My day is goddamned ruined. There is a brand new Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) album out and I have to write a review. What I want to do is write a book. Their music, Steely Dan, and the solo efforts of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, has meant so much to me personally and kept me lyrically fascinated - that wry, sly, cryptic style, those literary allusions and lexical lunacies - as well as musically challenged and amazed (they even have a chord identified with them- the μ or Mu Chord, which is an add2 or add9 for you musical fans, and it is formed by adding a 2nd to a major triad; in other words, it is a chord constructed from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th degrees. Okay, for you casual fans, its JUST NOT found in rock n roll. But, the contrarians Becker and Fagen used it so often that it became know as The Steely Dan Chord.). Their music played an integral part in me surviving a tough time in my life, along with my brother John, who also loved their music.
Not only is the new album great, Sunken Condos (we’ll get to that in a second) , even if I wasn't such a fan and even if they weren't such a key part of many facets of my life I'd want to write a long, in-depth review - not the customary 200-500 words. But because of those things I must find a way to express just how good the album is, and just how much this continuation of their musical legacy means to me.
Let’s jump in the time machine and set the dial to 1978. You’ll find your neighborhood time machine in the parking lot of your local I.G.Y exhibit, to learn what an I.G.Y. exhibit is, play the video below…that IS what they are there for. Go ahead, click that little arrow thing, I dare you. After the artistic success of ‘77s Aja which received the Grammy award for "Engineer – Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical", shot into the Top Five in the U.S. charts within three weeks of release, and was one of the first American LPs to be certified 'platinum' for sales of over 1 million albums. The album cemented the duo's reputation as songwriters, as well as their reputation for studio perfectionism which was really to come out on Steely Dan’s last (for now) album; Gaucho.
After writing the title track for the movie FM, one of the year's worst box-office disasters, the song declared “No static at all” but the critics gave the film plenty - but the title song was another hit, winning another engineering Grammy award – Becker and Fagen took most of ‘78 off to write songs for Gaucho. The project would become plagued by technical, legal, and personal problems and ultimately cost them their partnership for many years. The early stages of the lengthy recording sessions were hindered by an assistant engineer's accidental deletion of "The Second Arrangement", a favorite track that was ultimately abandoned. In March 1979, ABC was bought by MCA Records, and for most of the next two years they were caught in contractual problems that prevented them from releasing the album. Becker and Fagen had planned on leaving ABC for Warner Bros. Records and wanted to release the next album on it, but MCA claimed ownership of the material, blocking Fagen and Becker from putting it out on any other label. Further, Becker and Fagen used at least 42 different studio musicians, 11 engineers, and took over a year to record the tracks that resulted in 1980's Gaucho — an album that contains only seven songs.
Becker and Fagen went their separate ways – Becker moved to Hawaii, and Fagen returned to New York City. Then in 82 Fagen released his first solo effort, The Nightfly. Released in 1982. It was one of the first fully digital recordings of popular music. Although The Nightfly includes a number of production staff and musicians who had played on Steely Dan records, it is notably Fagen's first release without Walter Becker.
Unlike the majority of Fagen's work before this point, The Nightfly is almost blatantly autobiographical. Many of the songs relate to the cautiously optimistic mood of his suburban childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and include such lyrical topics as late night jazz deejays, bomb shelters, and tropical vacations. The Nightfly was certified Platinum in both the US and UK, and produced two popular hits with "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)" and "New Frontier". It also received several 1983 Grammy Award nominations.
Donald Fagen didn't envision The Nightfly as the beginning of a trilogy when he released it in 1982, but its blend of autobiography and smooth, soulful jazz became the template for his music outside of Steely Dan. Moving to capitalize on the success of the Nightfly, and having honed his 'live skills again in The New York Rock and Soul Revue, a musical project which evolved from a series of concerts and musical shows produced by Libby Titus, who was at the time in a relationship with Levon Helm of The Band, and was to become Fagen’s wife in 1993. The New York Rock and Soul Review lasted from 1989 to 1993. The project was led by Donald Fagen, and included Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, Eddie Brigati & David Brigati ( both, formerly of The Rascals), the late Charles Brown, and Walter Becker. The project also featured Jeff Young and the Youngsters, the late saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus (who had formerly worked with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers and Boz Scaggs), and violinist Mindy Jostyn.
By ‘93 I was jonesing for some Steely Dan. Having only the Walter Becker produced third album from English ‘fan-of-Steely Dan- band’, China Crisis’ Flaunt the Imperfection, for my musical Methadone along with the NYRNSR live album. Finally, Fagen broke his writers block and went to work on the Walter Becker produced Kamakiriad. The album is a futuristic optimistic 8 song-cycle about the journey of the narrator in his high-tech car, the Kamakiri (Japanese for praying mantis). It was nominated for a Best Album Grammy Award. the songs are based on personal observations about middle age, following that autobiographical vein that went over well with The Night Fly.
Having tempered that yen for studio perfection that lead to the falling out in 1980, they utilized a lean, mean set of musicians in the studio. Down from forty-two to thirty-one….well, really only thirty if you discount Illinois Elohainu on tenor saxophone who was actually Fagen himself playing a saxophone sample on the keyboard. Wasn’t that lean and mean? I just love small group rock n roll.
Apparently feeling some sense of urgency, Fagen only waited a short 6 years to cut this album; Sunken Condos . I imagine that is why you have waded through my ruminations. Unless you followed some Facebook or search engine ‘ad suggestion’ while looking for cheap real estate in New Orleans and got hooked up with Sunken Condos that way.
What’s to say? Well, to start with… this may well be Fagen’s best solo effort to date, and that is one helluva claim when you look at the Grammy Awards and the critical and commercial success of the first three. So, let’s examine the album in some detail.
The opening tune is “Slinky Thing”, a slow funky groove with a great horns section lead by producer and long time Steely Dan horn section leader, Michael Leonhart (whose wife, also a long time Dan backup singer, Carolyn contributes) The vibes (the instrument and allusion) are sweet and the lyrical theme is one Fagen has covered before. Young girl, older guy hot on her, err, tail. Fagen claims he was vastly influenced by Nabokov’s Lolita and that comes through on tunes like Steely Dan’s “Cousin Dupree”, “Hey Nineteen” and "Lunch with Gina". Even though the theme is familiar, Fagen breathes new life into it as he seemingly enjoys the attention he gets by being in the company of this young, devastating creature, but also comes to doubt himself. Next up is “I’m Not The Same Without You”. Think the exact opposite of “Things I Miss The Most” from Everything Must Go. Fagen kills on melodica which he has gotten more comfortable playing as he’s used it extensively in concert throughout the 2000’s shows. The tune has a fast beat and is very upbeat as the subject is optimistic about a break up, glad to be rid of her. “I feel much stronger, better have I have in years…” This song will turnout to be one of the all-time best Steely Dan/Donald Fagen songs.
“Memorabilia” is sweet and soulful, even with the strong beat. The muted, jazzy horns are great, again lead by Leonhart (who also was the musical director for the album). Lyrically, he seems to be taking a look at all the items, but more importantly the memories of a 40 year career. The backup vocals are sweet and perfect here. “Weather In My Head” is a nod to the blues, musically. Jon Herrington lays down some BB King like guitar. It’s urban blues, with a nasty growl from the horns and guitar working together. And lets hope not on the 40th take.
“The New Breed” has Fagen turning out some great organ backing on a song for the new generation. “Tonight. I ran into that kid whose upgrading all your old stuff. You’re right. He really knows his shit, a real (or is it Neil) Diamond in the rough.” The bass is marvelous here, but Fagen and Dan have never worked with pedestrian bassists. Fagen throws in some great melodica again and the horns are very tasty as is the harmonica solo, courtesy of the melodica. The song could have fit perfectly on Morph as it is again an older guy looking at himself as maybe growing passé , but proud that he hears a kid updating all his old stuff just the same. You’re nobody til somebody copy’s you… Discounting the note for note comps of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle –oo” on Pretzel Logic and the controversial lawsuit of “Gaucho’s ” arrangement, that jazz pianist Keith Jarret sued over, “Out Of The Ghetto” may just be the only cover song on a Fagen/Steely Dan studio record. It a very funky-clean Isaac Hayes cover with solo violin. Very ‘groovy’ feeling that makes you realize, this isn’t just sarcasm but shake your booty fun. “Miss Marlene” has the up front guitar, and this tune rocks in a very Steely Dan vein a la Royal Scam.
“Good Stuff” is very funky, the piano is recorded seemingly off key, but that little chordal figure he pounds out is actually those big two-handed jazz chords – and yes, built around the famous Mu Chord, which seems to say, “it still works and will have the critics tearing their hair out”. It makes for such a funky groove. “There’s a special satisfaction, when a job comes out so right. Better break out the good stuff, the boss wants to party all night.” Sly lyrics have always been a stock in trade of Fagen, no matter the venue – “Four old hippies/Drivin' in the rain/I asked for a lift--they said/Get used to the pain.” The melodica doing that harmonica imitation is great, as is the vibes, as both a noun and an adjective.
The album closes with “Planet D’Rhonda” back to the young girl/old guy theme “she’s somewhere between 19 and 38” “ My friends say `Jim, you're on a deadly spree.' They just can't understand that D's my vitamin XYZ." and that says it all “D” is my vitamin XYZ. I called a number from the bathroom wall, and have a date with D’Rhonda, so I’ll fill you in on the vitamin ‘D’. In ways the album reprises Fagen’s Trilogy by revisiting a little of all three albums and at the same time reprises the Steely Dan catalog.
But I think more importantly it proves that the band that was "the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies." when they made music that wasn’t hair-band manufactured, but adult music that would go on to prove classical in the true meaning of that word. It’s timeless music. And here we are exactly 40 years later and they are "the perfect musical antiheroes for the “New Frontier” of the 21st century. Then it was hair and all the excess you could cram into a stadium and Messrs.' Becker and Fagen chose to deliver all of the genius and musical perfection by cramming it into a studio and getting it right. Today it is all the glitz and grammar you can auto-tune to a tabloid, and Fagen and Becker chose to cram that same genius into a studio to deliver another dose of Vitamin ‘D’. Donald Fagen that is.
See, I told you my day was goddamned ruined. More like the two days it took to write these 2100 plus words. Still, I think I did Mr. Fagen justice. If not, I can sleep well knowing I didn’t write the worst review of Donald Fagen this year. That would be one mister Matt Jason Blowitz, check this out:
1/19/2012 - THE LAST CONCERT REVIEW YOU'LL EVER HAVE TO READ
STEELY DAN A BITTER PILL AT THE HALLI
Matt Jason Blowitz
Steely Dan, a band that used to be good in the 70s, brought their nineteen-piece band of bored studio professionals to the Halliburton Amphitheater on Tuesday night and offered their obese, geriatric boomer fans the standard mix of "jazzy" hits and "deep cuts". While Walter Fagan did his annoying Ray Charles routine behind the keyboard, partner Don Becker leaned on his amplifier and played the occasional "bluesy" solo, leaving most of the guitar chores to crack session professional Jim Herringbone. In their heyday, the group (now supplemented by three female backup singers and a horn section) were known as obsessive perfectionists who spent millions of dollars in the recording studio torturing the many guitarists who apparently weren't "yacht-smooth" enough to complete the classic solos on their quirky, jazz-inflected songs.
If you connected electric wires to my testicles, I guess I'd have to confess that the "band" was pretty tight. On the other hand, Fagan and Becker seemed to be just going through the motions in order to continue to maintain their expensive yuppie lifestyles while the rest of us are left to fight off terrorists and the federal government, suffer the horrors of climate change or just starve to death because of Obama's economy.
Every single person in the audience had cause to be disappointed about something or other. Becker and Fogelberg refused to play the correct imagined set list that each ticket buyer had spent their life savings to hear. They played too many, and yet, not enough of the old nostalgic hits. Casual fans spent the entire show running back and forth to the porti-potties to avoid hearing any music they hadn't heard thousands of times before, while hardcore fans were again deprived of hearing the obscure tracks the sadistic duo played just two nights ago at the Raytheon Pavillion in Podunk Hollow. As the crowd filed out, many dissatisfied concert goers were heard complaining about the sound, the venue, the weather, the tour routing plan, and the fact that Beckstein and Fagan are still alive and working after more than forty years in the music business. And if anyone knows why the band played the theme from "Taxi Driver" at the end of the show, please clue me in.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a plane to catch. I am going to try and find the band as they cruise up and down the Trans Island Skyway, looking for Blues Beach or the next show whichever comes next. And when I do, I’ll be camped out in the first stall behind the first urinal and wait for that little bastard Matt Jason Blowitz and show him what my Steely Knives (apologies to the Eagles) can do.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved