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"Two against nature don't you know"
|Main Category:||Jazz Rock|
|Also applicable:||Pop Rock, Art Rock, Singer-Songwriters, Roots Rock|
|Starting Period:||The Artsy/Rootsy Years|
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Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Steely Dan fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Steely Dan fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.
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The "general category" above looks pretty idiotic, I'll admit, because Steely Dan don't look comfy when placed in between Santana and Blood, Sweat & Tears, but I have an excuse: Steely Dan don't look comfy when placed next to anybody. Through the years, they haven't really been shocking listeners with any unexpected stylistic twists (even Aja is nowhere near as thoroughly revolutionary as sometimes hinted at), yet their style pretty much escapes definition. Some call it 'elevator music', but it's not. Some call it 'fusion', but it's not - at least, nowhere near the normal understanding of a fusion band, which usually goes around as something almost completely instrumental and 100%-music-oriented. Some could call Becker and Fagen a 'singer-songwriting' duet, but this would certainly fail to include any mention of the incredible work they have always put into their creative, complex and tasteful musical arrangements. So what are they?They're, uh, Steely Dan - namely, Walter Becker more or less the music guy and Donald Fagen more or less the lyrics guy. They haven't always been a duo, but overtime found out that it was much more convenient to go ahead as a duo and recruit whichever session musicians and guest stars they deemed it appropriate at the moment instead of depending on a regular backing band. Their point of existence was to mock American society by combining the most radio-happy melodies and arrangements possible with the most sneering, biting, poisonously satiric lyrics possible. Their sophistication was in working over those radio-happy melodies and arrangements for months and sometimes even years, sterilizing, polishing, and brushing every note to some kind of modelled perfection, and in working over the sneering lyrics so as to make them as inaccessible as could be. Their personal mystique was in gradual self-concealing, when they used to give out something like one interview per album and didn't tour at all. And their arrogance was in that there was virtually nothing sacred for them - while one thing Steely Dan never allowed themselves to express was open aggression of any sorts, you can find just about everything, from personal relations to base pillars of the establishment, mocked and ridiculized in their songs. Perhaps the closest analogy to the Dan would be the Sparks, another incredibly creative American duo whom I tend to value somewhat higher due to more musical experimentation and innovation, but the Sparks were very much of a comedy band, assaulting their lyrical matters with the primary reason to make the listener laugh his ass off, whereas one thing Steely Dan seem to sorely lack was exactly that, a sense of humour. On the other hand, they can't be quoted as being gruesomely serious, either. Let's call 'em "aphoristic", and get over it. Over the years, Steely Dan have acquired quite a solid cult following, but they were also lucky to score with a lengthy string of hit singles and chart-hitting (even if never topping) LPs, which essentially divides those who are aware of the name into three parts: (a) dedicated fans who either despise the hit singles and concentrate on the obscure stuff or just don't make any distinction between hit and non-hit material; (b) casual radio listeners who treet Dan as okay background music while washing the dishes; (c) enraged radio listeners who want to exterminate the radio programmers whenever 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' comes around for the umpteenth time. All the three factions have their pluses and minuses, of course, but the important things to realize, in my mind, are as follows: First, it is impossible to separate Dan lyrics from Dan music. Both of these sides have been initially pre-planned and pre-designed to contrast with each other, and simply don't work separately. Therefore, an arrangement which might seem particularly bland and unmemorable to you might have been made just like that in order to imitate the usual middle-class radio blandness while presenting some particularly shocking lyrical image to go along with it. Second, what this logically leads into is that Steely Dan as musicians and composers have been pretty much overrated by their fans. They have a sharp sense of taste - they always seem to put all their right notes in their right places, well, almost always - but they never really invented any particular kind of sound, just taking the existing soft rock/jazz-fusion patterns and occasionally bringing them to perfection. Try to imagine Dan music without the vocals and accusations of 'elevatorism' immediately spring to mind. They haven't been an active force in the general 'rock industry', either: I tend to think of Steely as an 'outsider' duo, just kinda standing there in the dark corner and throwing out their sarcastic albums as they contemplate what's going around without ever really being an active part of it. The fact that, after having broken up in 1980, they reconvened twenty years later to make a 'reunion' record that sounded almost exactly like its predecessor, only supports that idea. Well, after all, Steely Dan just didn't need to evolve. Why should they? Come to think of it, the world hasn't changed much either since 1972. That said, there's something to be said on behalf of positive thinking as well - Steely Dan have to be judged according to what they did best, and since formulaicness and 'blandness' were one of the main ingredients of the Dan dish, one can't really accuse the band of these flaws. And what they actually did, they did to perfection. Their first four albums, in fact, are pretty much all spotless, and rating their records is a bit of a headache as a result. Note that this page has been a long time in coming, a time over which my initial judgement of the band has changed, like, ninety angles at least, so a couple negative (or positive) remarks in the reviews of Aja and Gaucho might be anachronistic, but I think you'll be able to make matters transparent to yourself anyway.
Listenability: 4/5. Duh.
One point off for the lengthy jam mode which emerges on some of the later
albums and is really hard to get into.
Resonance: 2/5. Don't get me wrong - it's not as if there wasn't any emotional impact, it just comes off as kinda dry and pedantic, if you know what I mean. They aim at your brain, not at your heart.
Originality: 2/5. It might be a 5/5 in terms of "individual style", but technically speaking, the Danners haven't innovated a lot.
Adequacy: 4/5. Pretty adequate.
Diversity: 2/5. Pretty formulaic.
Overall: 2.8 = C on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
Aye, we're a BAND on this one and we're, like, uh, playing in a band and all...Best song: DO IT AGAIN
Track listing: 1) Do It Again; 2) Dirty Work; 3) Kings; 4) Midnite Cruiser; 5) Only A Fool Would Say That; 6) Reelin' In The Years; 7) Fire In The Hole; 8) Brooklyn; 9) Change Of The Guard; 10) Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.
This one really came close to getting the ten from me, but after serious consideration, I still decided to award it to Countdown To Ecstasy. The fact is that, if we're speaking essentially, Steely Dan arrive fully armed and equipped right from the very beginning. They were evolving in certain ways, sure, but they weren't actually growing as songwriters or lyricists or whatever. If your Dan implies satiric venomous lyrics, solid vocal hooks and archi-professional musical backing, and I know my Dan really doesn't imply anything else, you got it all here in spades. What you have not got is the sonic experimentation, or, as some Steely haters would have it, sonic meandering, but you know why? Because at this point in their career, Steely Dan were a real band. They had Becker and Fagen at the forefront for sure, but they also had TWO guitarists - Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, a drummer in Jim Hodder and, uh, an additional vocalist in David Palmer (no, not the Jethro Tull guy, I'm afraid).The actual role of David Palmer can be unclear to those unaware of the band's story: he only gets to sing a couple songs on this album and disappears shortly afterwards. Mother History says that the guy was actually hired when Fagen felt he couldn't be the band's frontman during live shows, so Palmer had to fill in that role and sang live even the songs that he didn't sing in the studio. However, he was sacked very soon after the album's chart success - maybe Fagen actually improved his piano playing and singing at the same time, or they were just pissed off at each other or whatever. And anyway Steely Dan didn't last long as a touring group, so... as for the singing itself, I kinda like Palmer's voice, although it is way too smooth, melodic and even sappy for such an outfit as Steely Dan. He makes 'Brooklyn' sound as a tender love song for Chrissake. So anyway, the songs are mostly good, but without the jazzy/bluesy/whatever elements of Dan's later work, they just lack a tiny bit of that class the band managed to acquire later on without actually sacrificing any of the catchiness or "edge-cutting". It's more or less straightforward pop/R'n'B, not particularly impressive in terms of actual melody but certainly getting by on the strength of the band's vocal performances and atmosphere and lyrics. Oh yeah, and the actual SOUND of it all - the way they cared about the production from the very start, you'd think they were targeting acoustics labs assistants. The two hits were 'Do It Again' and 'Reelin' In The Years', both of them ace Becker/Fagen creations, but particularly the former, slightly Latin-tinged (mostly due to the percussion rhythms, I'd say) and notable for the magnificent ringing piano rhythm that helps make Fagen's vocals sound even more decisive and powerful as he narrates the, well, story of a loser - you have to pardon me for not offering more detailed interpretations of the songs because you probably have your own, so why should I interfere anyway. The chorus 'you go back Jack, do it again' opens the glorious line of insanely catchy Steely Dan choruses and is thus twice welcome. 'Reelin' In The Years' is far more uptempo, far more guitar-heavy and even more well-known, I'd warrant, so maybe there's no need in introducing this one to you, unless you aren't American, in which case I probably won't get you interested in Steely Dan anyway. Heh heh. Too bad. That's just the top of the iceberg though. The two Palmer-sung tracks are surprisingly effective, particularly the gentle ballad 'Dirty Work' where David's mild croon is marvelously shaded by gentle bluesy guitar licks and culminates in that cute chorus. And while 'Brooklyn', though nobody quotes it, is melodically a rewrite of 'Queen Jane Approximately' (I spent several hours painfully trying to wrack my brain - now where, oh where, oh where have I heard that vocal melody? Dammit, what's the use of having three thousand records lie beside you when you can't figure out a thing like that? GOSHDARNIT! Some of life's most miserable moments are spent in that way, believe me), it still invites you to sing along like every solid Dylan rip-off should. I could never understand the line 'Brooklyn owes the charmer under me', and have always considered it semantically questionable, but as an aural tease, I'd say it works. There's also 'Kings', dealing with King Richard and King John (everybody thinks it's about Nixon, but I'd say this is carrying the twisted warped mind of Fagen a bit too far - maybe it's just, uh, about relations between rulers and people?), and there's 'Midnite Cruiser' whose chorus is ripped off from the Hollies' 'Dear Eloise', and the sneery uptempo 'Change Of The Guards' which is also ripped off from some British Invasion tune I can't recall yet (ah brains burning! brains burning!), anyway, you get the idea, i.e. they are a bit unprotective of displaying their influences on here, but I more or less forgive them for it because they do it well and add the Steely Dan spirit into everything they do anyway. And in case you get bored towards the end, pay attention to the fact that they inserted one of their greatest lyrics into the chorus to the album closer, 'Turn That Heartbeat Over Again': 'Love your mother, love your brother, love 'em till they run for cover!'. And for all there is, the liner notes include FOUR extra session players (not counting backing vocals)! A guitarist, a percussionist, and two saxes. For comparison, I have this record paired together with Gaucho on one CD and this four-player list is set right next to the list of Gaucho session players, which includes thirty-one player (not counting backing vocals). Just goes to show you - these guys had a looooong way to go. PS. Yes! I got it! Ah, a good night's sleep can work wonders. It's 'Pre-Road Downs' I was thinking of me. Silly me, how could I forget the CSN influence?
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1973
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
The Dan gets convoluted, complex, drops down number of songs, pretends to be a serious jazz-influenced soft-rock outfit.Best song: BODHISATTVA
Track listing: 1) Bodhisattva; 2) Razor Boy; 3) The Boston Rag; 4) Your Gold Teeth; 5) Show Biz Kids; 6) My Old School; 7) Pearl Of The Quarter; 8) King Of The World.
Well, seems like I have no choice but to go with the popular opinion that this is Steely Dan's best album. Ah, so long, my dreams of developing a snobby indie conscience... Then again, NO. I'll downgrade my indie conscience even lower and award that title to Pretzel Logic, because that one has more great songs. But really, it seems that this time around everything, just about everything seems to work fine for the Dan. About the only flaw one could find is that there are few songs - only eight of them - but seeing as they turn out to be, on average, more memorable than the eleven short numbers of Pretzel Logic, that can as well be an advantage. The song lengths are growing as the boys make an even huger emphasis on the instrumental side of the business, but then again, the lyrical sophistication grows with absolutely equal speed, which means you get wittier solos, and wittier and far more obscure word images.In fact, they almost overdo the trick; not too surprisingly, this is Steely's least commercial album, at least in terms of chart popularity: after the hooky-hooky-hoo promise of Can't Buy A Thrill, the public were a bit disappointed with the complexity of Ecstasy, not to mention that selecting 'Show Biz Kids' as the main single was an unwise decision - due to the extremely controversial and, for once, pretty obvious message of the song ("show biz kids making movies of themselves you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else"), it only got restrained airplay and therefore never got far enough sales-wise. It didn't even help that the song itself is glorious, with a masterful slide riff supporting it (guest star Rick Derringer, not just anybody!) and Fagen's quasi-rapped lyrics almost the equivalent of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' to some extent, easily the most aggressive and let-down-your-hair moment in the Steely catalog. The endless repeated groove might get on your nerves, of course, but some songs are made for endless repeated grooves - particularly those songs which actually build upon that groove and don't take it as an absolute value in itself. But there's just too many positive factors without it as well. Palmer is out of the band, and the only song on which I somewhat miss his absence is the gentle ballad 'Pearl Of The Quarter', which Fagen tries to do Palmer-style (i. e. with softer notes in his voice and actually trying to draaaaaaaaw out his vowels), but even so, the song works on some level, especially when you get to the end and find out that the gal in question 'loved the million dollar words I say, she loved the candy and flowers that I bought her, she said she loved me and was on her way'... Voulez voulez voulez vous? Bring on the beignets! Oh, well, supposedly it's just about a French Quarter prostitute or something like that. Steely Dan are still a band at this point, though, and their guitarists are occasionally working wonders, especially on songs where Steely Dan decide to strip some of the sections from vocals and dedicate them to masterful jamming. Like 'Bodhisattva', for instance. That song is mainly an excuse for jamming - I don't think that Becker and Fagen were really that keen on the world knowing their suddenly-found Far East fetish, whether it be serious or just an object of mocking - but what jamming it is, with excellent, fast, fluent and actually emotionally captivating guitar and piano solos, or those nifty call-and-response passages between the guitar and the keyboards. Pay attention to the mighty be-boppy guitar solo around the fourth minute, if you please, that one really brings the house down. The good news is that the jams never duplicate themselves. For instance, 'The Boston Rag' eventually involves into a bluesy rave-up with heavy, gruffly distorted guitar riffs alternating with Zappaesque technically perfect solos. 'Your Gold Teeth', on the other hand, is quiet blues with a lengthy electric piano showcase from Fagen, not unlike the one you'd hear on 'Riders On The Storm', while Jeff Baxter comes to the forefront with somewhat muffled, but still effective Santanaesque leads. And don't forget that both tunes work as tunes as well - not to mention that choruses like 'do you throw out your gold teeth, do you see how they roll' will have you thinking for hours about what it is the Danners are trying to say. The creepy thing to realize is that the songs don't really feel disconnected - I mean, the jams kinda naturally evolve as normal continuations of the songs themselves. The gloomy "depressed nostalgia" of 'Boston Rag' correlates perfectly to the heavy guitar sounds, and the somewhat more relaxed and detached sarcasm of 'Gold Teeth' obviously conforms to the moody piano. The perfect vibe. It's not like this is such a radical transition to a new style, of course, because at the core you'll still be finding the same basic pop structures you had last time around. Is the drug-bust incident dedicated 'My Old School' all that different from 'Change Of The Guard', for instance? Hardly. Is 'Razor Boy' in a totally different paradigm from 'Midnite Cruiser'? Don't think so. On the other hand, the album closer, 'King Of The World', pretty much sounds like an obscure Derek & The Dominos relict crossed with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, if you can imagine something like that. So I'd just like to point out that Steely Dan are a band that requires really serious, really keen listening in order for you to capture all those little evolutionary details. Oh, and note that there are EIGHT session players on here already, even if four of them are only playing saxes on 'My Old School'.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13
Perhaps the easiest-going Steely Dan album ever, great songs, too.Best song: EAST ST LOUIS TOODLE-OO
Track listing: 1) Rikki Don't Lose That Number; 2) Night By Night; 3) Any Major Dude Will Tell You; 4) Barrytown; 5) East St Louis Toodle-oo; 6) Parker's Band; 7) Through With Buzz; 8) Pretzel Logic; 9) With A Gun; 10) Charlie Freak; 11) Monkey In Your Soul.
Obviously, Steely Dan didn't like the perspective of becoming an underground band - huge commercial success was a CRUCIAL plan of their musical career, you know. Without huge commercial success, how could Mr Becker and Mr Fagen really carry out their design to make utter dunces of the general American record buying/coke snorting/Playboy posing/life enjoying public? Thus, even if their musical instincts were drawing them towards the drawn-out lengthy jazzy jam thing, they had to compromise this time, and release an album of short three-minute songs - none of the eleven numbers on Pretzel Logic run over four. Furthermore, by now they have learned to hide their sarcastic lyrical message even deeper than before; no more blunt lines like 'don't give a fuck about anybody else' this time, in fact, without an accompanying annotated lyrics sheet you'll have a really hard time trying to guess what lies under the surface. I mean, if the rumours about the title track being an anti-totalitarian swipe (pretzel = swastika) are true, this easily explains lines like 'I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time'; however, without that hint you'll never even begin decoding the message in the right direction.Thank God this is one of those - rare - Steely albums that could easily survive on musical merit alone. It's probably their most diverse effort, both due to the larger number of the songs and, I guess, the very WISH to make it diverse. There's pop, R'n'B, blues, jazz, even hard rock ('Monkey In Your Soul'), and although the Steely Dan production formula kinda neutralizes the differences between styles, it's still very much listenable throughout without getting the impression that they're the kind of guys who never went further than the first twenty pages of whatever musical handbook they're using. It's telling that the record's biggest number, "monster" hit single and pretty much the song that is most associated with Steely Dan, 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number', can be regarded as one of the consciously worst on the album, with a liquidy-liquidy soft-rock melody, uninteresting lyrics and pretty much all the 'hook power' included in the vocal line that leads from the verse to the chorus ('but if you have a change of hea-aart!...'). There's also the famous four-note piano riff, of course, but it sounds so consciously stupid and primitive I can't get rid of the feeling that Steely Dan were just pandering towards the lowest common denominator of the epoch for that song. Don't get me wrong - I do enjoy the song as part of the 'general strategy line' of the band, but I guess if I had to make my introduction to the band based on that song, I'd probably hate the Danners forever, just as so many general radio listeners do. However, just bypass 'Rikki' and you'll find out that the album consists almost ENTIRELY of winners. 'Night By Night' gives us the first taste of Steely Dan the funk outfit - I have a feeling they took a few hints from Stevie Wonder and his 'Superstition'-style use of synths, so just listen to the chugga-chugga of that line and to the cold mechanical preciseness of the brass section and get in the groove. 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You' is a rare moment of consolation and optimism in the Dan catalog, another radio-ready classic but somewhat more valid than 'Rikki', with that wonderful riff linking the chorus back to the verses and stuff. (Trivia question: what's the exclusive link between the song and post-Gabriel Genesis? Ready, steady, go!). There's also 'Barrytown', a shameless "triple rip-off" of the Byrds/Beatles/Dylan (doesn't anybody else recognize 'If I Needed Someone' in the verses, not to mention typical Bobster's Blonde On Blonde vocal intonations?) which nevertheless comes 'round as expressive, catchy and well-recorded. Some single it out as the true highlight of the album, but that would be just a little too directly derivative for me - besides, we don't single out 'If I Needed Someone' as the best song on Rubber Soul, do we? - and that honour I'd rather give to the album's instrumental composition, the cover of Duke Ellington's 'East St Louis Toodle-oo', jazz done as has never been heard previously and a really rare experimental moment in Steely's generally non-experimental approach. The substitute of a talking-box enhanced guitar instead of a sax is nothing short of genius, and the short guitar/synth/piano/brass solos that interchange with each other makes up for some really inspired listening - the tune never really threatens to become boring, in fact, it's rather short for me, I'd say. On the contrary, 'Parker's Band' has hardly anything to do with Charlie Parker, but its rocking rave-up and catchy chorus more than make up for it. It is then rapidly followed by 'Through With Buzz' (more memorable pop hooks, this time with a bunch of strings in the background, but they're all right), the title track (enhanced standard blues number, the kind of which would be later improved on with 'Black Friday', but still effective), the folksy 'With A Gun' (great acoustic rhythm track, furious delivery), the music-hallish 'Charlie Freak' (minor song with a prominent piano line that makes it distinguishable), and the bass-heavy 'Monkey In Your Soul', with a lot of fuzz put on the four-string to make a Led Zeppelin impression or something. None of these songs will shake your booty to its foundation, but the more you listen to them, the more they actually get impressed inside yourself. You know that feeling, when a particular song doesn't seem to logically possess any unique hook, but you can remember how it goes even after several years of not listening to it? That's the case. So the album gets the 10 from me, ripping it from Countdown To Ecstasy after a long battle... I'll play the easy-goin' guy here, but really, in case you're not aware, I've heard EVERY single Steely Dan album ever released, apart from Two Against Nature, being hailed as their best by at least one or two listeners (yes, even Gaucho), so take this particular 10 with a grain of salt. It's just the most commercial album of Steely's ever - after they solidified their reputation among the general public with that one, they obviously found it easier to follow a less compromised path.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1975
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12
A dangerous, yet strangely peaceful record - then again, be warned, as 'peaceful' often alternates with 'boring'.Best song: BLACK FRIDAY
Track listing: 1) Black Friday; 2) Bad Sneakers; 3) Rose Darling; 4) Daddy Don't Live In That New York City Anymore; 5) Doctor Wu; 6) Everyone's Gone To The Movies; 7) Your Gold Teeth II; 8) Chain Lightning; 9) Any World; 10) Throw Back The Little Ones.
Katy Lied is often hailed as a turning point in Steely Dan's career, a moment when the band decided it finally had enough with 'rock' (not that the band was very much 'rock' in the first place) and veered off in the direction of a more jazz-poppy audience-friendly sound. It's also the first record where 'Steely Dan' as such finally became an undisputable duo: just Donald Fagen and Walter Becker working together in the studio with tons of other session musicians, some of them past full-fledged band members, some not. They also weren't touring at all at this point, and it's easy to see why: this sort of music is really unfit for live playing, much more so than Can't Buy A Thrill at least. I'm not such a great fan of the notorious 'trademark Dan arrangements' of their second, session-musician dominated period, as many people seem to be: I consider all of these songs very tastefully arranged, but there's hardly anything truly phenomenal here. If anything, one should emphasize exactly this fact: Katy Lied is a very 'non-outstanding' record (though certainly more 'outstanding' than, say, Aja, which runs along so smoothly I feel like skating on polished ice), yet it is also not pretentious and totally adequate.Despite all the taste and smoothness, though, I didn't feel like loving all of this record at first. The funny thing is, out of ten songs on here, I quite enjoyed the first five.. and used to quite despise the last five. Well, not 'despise'. To a certain extent, they're simply unmemorable. A few of these make the fatal mistake of getting on by lyrics alone, and that's never the sign of true Dan genius. Yeah, whatever, I'm quite shocked (in the artistically-correct sense of the word) by the subject matter of 'Everyone's Gone To The Movies', where a pervert waits for a child's parents to go away and then proceeds to feed him with porno flicks; but as far as my limited musical competence is concerned, the song has no melody at all, and the stupid, vibes-driven refrain sounds like some demented dated doo-wop chanting. Likewise, I suppose that many a broken-hearted intelligent person will happily identify himself with the protagonist in 'Any World (I'm Welcome To)', a song that has what might be passed for the most pessimistic refrain of all time; but the melody is routine, undistinguished lounge jazz - unmemorable, diluted piano chords with hardly any structure or serious rhythmic pattern. Now this is the kind of stuff you'll never meet on a Bob Dylan record... Mind you - none of these songs are nasty. After a couple hundred listens, one even starts to appreciate cute little snatches like the gentle-but-perverse refrain of 'Throw Back The Little Ones' or the relaxed organ of 'Chain Lightning' (possibly the best number on the second side, but still too soapy for me because the melody is way too primitive and the harmonies are way too unimpressive... and unexpressive, too). In a certain sense, the second side can even be extremely rewarding, as it's the more "musically-oriented" side, with Steely trying their hand at funk and fusion and, well, all the stuff that places them in the category that I chose for them out of near-random principle. (So sue me!). And yet don't go away, because now I'm gonna blabber a bit about the first five songs. The best composition on here is the one that opens the album, and it's a good thing, because this was my first Steely Dan record and you know how much depends on your first impression... 'Black Friday' is the hardest song on the album: a ferocious (well, 'ferocious' in the SD sense - no Jimi Hendrix poking around, that's understood) blues workout, where the usually hard-hitting lyrics are ideally complemented by a brilliant guitar part and a wonderful vocal arrangement - the echoey effect on Mr Fagen's voice was a brilliant idea, and it makes the song all the more spooky-spooky. Not that I really understand what the hell the dude is singing about; in any case, lines like "When Black Friday comes/I'll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor" sound much better when they're echoed around the room, don't they? Then there's the humbly gorgeous 'Bad Sneakers', a steady, solid piano ballad with... hey, you will not believe it - with a real hook. Yeah, I mean that little tricky time signature change when they sing 'bad sneakers and a Pina Colada my friend' - it drew my attention immediately and made me realize what a great song this is in its entirety. Good work. The guitar solos are nice, too, and Donald sounds uncannily like Dylan. Quite catchy. He also sounds very Dylanish on 'Rose Darling', a weird, but charming ballad where the protagonist invites his... err.... partner to... err... well. Apparently, his wife which he lovingly calls 'snake Mary' is in another town and moreover she's gone to bed, so there's really nothing to worry about. But again, it's not the lyrics that attract me, it might be those fully convincing vocals and the fluent guitar lines and the powerful piano chords in the refrain and... mmm, it's very hard to discuss Steely Dan songs, they're all so alike and yet all so different you have to choose your words very carefully. Although it's not too difficult to discuss the stunning blues 'Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More'. The song's built on an addictive guitar riff, and, again, the vocals sound so powerful and desperate you can't help singing along. And then, of course, there's 'Doctor Wu'. This works as the magnum opus of the album, almost like a mini-conceptual-rock-opera in its own rights, and while I don't find the melody as powerful as on the previous four songs, I simply won't say anything bad about it. For trivia, there's a very nice sax solo by Phil Woods on it which is well worth hearing. In all, I fully agree with those who rate Katy Lied as a 'transitional' album: it's almost as if they started out as a 'rock band' ('Black Friday'), metamorphosed into a jazz band halfway through the album ('Doctor Wu') and fuzzed out into a mellow jazz-pop combo towards the end. The process is not a very pleasant one, at least, in my humble opinion; then again, the mellowed-out dudes might wanna reverse my judgements in exactly the opposite order. All the world is made of freaks, after all: it's just that there are quite a few ways of freaking out.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1976
Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9
Slumpy. The old sound's been lost, and a new one hadn't yet been found. Slumpy and occasionally stupid.Best song: THE CAVES OF ALTAMIRA
Track listing: 1) Kid Charlemagne; 2) The Caves Of Altamira; 3) Don't Take Me Alive; 4) Sign In Stranger; 5) The Fez; 6) Green Earrings; 7) Haitian Divorce; 8) Everything You Did; 9) The Royal Scam.
I find it very hard to like this one. Very hard. On Royal Scam, Steely Dan shifts their musical paradigm further - one more step, and they're completely in jazz-pop land with Aja. Likewise, here they veer away from any signs of folk or traditional rock beat. These ditties are mostly bouncy, jingly-jangly and very danceable - whether you'd want to dance to a tune entitled 'Don't Take Me Alive' is another matter, of course, but for the most part this is DANCE POP. And quite forgettable, uninspired dance pop, too. It's obvious that the 'new' Steely Dan sound was not quite worked out yet: the instruments are way too blatant and prominent here, with generic MOR guitars slashin' in and out, cheesy, conventional synth lines added at every juncture, and not even a tiny sound of emotional roughness which was so suitable on songs like 'Black Friday' and would be suitable on 'Josie' a year later.It all comes down to culminate in 'The Fez' - one of the most atrocious musical pieces ever set to tape by a decent band. Take this away and I'll clench my teeth and give the album a nine; as it is, an eight seems to be a forced compromise. Yes, I understand that the utmost stupidity of the song was probably intentional: the guys have only bothered to write two lines repeated over and over again - 'Ain't never gonna do it without a fez on; that's what I am, please understand, I wanna be your holy man'. If this is some kind of anti-Muslim provocation, I'm not too interested; what I am interested in is skipping the song whenever and wherever it appears on my CD player. The main synth riff that drives it, to me, personifies everything I could ever hate about mainstream braindead pop: for some reason, about a good third of the worst Russian pop music seems to have been based on endlessly recycling it. There are tons more ways of applying 'provocative stupidity' - just look at T. Rex's 'New York City', for instance! Okay, okay, I've vented my frustration enough, so it's time to talk about the rest. Nothing on here except for 'Fez' really irritates me that much, but nothing is that attractive, either. I count one great song - 'The Caves Of Altamira', a tune about naive, romantic childish fantasies whose relaxed flow, with nicely ebbling saxes and keyboards and a driving, non-disco beat, perfectly suits the lyrics. The vocal melody is the greatest hook on here - 'before the fall when they wrote it on the wall...' That's what I call a terrific resolution of the vocals-flowing problem. The song really belongs somewhere else - it would make a fine addition to Katy Lied and definitely improved its rating one point. Hey, woncha do that for me? After all, one great number still won't save The Royal Scam of sinking to the very bottom! Most of the other songs combine the formula 'cynical, unconventional lyrics' with the formula 'bland, forgettable melody'... hmm, wasn't that the case of the second half of Katy Lied? Oh, I forgot, it's about the same band. I can easily tolerate the spooky 'Don't Take Me Alive' - a cheerful ditty about such an innocent, ordinary subject as a bookkeeper's son who's not gonna give up and even has a case of dynamite to defend his case. The guitarwork on there is at least a little bit impressive, and the chorus is catchy. But I can hardly tolerate mediocre dreck like 'Sign In Stranger' or 'Green Earrings', not to mention the endless, droning title track telling the saga of two unfortunate drug dealers. I don't even know how to start describing these songs - 'jazzy' is too diluted a word. Completely lifeless they are, lifeless, cold and vague - but not the kind of shiver-sending 'coldness' you'd meet on a contemporary David Bowie record. Just dull, energy-less coldness. No hooks, either. 'Haitian Divorce' is at least entertaining because it's all built on a cool synth-processed guitar - they achieve the sound that would be taken over by Pink Floyd a year later and used on 'Pigs (Three Different Ones)'. But that's where the comparison ends: on 'Pigs', the sound was ideally suited to the very idea of the song - the synth treatment imitated the pigs grunting; on 'Haitian Divorce', the tone only dissettles the reggaeish groove the band is trying to establish. And, while the lyrical matters of 'Everything You Did' are absolutely shocking, even more so than 'Everyone's Gone To The Movies' (a husband accuses his wife of adultery, then proceeds to force her to show all the dirty things they did), after five listens the song still doesn't strike a bell on me. I guess it's all a matter of desperation. The melody is way too stupid and diluted. Let's sum up. One great song. Two decent ones (I haven't yet mentioned 'Kid Charlemagne' - an energetic enough, menacing enough opening dance number with some obscure personal critique I've forgotten all about already). Two so-so ones, with a few interesting elements. Three completely forgettable ones. One atrocious, friggin' worthless piece o' crap. You do your little mathematics if you want to waste your time, but on my wasted intuitive level that more or less equals a weak eight. Which means I'll hardly get the urge to listen to this tomorrow. You gotta give me my due - I have patiently listened and listened to this, hoping that the magic would finally show up. It didn't. I'm not surprised.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1977
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11
A subtle and, sometimes, enigmatic collection of jazzy tunes - it's just that you never realize when boredom metamorphoses into enlightenment.Best song: BLACK COW
Track listing: 1) Black Cow; 2) Aja; 3) Deacon Blues; 4) Peg; 5) Home At Last; 6) I Got The News; 7) Josie.
Wow... now here's one album that takes a loooong time to appreciate - but in the long run, it's worth the wait; Aja succeeds where Royal Scam could never hope to. And why, would you ask me? Because history put it so that there are several different levels of its apperception. Initially, one might think of Aja as a nice, pleasant jazz-pop record that makes up for some good background music when you're not too keen on paying attention - without any obvious banalities or excesses of overtly commercial pop bands. These tunes are quite danceable, and this time around, the Dan dudes come up with lyrics that are hardly offensive: they still tackle unordinary subjects, but, apart from occasional lines like 'you were very high', you'd hardly find anything to sue them about.The second level is absolute disgust - like I mentioned previously in the review for Katy Lied, this album is way, way too smooth and polished to generate any true rock'n'roll excitement, hell, any excitement. It's stuff to be played in the car! On a long long trip - preferrably in the mountains, when you shouldn't be disturbed by anything while you're driving! What a travesty. And this, of course, explains the immense radio popularity of the material from Aja. Which, in turn, irritates music lovers: not only is this stuff boring, it's also overplayed. Double travesty. Even worse is the fact that you cannot really accuse the songs of anything. This is NOT CHEESE: the guys really did work hard on the album, hiring top-notch players, working on the lyrics, smoothing out all the edges, diversifying the arrangements, coming up with simple, but not cliched melodies... no wonder Aja has often been called one of the best-cared-for records of the Seventies. Triple travesty - you can't even criticize it on a serious level. So, how to get away with it? Now you might just as well take my advice, since, as expected, I skipped right over the first level of apperception and landed straight on to the second. In other words, my first listens left me completely unmoved - I was prepared to give this an eight, a seven, whatever. BUT - repeated listenings do manage to bring out the best in this stuff. However, in order to do so, you must be initially good-willed. If you do not want this album to turn out good (and want it with a flame and a stern will), it will never turn out good. If you feel like throwing this stuff away, better do so at once - better still, shove it under the bed, and one day you might find yourself wanting to give it one more try. Unless, of course, you hear 'Deacon Blues' every day on the radio, in which case there's hardly anything to be done at all. And thus an ounce of good will and half a dozen careful listens have slowly convinced me that this is a really good album. Now I must say a large percent of the songs still leaves me unsatisfied. The spirit of the album, as far as I'm concerned, resides in (a) its moodiness, (b) its slight, subtle menace. Therefore, tracks that are neither (a) nor (b) can go to hell for all I care. I absolutely despise 'Peg' - it's actually nothing but a stupid, bland Phil Collins-style popster, and no intelligent lyrics about an (un)successful model can save it. Yeah, I know there were no Phil Collins-style popsters back in 1977; in which case they have wisely predicted a Phil Collins-style popster. And both 'Home At Last' and 'I Got The News' don't really do much for me, either: they stick out too much with unsuitable arrangements - way too pompous for the former and way too dance-jazz-oriented for the latter, not to mention that they're kinda generic and have no atmosphere. The other four songs rule, though - definitely, and since they're mostly longer than the others, this means that the great stuff really prevails over the shitty one. What I really enjoy about the first side of the album is how moody and enthralling it is - 'Black Cow', 'Aja' and 'Deacon Blues' are all able to send shivers down your back without sounding too dangerous. 'Black Cow', a story about a cheating wife (heh heh), features an incredibly heartwarming and comforting refrain, and even if I'm usually anxious about generic female backup vocals, here they sound just about right. And towards the end of the song, what's that they're chanting? 'So outrageous'? Ever heard somebody chant 'so outrageous' in a jazz-pop song? The title track took the longest time to get used to - but in the long run, the odd aura of the song, with Eastern-influenced vocals, mystical twangs of the bass, wonderful twirls of the keyboards, and short, but interesting solo bursts from numerous guest players, have got me under control. My favourite moment in the whole song, though, is the wonderful synthesizer riff that comes in at somewhere around 2:35 into the song - maybe because it's the only passage on the whole album that could be called a 'riff', but maybe because there's someone oddly curious and defying about it. Don't know what, though. But the track really takes me places. And then, of course, there's 'Deacon Blues' - the number about an unlucky saxophone player who's gonna make his name anyway. Again, a wonderful refrain and beautiful harmonies, although I prefer to concentrate on the subtle guitarwork: some of the licks in the verses are magnificent and bring me to tears sooner than the refrain itself. This might have been overplayed to death... but take me, I'm your 'expanding man' - I never heard it on the radio. They wouldn't play this on Russian radio anyway, because no-one in this country really knows who Steely Dan are. (Have I unknowingly caused masses of American immigration to my country? Hope not.) Without radio overplay, this comes out as a terrific number, anyway. But, so as to demonstrate us that they're really the same Steely Dan that did all that murky stuff before, they finish the record off with 'Josie', the only more or less moderate 'rocker' on the whole record - a song about a gal who's, well, er, 'the pride of the neighbourhood'. Whether she satisfies everybody voluntarily or the song is indeed about gang rape, I don't know, but it's obvious this is no innocent matter of 'Deacon Blues'. Sneering guitars, menacing synths and echoey vocals - everything is back, and if you've been bored to death by the previous three songs (like I was), this is a great compensation at the end. In all, this is much, much, much more than just your typical radio fodder. You just have to get over the smoothness of the record and realize that smoothness is this band's incarnation's main schtick, like it or not. Smooth - atmospheric - intelligent - professional. After all, there are hundreds of other records to put on when you need real excitement. Be diverse. Get a life. Aja can be a satisfying atmospheric travel through the mind of the 'common thinking man', if you ever want to give it a chance.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1980
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
More slickness and bitterness, but actually, that slick minimalism has a charm of its own, doesn't it?Best song: BABYLON SISTERS
Track listing: 1) Babylon Sisters; 2) Hey Nineteen; 3) Glamour Profession; 4) Gaucho; 5) Time Out Of Mind; 6) My Rival; 7) Third World Man.
The last Steely Dan album before a short twenty-year pause, Gaucho is definitely not an easy listen - heck, Aja wasn't an easy one, and this one requires even more patience and above all, a potload of good will to tolerate. I suppose that if I had to review it right after reviewing Aja, there wouldn't have been that much good will left; fortunately, I got it long after I'd assimilated and reviewed Aja, and I had plenty of time to recuperate. Which - alas - only goes to show how much does our actual judgement depend on the spur of the moment. Dammit, I'd like to have a sterile environment to write those reviews in, but then again, how much of a soul and a heart does one have within a sterile environment? It's a vicious circle! An exitless situation! A dead end! We're all losers, why fake it?Oh well, consider this a specific perverse kind of a psycho disclaimer. Whatever. Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan's oh so often maligned 1980 offering. It's easy to see what all the fuss is about. It is mostly in the vein of Aja, except that a) there's even less spontaneity here (I know that's hardly possible, but it is so - legend even has it that the record's best guitar solo by Larry Carlton, included on 'Third World Man', was just lying in the studio for a long time and was artificially 'stuck' on by the Dansters), b) there's not a single 'gritty' breath saviour like 'Josie', c) there are no more interesting instrumental jams like on the title track of Aja. That last point might be considered good news by some, but it actually works against the duo, as it makes the listener concentrate exclusively on the main melodies, and the main melodies aren't all that hot, either. So Gaucho was quickly written off as an attempt to repeat their previous success that ends in lots of meaningless, lifeless posturing and all that crap. That's what the critics said. The critics are right, as usual. According to all those standards, this is crap - but personally speaking, I find Gaucho to be only a slight letdown from the standards of Aja. The crucial difference, I think, is in that the album emphasizes atmosphere over actual playing. There are some nice solos on here, but overall, the record is an obvious exercise in minimalism: you'll see that many of the riffs on here are heavily syncopated, and the actual solos are often reduced to isolated notes played in bunches of two or three in a row in different tonalities. The instrumentation is laid on very sparsely as well, and so the listener should suck in the SOUND, not the actual MELODIES of all this stuff. And I, for one, dig the sound, because it's Steely Dan for Chrissake. Their jazzy groove is impeccable from a technical point, but it's also moody, relaxating and even soothing in some sense. Actually, my main problem with the album are the lyrics: so far, I have been mostly successful in trying to decipher the guys' messages (at least, not any less so than most members of the regular English-speaking commune), but the lyrics on here baffle me entirely. Okay, stuff like 'Glamour Profession' (about the, well, how do I say it? 'morally corrupt fun of Hollywood', right?) is pretty obvious, but the rest just floats by. So in the end I just disregard the lyrics and that's that. Fuck 'em, I say. Need I spend the rest of my life worshipping Mr Fagen and Mr Becker for their deeply-encoded message? No, I needn't do that. These snubby, high-browed pricks deserve worse than that. Have you seen their insolent letters to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame yet? The bastards! The dear old Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame actually induced them, and all they have to say is... well, just read their friggin' presumptuous response at their official site. The shameless punks. Nah, just kiddin' ye, of course. I do think they really went overboard with that Hall of Fame debacle, but then again, we all know the Hall of Fame sucks, don't we? Serve 'em right. Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan's oh so often maligned 1980 offering. Okay now, lemme give you the lowdown on what I consider the best song on here... Ready? 'Babylon Sisters', of course! That one's a real blast, and arguably the only catchy number on the whole record. A little bit of reggae-tinged guitar in the background, atmospheric synths, a little injection of perverse decadence, and a powerful 'Babylon sisters shake it' refrain. But seriously now, it's not that much better than the album's second single, 'Hey Nineteen', Steely Dan's minimalistic peak, or the nearly synth-pop (what else should I call a song based on a synth riff?) epic 'Glamour Profession'. And if you ask me, it's hardly a coincidence that Mark Knopfler was drafted in to play lead guitar on the album's most (and only) upbeat track, 'Time Out Of Mind', which certainly inspired Robert Zimmerman seventeen years later to put out an equally atmospheric, although just a wee bit more depressive album of equally shitty tunes (where 'shitty' = 'unbelievably cool', if you know what I mean). That was a hoot, actually. I suppose that was pure coincidence. Rock music has grown so large nowadays that coincidences like that happen every day. But that's hardly a reason for me not to have a little fun about it, right? Before I got carried away, I was talking about Gaucho, Steely Dan's oh so often maligned 1980 offering. And I just wanted to say that Knopfler plays excellent lead guitar on 'Time Out Of Mind', and, of course, his quiet, humble minimalistic tone fits the record to a tee. So, in all, count me if not happy, at least, retaining normal blood pressure. Apart from 'Babylon Sisters', I couldn't EVER hum even one of those melodies if I tried, but I'm pretty sure lots of people would find the atmosphere alone compelling enough to raise the record's rating to a 15! Oh well, make it a FIFTEEN THOUSAND, even! Me, I'll stay cool and award the record a 'merely good' overall rating of 10, but then again, that's far better than most critics could ever come up with, so I just managed to flatter myself. How nice of you, Mr Starostin. There! I keep exposing my over-gross ego again!
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 2000
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
I'm baffled. Is this "Gaucho Vol. 2"? Or "Aja Vol. 3"? Or maybe "The Royal Scam Vol. 4"? I know! It's a compilation!Best song: sheez, sometimes I wonder whatever made me introduce this feature...
Track listing: 1) Gaslighting Abbie; 2) What A Shame About Me; 3) Two Against Nature; 4) Janie Runaway; 5) Almost Gothic; 6) Jack Of Speed; 7) Cousin Dupree; 8) Negative Girl; 9) West Of Hollywood.
It's like the Eighties and the Nineties never happened. Progress? Synth-pop? Hair metal? Grunge? Teen pop? Adult contemporary? What's all that shit? Here we have our trusty duo, Steely Dan, contemplating the perils and the pleasures of the world, churning out the exact same relaxed/tight rhythms as they did earlier, lifting off right from where their previous albums left, never shifting any moods, never changing a single detail. Always reliable. Always steady. Always trustworthy. Always monotonous. Always boring to the extreme.It's kinda strange, in fact, why Becker and Fagen decided to come back after such a long period and turn out such a nostalgic offering, but nobody can answer that question, and neither can I. We'll have to face the facts as it is. We'll also have to take the fact that if you're a Steely Dan fan, you'll predictably love this stuff, and if you're not, you'll predictably hate it. I wanted originally to give this album an 8 or 9 for unoriginality, but then I remembered that punishing Steely Dan for lacking originality is like punishing a McDonalds for not serving sushi, came back to my senses and gave it a nice rounded-out 10. I suppose I could stop right here - if you heard all the 'classic' Dan albums, particularly the post-1976 ones, you won't need to read any further. Then again, I suppose this is a perfect place to babble a bit about what it is that makes a Dan album so special. Or so "un-special", whichever you prefer. It is, in fact, best seen on this particular album, because it's even more formulaic than anything else before, except maybe for Gaucho, and so is a nice polygon for analysis. (As you understand, it's far easier to analyse something formulaic than something non-formulaic). See, there are no melodies here. Some basslines, yes. That's the closest they come to creating an instrumental melody on this album. Most of the rhythm tracks here could easily be substituted for each other - they all sound nice, with beautiful guitar licks from Becker and soothing keyboard and relaxing sax from Chris Potter, etc., etc., but just try to hum something instrumental from this record. You'll get bored with yourself in no time. On the other hand, the vocal melodies are, for the most part, thought out so excellently that they're almost yuckily catchy, and rare exceptions like 'Negative Girl' (very weak and clumsy - one of the least smooth melodies they actually thought of up to this time) only serve to emphasize the better cases. This is why Two Against Nature cannot please anybody but the most diehard fan on first listen: it takes time to understand that these Fagen-sung lyrics, like, actually, constitute vocal melodies, and they're like, wow, memorable. Well, kinda memorable, at least. More often than not. The lyrics hardly move me, though - without second thought, I'll admit the lyrics here are cleverly thought out, but they go so overboard with American realities that I often find myself extremely puzzled (what the heck is the title track supposed to be about, for instance?), and too many of the songs are so intentionally nostalgic, dealing with reminiscences, late meetings, comebacks, looking-backs, etc., etc., that I can hardly be touched. Neither can the others, I suppose - that's why out of all songs, the one that's quoted the most often is 'Cousin Dupree', a somewhat stupid song about an attempt (unsuccessful, mind you) of incest. In fact, 'Cousin Dupree' is the only link between this album and Dan's trademark "nasty" thematics of old: everything else is smooth and well-combed, strictly within the ranks of decency and correctness. Unless I missed something, which is possible. Anyway, the most catchy songs on here would include the first two - the choruses of 'Gaslighting Abbie' and 'What A Shame About Me' are cute, nicely flowing and all that. 'Cousin Dupree', despite the stupidity, is pretty nice, too, and maybe 'West Of Hollywood' can also classify as a highlight, although I'm not particularly sure whether it was really necessary to end it with this three or four-minute sax-based jam. Then again, guess it's my personal preferences - I hate meek sax wanking. Gimme some Bobby Keyes over this stuff any time of day. The rest of the songs are all good, too. How did they go? Funny that the drumming on the album is so good - the tight, pulsating rhythms are often able to add extra punch to those songs - yet almost every track lists a different drummer. Only goes to show the extreme professionalism of the Danners when it comes to selecting studio musicians. The list is, in fact, enormous, and I don't have the least intention of bringing it up here. All in all, if this is really the last Dan album, they could hardly have made a better parting gift for their fans, and I suppose that their taking no chances with modern-day production cannot, after all, be purely explained by nostalgic reasons; clearly, it is an obvious "fuck you" to the entire commercial musical scene of today. You may have heard the story of Becker and Fagen mocking the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame when those guys in the establishment made the fatal mistake of nominating Steely Dan for election? With insulting letters and all? Ah, well, while I did find the Becker/Fagen behaviour rather childish and even assholish in places, it's still nice to hear 'em ossified/mortified music juries get a cold shower...
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 2003
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10
For those who always take good taste over good melodies.Best song: THINGS I MISS THE MOST
Track listing: 1) The Last Mall; 2) Things I Miss The Most; 3) Blues Beach; 4) Godwhacker; 5) Slang Of Ages; 6) Green Book; 7) Pixeleen; 8) Lunch With Gina; 9) Everything Must Go.
In between this and that, Fagger and Bacon got a Grammy, urinated all over it, defecated all over the music industry business (figuratively speaking, of course, although given all the nasties contained in their classic lyrics, I can't vouch for being completely wrong in the literal sense either), and made it look like they were embarking on a crusade for art, taste, and purity like a modern day version of Don Quijote and Sancho. Naturally, their second post-reunion album fully reflects all these happenings by being even more smooth, even less noticeable, even more forgettable, even less experimental, than Two Against Something. But is it a bad record? In the words of Tim Rice, the fifth Evangelist, "that's what you say".One of the reasons why Everything was given a relatively cold shoulder upon release is that Steely Dan have sort of wasted their credit of good faith. Two Against Nature was a generally nice album, but rather in the 'promising' than in the 'self-sufficient' department. Perhaps people were expecting that the duo would release no more, or if they would, they'd move in some unpredictable direction. Now what you have is that they do release again, and if anything, they move back, to being even more laid-back and 'careless' than two years ago. How does that tie in with their pretensions, exactly? This remains unclear. But the most probable answer is that they are intentionally moving in for simplicity, with one clear goal at stake: demonstrate that it is possible to create 'tasteful' music with a minimum of effort. Where 'tasteful' is the key word. Not 'catchy' or 'artsy' or even 'serious'. 'Tasteful'. How do you go in for tasteful? Well. Here's the recipe for the opening song. The drumbeat should be firm, but light - make it too heavy and you might be accused of pandering to the nu-metal scene, but if you make it way too lax, that's hideous adult contemporary. No, the drums should be somewhere in between, with a touch of swing to them (jazz is always high on our good taste markers list, unless your name is Kenny G). Keith Carlock does that job well. Bass guitar - strictly in the background; the pattern should be felt rather than heard, but at the same time shouldn't be too simple. That way, if you get sued for underplaying your bass part you can always produce the demo tapes and knock the judge into a corner. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Walter Becker. Guitar: every note is silver, but silence is golden. You can make your guitar play a straight uninterrupted riff, of course, but that's called selling out - next time you know it, you'll be swinging off that tree with the thirty silvers scattered on the ground below. No, no, as Ringo Starr once put it, 'my occupation is syncopation'. However, if too much silence actually frightens you, the best way out is to get not one, but two rhythm guitarists - each of them syncopating in his own manner and within his own time period. Jon Herington and Hugh McCracken do a great job with it. As for solo guitar, well, that's one instrument that can spare itself such a strict application of syncopation, but no getting out of hand, please! Too loud and you're on your way out to Rockville, hunting for quick bucks, coke, pussy, and Grammies. No audience teasing with extra emotiveness; no show-offing with extra technique. Resist temptation. Bring in Walter Becker again. Brass section: well, this ain't Las Vegas, so loudness is out of the question, in fact, it's preferrable that the brass instruments avoid crossing with each other wherever possible. Tenor sax solos are very, very, very recommendable, in case you actually want to have a solo, of course, because, as we all know it, soloing per se is very rarely a sign of good taste. Makes music too pretentious. Look how many swell guys there are in the studio - what, we're gonna make one of them stand out? That's disturbing, to say the least. Of course, you could say that Fagen is always standing out, as he's the lead vocalist. But does he really? No, he doesn't. His singing is so smooth, no over-emoting, no drawn out notes, nothing. Good taste. Good taste. That's more or less what 'The Last Mall' sounds like. That's more or less what every other tune on here sounds like. It's not news for you if you've been following the Dan's career. It's just that Everything Must Go is as close to the "generic Steely Dan album" mark as they ever got, which prompted me into writing that passage here, even if I was perfectly within my rights to insert it into any previous review starting from Aja at least. The saving grace is that there are modest vocal hooks almost on every song. "Good taste" does not exclude hooks; in fact, true good taste always presupposes their presence, it's just that they only constitute one important ingredient of the whole brew, and sacrificing even one other ingredient in favour of "stronger" hooks would certainly violate the rules, if you know what I mean. Hey now, was there ever a time in which Steely Dan wanted to sound inaccessible? They're not some kind of elitist avantgardist schmucks. You want hooks, you got 'em. You just have to accept all the seven sorts of syncopation as well. I like 'Things I Miss The Most'. It's got a little George Harrison-like piano twist to it, as well as a tingly feel of nostalgia that's moderately stronger than in other places. (Remember, when you're using terms like "moderately stronger" or "moderately weaker" in relation to Steely Dan compositions, you're talking real moderate, in milligram/millimetre amounts - this is yet another important constituent of "good taste". Good taste is always just a pinch of dust away from bad taste, or else it turns into bad taste itself. It's sort of a cyclical thing). I like 'Godwhacker'. It's got the best riff on the record - syncopated, of course [see working conditions above], but not devoid of a tiny speck of emotional content (I'd characterize the emotion as "menace", which seems to be supported by the somewhat paranoid lyrical emphasis on how 'GodWhacker's on the case', whatever the case might be. But then again, calling a song "menacing" would be a direct insult to good taste, because no song that conforms to good taste can ever be described by a direct adjective referring to a certain emotional state. Write too many "menacing" songs and you'll end up being called the Kurt Cobain of your generation. Then there'll only be one way out). I like 'Slang Of Ages'. It's so cockily cool with its atmosphere and it's got this great pun: 'Now did you say you were from the Netherlands, or was that Netherworld?' (Untrivial lyrical puns are absolutely essential for good taste; even if common sense gives you no excuse whatsoever to insert one in, you'll just have to sacrifice common sense. Preferring common sense to good taste is the equivalent of artistic suicide. Today, common sense makes you refuse an illogical lyrical pun; yield to it and tomorrow, it will start urging you to lick the smelly ass of the record industry). I like the title track. It's overlong, but it's so blissfully symbolic. 'I move to dissolve the corporation in a pool of margaritas'. '...Cause we're going out of business - everything must go'. Is this a veiled prediction that the world as we know it is sorrowfully coming to an end? Or is it self-reference, hinting at the album being one last summary of the creative path of Steely Dan? In any case, it's a clear triumph of good taste, as any album that conforms to good taste must inevitably leave the listener in doubt about its overall message. Only corporate bastards and sellouts end their albums with a full stop. Serious, respectable artists endorse the question mark instead. You might think I've been doing nothing but making fun of the "anything-but-dynamic duo" here in this review. Not at all! I'm very partial to this kind of musical philosophy, myself. And I did enjoy the album, every single time I actually listened to it. So what if the hooks are so thin, and the arrangements so monotonous, that I can't remember it no matter how hard I try? Only albums recorded in bad taste are easy to remember. Good taste should be slippery and hard to notice. Any respectable Taoist shall confirm this to you. And while neither Becker nor Fagen have ever been under suspicion of sticking to Taoism, as far as I know, Everything Must Go is as close to the ideal of old man Lao-tzu as possible.
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