald Fagen’s voice—in this instance a smirk so contorted with irony that it has no choice but to revert to empathy—is key here. Burying his cynicism with Johnny, he reconstituted himself on 1982’s The Nightfly as a hip nostalgist, thus demonstrating that a cynic is always a closeted nostalgist. Apparently Fagen gets gooey only on his solo work; his two recent Steely Dan records showcased the jolly lech who snaps at vowels like a turtle at lettuce. On Morph the Cat, only the third album to bear his name, he returns to lavishing a fantasy world with all the supple snap of the considerable arranging and recording prowess at his command; a world in which discrete note upon discrete note unfurls for your audio pleasure until their mephitic fumes lull you into catatonia.

As poses cynicism and romanticism have their uses, especially when smart alecks like Fagen and collaborator Walter Becker chronicle every one of their permutations with the zeal of sadists on the Dan’s middle-period albums (roughly, Pretzel Logic through The Royal Scam). But Morph the Cat is too complacent, too enamored with its own lacquered contours. Fagen isn’t singing about Johnny anymore: he’s become Johnny, saved by a helpful skim through The Power of Now, he and his new girlfriend safe in their Great Pagoda of Funn, where, he says, “we make up our own storyline.” At least the duet between the muted trumpet and melancholy saxophones in that pagoda song evinces attrition of a kind; that house of light in which Fagen and his companion are interred must have wild parties on the upper floors.

Morph the Cat maintains the determined stasis of an Eno ambient, its pulse as unacquainted with hypertension as a masseuse’s. It’s some kind of achievement to record the most inert dialogue-with-Brother-Ray ever recorded (“What I Do”); didn’t Fagen remember that Pepsi commercial from the early ‘90s? The clean, disgusting funk of “Brite Nitegown” deserves special praise too. “Security Joan” summons some of the old “Hey Nineteen” lubriciousness. The spectre of Johnny darkens the chorus glissandos of “The Night Belongs To Mona,” until it engulfs the rest of the record.

Hating Fagen’s album means it actually bestirred passion. Listening to the eighteenth electric piano run and those fucking drums pitter-pattering like Moe Tucker supporting Spyro Gyra dulled my nerves. Morph the Cat is the ideal answer record to people like my buddy Jose, who upon hearing the first minute of “Kid Charlemagne” in his car snarled, “What is this dentist-office bullshit?” He’s right. Steely Dan circa 1980 is perfect dentist-office bullshit. The cheerful receptionist whistling “Hey Nineteen” just before she ushers you in for your root canal plays right into the dentist’s hands: you’ll think twice about not flossing before returning anytime soon. Glistening and immobile, Morph the Cat reveals that Johnny was the dentist after all, and what he thought in 1980 was crippling ennui was merely sunstroke. Air conditioning rocks.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Morph The Cat | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Morph The Cat (2006)


When Steely Dan debuted in 1972, it was one of dozens of slicked-up boogie bands playing an eclectic mix of roots-rock, jazz-fusion, and pop-R&B. Later, co-founder Donald Fagen began focusing more on the fusion, such that he’s now narrowed his sound to a single synthetic funk groove with jazzy overtones.

The Fagen of the ’00s doesn’t seem capable of easy-flowing pop songs like “Reelin’ In The Years” or “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” or even a light-rock confection like “I.G.Y.” On Morph The Cat, his latest solo album, Fagen limits himself to popping bass and hanging brass, obsessively building and rebuilding the sound he’d most like to live in.

Which doesn’t make Morph The Cat a bad album. If anything, there’s something weirdly compelling about hearing Fagen settle into this particular rut, especially on a set of songs about growing old in an age of terror. Throughout Morph The Cat, Fagen recalls his days as a young lothario—on the album’s best song, “What I Do,” he even chats with Ray Charles about music’s power to seduce—and he takes selfish pleasure in society’s decline, because even though he can’t tomcat around like he used to, soon nobody else will be able to, either.

Longtime Steely Dan fans might be frustrated by Morph The Cat’s lack of musical diversity, or might pick through it for standout touches like the hard-rock guitar stings on “What I Do,” or the long wah-wah guitar solo on “Brite Nitegown.” But Morph The Cat is primarily a sublime act of self-indulgence on Fagen’s part. The album’s horn-and-harmonica accents sound nice, but they’re only there because it’s what Fagen would like to hear in his—and the world’s—final hours.

The record ends with a succession of paeans to security people, the suicidal, and “lovers with something left to lose,” all of whom intrigue Fagen because they care more than he can manage.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Morph The Cat | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Sunken Condos (2012)


For many fans of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen’s snakeskin voice is the sound of college, the start of intellectual life and newly won independence from parents’ clutches. Today, he’s the overlord of the territory where jazz, R&B and rock intersect. In this bump-and-grind world, horns come and go, a harmonica wails, a rock guitar weeps, an organ mutters, the beat is strong, and lyrics are about sound textures, wordplay and rich imagery.

“There’s a crateful of lead-line pipes/A photo of laughing Navy types/On the island East of the Carolines/Lovely island” —Memorabilia

Sporadically, Donald has released four solo albums apart from Walter Becker. These include The Nightfly (1982), Kamakiriad (1993) and Morph the Cat (2006). Last month he released the long-awaited Sunken Condos (Reprise) and it’s his best yet—loaded with sauntering riffs, hypnotic melodies and tough-luck characters.

“Four old hippies drivin’ in the rain/I asked for a lift—they said: Get used to the pain/They gonna fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what’s to be done/Lord—’bout the weather in my head.” —Weather in My Head

Donald’s imagination ages well. As with Steely Dan’s Hey Nineteen and many of his solo songs here, lyrics center on older guys and their drive to remain sexually relevant with much younger, tireless women. Song themes dwell in a spongy zone between wolf whistles and AARP cards. On his new album, older guys get lucky but then must live with their Faustian bargains—keeping women half their age entertained and satisfied while listening to them yammer about things that are alien and meaningless.

“We went to a party/Everybody stood around/Thinkin’: Hey, what’s she doin’ with a burned out hippie clown/Young dudes were grinnin’/I cant’ say it didn’t sting/Some punk says: Pops you better hold on to that slinky thing.” —Slinky Thing

In this regard, Donald hasn’t gone the way of so many other classic rockers—strutting around on stage in tight leather pants, talking about rehab, or wearing baseball caps. His music fully embraces the male aging process, which is what makes him cool. He’s observing—watching girls go by and minding his own business, even in bowling alleys:

“Your move to the lane child/Played on my heartstrings/With your long skinny legs child/And your hoop earrings/When the stakes were sky-high/That’s when you’d always shine/The ball would ride a moonbeam/Down the inside line.” —Miss Marlene

And then there are songs that drop all pretense and get to the heart of the matter—an older guy caught in a young girl’s web. In Donald’s songs, guys who took their youth for granted become resigned to the passive role they must play in their latter stages. As if awaking on the back of a wild horse, these guys seem caught off-guard and baffled as they hold on—trapped between what they were trained to want and what they no longer can physically handle.

“When we go out dancin’—she’s always the star/When she does the Philly Dog—I gotta have CPR/She put on a dress last night made of plastic wrap/It was off the hook—crazy sweet/What everybody’s wearin’ on Planet D’Rhonda” —Planet D’Rhonda

Like guys who yearn for a Nedicks hot dog or an Orange Julius—fine things that once existed but don’t any longer—Donald’s characters are rooted in ’60s nostalgia but set in today’s bitter reality. And throughout the songs, a baritone saxophone barks, trombones and trumpets sigh, the bass bounces, a marimba mocks and the ubiquitous older dude gives his leather jacket a tug and is on his way. It’s Donald’s world. We just age in it.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Sunken Condos | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Kamakiriad (1993)


Both nothing and everything sounds out of place on Kamakiriad, the long-delayed return to the record bins of former Steely Dan singer, keyboardist, and jaundiced wit Donald Fagen. Steely Dan was the first slacker pop band, mixing in bits of hipster jazz rhythms and lingo into sardonic pop that was practically dragged kicking and smirking into the Top 40.

Kamakiriad, which reunites Fagen with Dan cohort Walter Becker (who produced and played bass and guitar), picks up almost where both men left off when Steely Dan unofficially disbanded around 1981. (However, their cult following has remained intact.) The music has the clean, metronomic precision of Dan albums like Aja, from bubbling piano chords and ultraprecise drumming to horns that zip in and out of the songs at just the right moment. Fagen has been working on this album for several years, and each carefully placed guitar flutter and trombone solo reflects that attention to detail.

No, they rarely make albums like this anymore-which is exactly what seems amiss. A good chunk of what is called pop these days, from sloppy grunge to jumping rap, sounds as if it were swiftly pieced together in someone’s basement. By contrast, Kamakiriad recalls a time when musicians and producers would spend months or years in the studio in search of the perfect pop record- and when melody, not crackling, jubilant noise, came first.

In that way, Kamakiriad is significant as more than just Fagen’s first album since his only solo release, The Nightfly, in 1982. The new record’s sparkling surfaces speak volumes about how pop-record making, even pop itself, has radically changed in a few short years.

To prove just how old-world it is, Kamakiriad is one of those antiquities known as a concept album. Set around the millennium, it revolves around a wide-eyed narrator tooling around the country in a steam-powered, environmentally correct car called a Kamakiri(Japanese for praying mantis). A cross between Blade Runner and Lost in America, the story includes visits to a virtual-reality nostalgia theme park (”Springtime”) and, in ”Tomorrow’s Girls,” a sighting of some sexy extraterrestrials.

On paper, that sounds as pretentious as a Pete Townshend concept record, but it really isn’t: Fagen’s lyrics are obtuse enough—in typical Steely Dan style—that unless you’re staring at the lyric sheet as you listen, you won’t even notice there is a plot. And Fagen’s voice itself is anything but ponderous: It has aged to a fine pop-nasal drip.

The songs themselves are more problematic. Averaging more than six minutes each, they’re not nearly as hooky as Steely Dan’s were. The low-energy melodies amble along in a pleasant but noodling way, with an exception being the jaunty ”Hey Nineteen”-like swing of ”Tomorrow’s Girls.” That’s where Fagen’s perfectionism gets in the way. You have to admire him for taking his work so seriously, but those diligent arrangements only tend to zap whatever spontaneity existed to begin with.

And spontaneity is the trademark sound of ’90s pop. To anyone other than the baby-boomer Dan fans who have been eagerly awaiting this album (and who will undoubtedly flock to this summer’s unexpected Dan reunion tour-the first since 1974), Kamakiriad will probably be perceived as a quaint theme park all its own: a pop world that has itself gone the way of the carnival calliope.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Kamakiriad | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Sunken Condos (2012)


Morph The Cat, the final volume of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly Trilogy, which appeared in 2006, is introspective and jittery, reflecting the cumulative impact of 9/11 and his own sense of encroaching mortality – making it at once the darkest and most personal chapter in the Steely Dan canon. While Morph was a musically dazzling and emotionally intense work, it would have been a distressingly bleak way to close the book.

Happily, solo album number four – which arrives with little advance warning – dispenses with mortal dread as Fagen re-immerses himself in the finer things – or the “Good Stuff”, as he puts it in one song – amid the life challenges facing aging Boomers (Fagen is 64).

As these nine tracks make abundantly clear, his current mood is reassuringly effervescent and self- mocking. Sunken Condos is loaded with Fagen’s instantly familiar signature moves, as he breaks out his long-codified and precisely calibrated vocabulary. Here there’s righteously swingin’ grooves (powered by drummer “Earl Cooke, Jr.”, whose name curiously fails to come up in a Google search), extended chords (there’s no chord too obscure for this crew) from a superb (what else?) studio band led by co-producer/multi-instrumentalist and Dan mainstay Michael Leonhart, and Donald’s sharply drawn, irony-laden narratives.

The album’s bookends, “Slinky Thing” and “Planet D’Rhonda”, revisit the generation- spanning romantic escapades of Gaucho’s “Hey 19”. In the opener, fueled by a groove that matches its title, the narrator is “a burned-out hippie clown” who meets and tries to put the make on “a lithe young beauty”, to the amusement of observers as the mismatched couple makes the rounds of various public gatherings. Here and elsewhere, the rich tones of latter-day Dan guitarist Jon Herington provide the ultra- cool counterpoint to Fagen’s decidedly uncool leading man in his increasingly desperate attempts to “Hold on to that slinky thing”.

The closing “Planet D’Rhonda” finds an older guy lusting after a chick who’s “somewhere between nineteen and thirty-eight”, and “When she does the Philly Dog – I gotta have CPR”, though the poor schlub knows full well that “It’s never gonna happen”. Coursing through the track is some wild post-bop improvising from jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the aural equivalent of the narrator’s racing pulse.

The sense of yearning for the unattainable is also played out at the album’s midpoint on “The New Breed”, wherein a similarly love-struck dinosaur (“He’s ready for Jurassic Park”) is dumped by his girl in favor of the young dude who upgraded her software, so the old-timer steps aside, leaving her “To your new dotcom slash life”. Fagen’s propensity for embedded mysteries has rarely been more intriguingly manifested than it is on “Memorabilia”, a song as slippery as it is catchy, with its references to US nuclear tests in the South Pacific during the 1950s. In the hook-filled “Miss Marlene”, the protagonist finds love in a bowling alley, of all places.

The album’s most sublime piece is “Weather In My Head”, a modified midtempo blues in the manner of “Pretzel Logic” and another scintillating workout for Herington, with its slam-dunk payoff, “They may fix the weather in the world/Just like Mr. Gore said/But tell me what’s to be done/Lord –’bout the weather in my head”. The lone misstep is a cover of Isaac Hayes’ 1978 funk workout “Out Of The Ghetto”, but the band blows through it with such exhilaration that Fagen can be forgiven for this indulgence.

What, then, does this new, post-trilogy work represent for Fagen? A second wind? A therapeutically induced acceptance of things as they are, perhaps? In any case, Dan aficionados will undoubtedly receive Sunken Condos as a fascinating new puzzle – or series of puzzles – to be endlessly debated if never actually solved. What matters is that Donald’s in back in his self-referencing sweet spot, and all’s right with the world.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Sunken Condos | , | Leave a comment

Donald Fagen Sunken Condos (2012)


It took Donald Fagen nearly a quarter century to release his Nightfly Trilogy, which started with 1982’s ‘The Nightfly’ and wrapped up with 2006’s ‘Morph the Cat.’ ‘Sunken Condos,’ the fourth solo album by the Steely Dan singer, is a slightly looser record than its predecessors, with more emphasis on groove this time around. And it sounds like it could be the next chapter in the solo odyssey Fagen started 30 years ago.

Maybe it has something to do with his recent tour with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, which included soulful old friends Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, or maybe it has to do with the 64-year-old Fagen settling into his AARP years, but he doesn’t sound so uptight here.

And let’s face it: Steely Dan were one of the ‘70s fussiest bands, so obsessed with getting every single detail right in their songs that they quit touring in the middle of their peak decade (they finally hit the road again in support of Fagen’s 1993 album ‘Kamakiriad’ and Steely Dan’s 2000 comeback LP ‘Two Against Nature’).

Either way, ‘Sunken Condos’ is jazzy, bluesy and as musically precise as anything Fagen has recorded, with or without Steely Dan. No surprise, since many of the musicians have played with him in one form or another over the years. And he still doesn’t take the short way around. Most of the nine songs make room for efficient solos, tasteful backing vocals and the cleanest production this side of the late 1970s.

The aptly titled ‘Slinky Thing’ serves as both album opener and mission statement. ‘I’m Not the Same Without You’ packs a slithering disco beat straight outta Fagen’s best years. And the cover of Isaac Hayes’ ‘Out of the Ghetto,’ while sort of an odd choice, manages to be funky in a Los-Angeles-session-musicians kinda way.

Still, Fagen sounds distanced from ‘Sunken Condos,’ which isn’t so surprising given Steely Dan’s sardonic treatment of everything from the coked-out L.A. music scene they helped forge to their own faceless fame. It would be nice if his view of the people and places he observes here wasn’t so telescopic. Making a connection once in a while actually might do this perpetual smartass some good. But that’s never been Fagen’s thing. Just because he’s getting older doesn’t mean he has to brighten his outlook.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Donald Fagen Sunken Condos | , | Leave a comment