Friday, October 19, 2012

Album Review : Donald Fagen “Sunken Condos”

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.

condosNot 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.

“I.G.Y.” from “The Nightfly”

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.

df_wb_72-1

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. 

“Pretzel Logic” from The New York Rock And Soul Review w/Michael McDonald

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.

“Tomorrow’s Girls” from Kamakiriad 1993
Fagen and Becker would embark on their first tour as Steely Dan since 1974 to support the album, leading gradually to a permanent reunion. This time, using the weak excuse of cutting the  album that would win the group four Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, (Two Against Nature), Fagen only waited thirteen years to cut the final “Nightfly Trilogy” album, Morph The Cat. Morph looked at mortality through the veil of the new frontier of the post-9/11 world and completed the ‘biography starting with Nightfly and is a mental rumination of death and old age blending Fagen’s patented storytelling and groove-oriented, backing vocal-laden style. Morph won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album. 

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.

“Slinky Thing”

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.

“I’m Not The Same Without You”

“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.

“Weather In My Head”

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.

“Good Stuff”

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.

 

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

11 comments:

  1. You really show your passion for all things Dan/Don. Nevertheless, the Sunken Condos review seems a bit rushed. The "melodica" solos in "I'm not the Same without You" and "The New Breed" are actually William Gallison's harmonica (Donald plays a great melodica solo on the funk-cum-bossa "Good Stuff"). The "marvelous bass" on "New Breed" (plus "INTSWY", "MM" and "GS")is actually Donald playing synth bass under the alias "Harlan Post". "Memorabilia" is actually about US nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The "four old hippies drivin' in the rain" lyrics belong in "Weather in my Head". Also there is no mention of "Alive in America" (95), a great live outing that preceded "Two Against Nature". And the Matt Jason Blowitz "review" of SD's concert is again another example of Donald's (and/or Walter's) typically self-defacing irony-they wrote it themselves. Otherwise, great work.

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    1. Greetings from across The Pond. This is ALL good stuff : at least you both care. Obviously over here on our 'little rock off the coast of Yurp' as Herbie Hancock once described it - rather appositely methinks - we had to wait a little for the postman to fix the chain on his non-mountain bike before 'Condos' could be delivered to our ..er... flats (condos). The whole arc of 'their' creative lives has been a joy and a unique soundtrack. I first danced to 'Do It Again' with my 'twist' whom I married because -amongst other pre-eminent qualities - I heard her singing most of the right notes to all of the guitar solos on 'Thrill' and 'Countdown' .As a musician myself - not much younger than Don himself - they set benchmarks to which we aspired. In fact the band we formed at our Brit equivalent of Bard was dubbed 'The English Steely Dan' a moniker which was proudly accepted but also the kiss of death with Punk waiting in the wings to gob us out of the arena (six young hippies in this case).In all fairness Robert did suggest that the review and its deadline were somewhat of a curse :@- .Even as a tenor player and percussionist ,any jazz musician 'dabbles' in piano because it is the dictionary: I also play harmonica and so it is enjoyably possible to differentiate the harp/mnelodica from what is actually played : Don plays keyboard spins which one simply could not do on harmonica ( it is a querky rule of our small Daanite League that we are forbidden to look at lyrics or credits for a year and a day )That's part of the 'crossword puzzle' fun - a bonus aside from the harmonic composition that we surely love.I must disagree that it is impossible to suss the plot/subplot text and subtext.What Sherlock Holmes satisfaction there is in that 'Eureka' moment when you realise that Ivy King is not a 'she' except in an anthropomorphised sense . The best review I read was one which said :' I cannot possibly review this album because it will take years for it to sink in' Obviously he had a more laid back boss :@} I had better stop there : thanks for listening : jools>>>jazzmonk

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    2. Welcome to the rap, jazzmonk, and I think we were both having a bit of fun. Being a musician, like you - albeit a bass player - I am simnply wowed by The Dan and was actually falling over myself saying yes when the record company asked me to review it. Time limits be damned. Steely Dan albums never get old and it still amazes me that songs from Countdown and even Sunken Flats (with respect to you Brits)still reveal new and cryptic universal truths with each listen. Thjanks for the comment.

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  2. Dear Anonymos,

    You have forced my hand. because of your scurrilous comment, I have decided to no longer allow Anonymous comments by people that won't leave a name. From now on and for forever all Anonymous comments on this review site will require the disclosure of full name, address, next of kin, best time for telemarketers to reach you, blood type and a valid credit card to comment. Further, there is no use hiding behind that mask, having enlisted the help of an old college roommate I used to enjoy the 'Fine Columbian'(not to mention Cuervo Gold) who now is deeply embedded with the NSA, you have been traced and been unmasked as the real Matt Jason Blowitz and you can expect a visit from the hit squad momentarily. Your mangled remains you Philistine douchnozzle and soi-disant critic of the critic shall, no doubt, be found in an alley in Camden NJ. And I don't mean Steely Dan or 42 different supporting musicians either...But, in order to entertain myself (and keep you busy until they arrive) - it should be soon as they needed to stop at The Custer Dome to throw an uninvited guest dressed as a Gaucho, out - I'll address your concerns. First, I admit the review as slightly rushed. I received the advance copy of the music on the 14th and had to meet a deadline in drafting the review. Advanced, rushed, ahha! Synonyms. And as for the harmonica/melodica player or for that matter supporting musicians for any particular track, well you have the advantage of me....and apparently the people at the record company (Warner) as Mr. Gallison isn't listed in the press release (which was rather sparse, but really, what more info could one ask for after reading "Donald Fagen" in the subject line?). I suspect you have either A) bought the album where, and this is purely conjecture on my part, Mr. Fagen was prohibitted by the musicians union from collecting studio scale by listing himself as the ONLY musician on all tracks, or B) he established many false Identities in order to claim as write offs on his tax bill, and divert those funds to off shore Cayman Island bank accounts for his retirement, to be spent at Blues Beach)or C) You bought the album which actually lists who played what. Of course, this doesn't take into account that William Gallison is actually the aka of one Garrison Keilor who played Prairie Home Companion on a book of the same name....And for the bass player for all tracks, well, again I can only fall back on what Warner Music told me and that is that Freddie Washington played bass. No doubt, Donald played some synth bass in places tho'. Oh, and there is no reference to Harlin Post in the press and review materials from Warner either. Perhaps you are thinking of the guy that ran out to Dean and Deluca's for the bottle of hearty gulping wine?
    (to be continued...)

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  3. ...And, in closing (because the hit squad is closing...in) you should be ashamed of yourself actually trying to decipher Steely Dan/Donald Fagen lyrics as this pass-time has confounded the best specialists that money can buy since the very first Steely Dan album and rumor has it since they were first hired as song writers way back at the dawn of time. And, in closing Mr. Blowitz (we found you out and this will be your last ever music review) You are correct in one tiny instance in your comment. I didn't mention "Alive in America" (95). I also didn't mention "11 Tracks Of Whack", the album they did with McPartland live on an NPR Radio broadcast, nor did I mention The Bad Rock Group , The Leather Canary (with Chevy Chase on drums, nor covers of Moby Grape ("Hey Grandma"), and Willie Dixon ("Spoonful") contributions to "You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat" , or the series of demos made between about 1968 and 1971 are available in bootleg form. This ain't a discography, Mr. Blowitz, it's an album review. And as your final attempt at masking yourself and no doubt buying precious time for making your escape from the above mentioned hit squad - again, not the 42 different studio musicians or the 3 producers - There most certainly is a Matt Jason Blowitz, and you are him! To make a febble attempt at acusing Don or Walter of using sarcasm is a very weak attempt on your part as these two musicians have been known since the late 60s, and probably since they were in the craddle of being men of gravitas and the utmost in plain-spoken gentlemen. Now, I suggest you search for the CD with "Don't Take Me Alive"because the men with rage in their eyes and there megaphones shall momentarily be kicking in your door with Hoops McCann walking point....

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  4. Well, I (barely) survived the hit squad. They came, we talked, we drunk some, we smoked some, we laughed, they left. In the end it was decided they shouldn't be killing your only reader... (silly laughs)
    No, seriously: apologies for coming across as a fussy, smart-ass, nit-picking bastard. Yes, I've been the proud owner of the album since day one. No, I'm not Blowitz. And I like your blog. I'll be checking out what you say about some of my favourite sci-fi novels in the "library thing".
    And (nobody's perfect) the harmonica player's surname is Galison, it seems. Go to something else! reviews for a first person account of the recording process of his harmonica parts on Sunken Condos. Interesting stuff for SD fans.
    As I wrote above, good work. And I meant it.

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  8. Carolyn Leonhart is Michael's sister....not his wife.

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