Countdown To Ecstasy
I am going to review the Steely Dan albums, not in chronological order, but in order of my preferences starting with what I consider to be their best album, Countdown To Ecstasy. Hmmm, Ecstasy. That word forever associated with visions of Hedy Lamar flitting naughtily through the woods in her birthday suit. An altogether appropriate image given the general suggestion of twisted decadence and moral that springs from the Dan's famously impenetrable lyrics. I mean when a song is titled "Your Gold Teeth", what can you say? It's Tin Pan Alley on speed. This second album was a commercial dud and the boys were forced to reign themselves in on subsequent outings so that they never quite achieved the same level of inspired madness again.
On the liner notes of their first album, these wiseacres suggested that they were playing cheap imported plastic guitars and that's exactly how their twin guitars sound, trading twangy superfast solos with each other. The oddly flat sound of the guitars perfectly matches Fagen's nasal voice. The band members are supplemented by a platoon of crack session players with jazz great Victor Feldman on percussion a particular standout.
The whole feel of the album is of autumnal bitter sweetness. They are definitely mourning the passing of something. Musically, it feels very loose and relaxed without the overbearing sense of obsessing over details that came to characterize their later albums. Just a superb set of musicians stretching out. Fagen is best known for his vocals, but his keyboard work is nothing to be sneezed at as witness his contribution on "Your Gold Teeth". I can see why this album failed commercially. They're not afraid to use dissonant sounds that is guaranteed to scare off the great unwashed.
Guest Rick Derringer provides a deliriously insidious slide solo on Show Biz Kids, which I always want to call Lost Wages because the chorus repeats this endlessly in the background over a mind numbingly insistent thudding from the rhythm section. Hey, I know why this album sounds so bittersweet and autumnal: they sing about going back to school in My Old School. So what they are really mourning is mostly the end of summer vacation. That pretty much sums up the mood of this album. Sad, but not too serious.
The boys take their leave with a number that is simultaneously energetic and depressing called King of the World. The words are suitably downbeat with such cheerful notions as "Assassins cons and rapists, Might as well die". (What's really depressing is the dreadful murky sound on the American pressing as revealed by listening to a version pressed in England.)
Second place in the Steely Dan oeuvre goes to Pretzel Logic.
But the Dan never forgets they're a rock band and serve up a hard rocking number in Pretzel Logic, followed by a mock western in With A Gun. The album closes out with some growling slide guitar on Monkey In Your Soul, complemented by a blaring horn chorus.
Once again, ABC Records serves up a miserable mix: there is a way serious midrange suckout on this album, which is readily corrected if you happen to have an equalizer handy. A gentle boost around 270 Hz and somewhat stronger treatment around 1.5 kHz will serve the purpose.
In third place, we have Katy Lied. The jazzy influences of Pretzel Logic are gone and we are back to straight ahead rollicking rock 'n' roll dominated by guitars and the rhythm section. Gone too are most of the original group members. The band is stripped down to its core of Fagen and Becker fleshed out with an honor roll of crack session musicians. The album starts off with a three hard hitting numbers, "Black Friday", "Bad Sneakers", and "Rose Darling". Dig the guitar solos with all those bendy notes. "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" sports a thunderous beat courtesy of the (alas) short-lived Jeff Porcaro.
On "Doctor Wu", the boys try a little bit too hard to be decadent and it ends up sounding contrived. They finally get the mood of evil they were going for on the next cut, "Everyone's Gone To The Movies" is a song about a pederast sung over a delirious vibes arrangement. The feel of the album becomes more relaxed with "Your Gold Teeth II" and "Chain Lightning". The tempo slows, giving the guitarists a chance to stretch out. The supremely pessimistic "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)" will appeal to any angst-ridden teenager. Must be why I like it so much. We close out with the swoopy rhythms of "Throw Back The Little Ones". Incongruously for this bunch, a song about fishing. It is about fishing, isn't it? Please tell me it is. Nice piano solo by Fagen.
The mix is bottom heavy. Can you see a pattern developing here? No wonder the Dan wanted to leave this record label in the worst way. But it is not as bad as on the aforementioned LP's.
Can't Buy A Thrill
Their debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, would rank higher except for the excruciatingly oversweet singing of David Palmer. At the time, Fagen thought he did not have a singing voice. In the conventional sense, he doesn't but that deeply nasal sound is the centerpiece around which the Steely Dan is built. He does not so much sing as incant poetry in that in that ineffably snide voice. Uh-oh, I have used the "P" word. Almost as bad as the "O" word: opera. Over the years, I've become more tolerant of Palmer's singing. In any case, he appears on a mercifully few songs. Can't Buy a Thrill is cheerfully, unreservedly, unashamedly commercial bubble gum pop. It has an open sunny optimistic outlook that after it achieved its purpose of launching the group commercially was promptly and ruthlessly suppressed by Becker and Fagen, never to be heard from again.
This otherwise good album is marred by the title track, Royal Scam, whose thudding, insistent beat rapidly becomes tiresome and is a surprising misstep for this band that is usually so light on its feet. Otherwise the album pretty much picks up where Katy Lied left off with one hard charging song after another. Kid Charlemagne is a hilarious song about a drug dealer fleeing from justice. The beat is ferocious, yet flexible. The guitar solo is both searing and soaring. Same thing on "The Caves Of Altamira" with the addition of a punchy horn chorus. Sign in Stranger features slip sliding tempos, yet another tremendous slide solo and a crunching piano part.
They finally get the sound right, just as the music is on the cusp of declining. Sigh. Why is it always this way?
The decline that set in with Royal Scam accelerates on this album. There are some good songs and some on which the boys seem to be merely going through the motions. A song about a premixed cocktail called "Black Cow" is one of the latter group. The beat is tremendous as usual, but the solos are short and the lyrics are banal. It could be a parody of a Steely Dan song: all the usual ingredients but minus the spark. This dismal showing continues with Aja that bogs down in its own seriousness and a flailing sax solo. Who would have thought redemption would come in a song about football? But with the Dan, you can never tell. Singing about pigskin gets their juices flowing again. This song has a haunting bittersweet feel that harks back to their glory days thanks to Fagen's heartfelt singing.
Peg is another of the seeming Dan parodies. With Home At Last they are back on solid ground again. Great piano solo from Mister Victor Feldman and Fagen sings with feeling in this poignant condensation of the Odyssey, as well as supplying a wailing synthesizer solo. Not to mention the obligatory searing guitar solo from Larry Carlton. I Got The News is another of those going through the motions numbers. It's not downright bad, merely mediocre. The album ends on a high-energy number with Josie which has high pitched slashing rhythm guitar and Fagen again singing with feeling.
The mix is good.
An album better not made. By now, the boys are really out of ideas. Creative well dried out by the "Santa Ana" winds of which the chorus sings in the opening cut? Even recording part of the song back in "Gotham" did not help. Only one good song, Hey Nineteen. We're waxing nostalgic about our old schooldays again.
After the Dan mercifully broke up after the Gaucho debacle, Fagen went on to record this solo album showing that one half at least of the founding duo had not lost his creative spark or his quirkiness. How many rockers would get it into their heads to sing about the International Geophysical Year? It is as if the Dan had been resurrected (they have, in fact, reformed). What a great album. All the usual suspects are present: Jeff Porcaro on drums, Larry Carlton on guitar etc. Fagen is completely re-energized and having the time of his life. On the surface the album is sunny, optimistic and carefree but you just know that when Fagen sings "What a glorious time to be free", he's just being the same sarcastic cynical SOB he's ever been.
There is a Mo-Fi version of this album, which you should avoid like the plague (too much bass). Stick with Bob Ludwig's version on the commercial release.