Steely Dan

Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)


Can’t Buy a Thrill‘s serenity lies in its sheer intricacy – every instrument is inconspicuous but at the same time forthright with flowing delivery and, as a friend of mine put it, a “tight sound”. “Tight” is usually a clichéd terminological description for a musical cacophony, but I know what he means: very little room for respite, but the instrumentation is so well thought out and diligently placed it’s difficult to not feel content with its raw but scrupulously mechanical nature.

Donald Fagen and David Palmer’s vocals are a close-knit kinship that do not waver, riding in tandem with homogeneous cadence and even tone, not in tangential opposite directions. Jim Hodder on drums is a triumph – his respect for the rest of the band’s sound and talent is personified in his gentle caressing of the cymbals in the likes of “Do It Again” and “Fire in the Hole”. It’s so tranquil and dandy it’s more than enough to be heard. The striking element of this record other than its educational instrumentation is the lyrical theme and tone. In its gaiety-meets-reflective state wherein “years” is mentioned in lyric and song title, this record is nostalgic and chirpy with aspects of dead-end narcotic abuse.

Even the strange and ostentatious sitar solo and organ in the opener are congenial with this wondrous piece of production. The collective group do not veer from their central focal point of each member having a say but never overpowering one another – thank you, Jeff Baxter and Elliott Randall.

“Reelin’ in the Years” is ingrained in the Irish psyche. Pity I could take or leave its existential squawk. (A)


Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)


Free jazz, jazz fusion, jazz rock, whatever you want to call it; the Dan’s intricacy continues, even lyrically sticking to the reflective drug abuse and life-in-the-fast-lane habitat from the debut.

“Your Gold Teeth” chomps up that near seven minutes with raucous jazz into the bluesy production of “Show Biz Kids” – check out those female harmonies and vocals. This album’s contradictory theme of said kids – “Don’t give a fuck about anybody else”, “And I’m never going back to my old school”, “In the county jail/I was smoking with the boys upstairs” – meeting the personal and peaceful contact with the Bodhisattva remains a baffling idea even at a conceptual level. We’ll go with it, however. Has Donald Fagen made contact with his Buddhist cherub? The wavy and distorted psychedelic shimmer of the finale can only suggest they are indeed holding hands.

David Palmer has departed and I don’t think we miss him, the opener accounts for a band sharing this sentiment. Though it falls slightly flat occasionally, and I only mean slightly (“Pearl of the Quarter”) and occasionally (“Razor Boy”), its rockabilly, blues, psychedelic and – let’s not dismiss – pop elixir mixed with their early 20th-century influences are uplifting experiences.

As long as their drugs are used for spiritual contact and, more importantly, jazz rock, I’m content. Very. (A)


Pretzel Logic (1974)

Obtaining the vagaries missing from previous albums, Pretzel Logic takes on a more “conventional” route through the media of mechanical guitar solos, pop technicalities and conforming vocals.

The “wild time” might not require drugs anymore, or maybe they do; Fagen’s “Through With Buzz” – “Buzz” either fizzy narcotics or a drugged-up money-grabber, who knows? “Night by Night” gives us the impression and persona of an early-’70s cop show theme song with rock-heavy solos, incorporating these riffs to the nightlife of a uniformed enforcer. “Any Major Dude Can Tell You” that the Middle-Eastern-esque licks are to die for. The vocals are restrained in the stalls a little bit, they do miss the point on some of the instrumental backdrops (“Barrytown”), but more often than not a message of a dream-like utopia is more than enough to keep you intrigued with what our drugged-up purveyors of production are portraying.

Walter Becker’s bass I now love, adding foundation to the already sound… sound. This album’s very reasonable logic doesn’t fill me with the same vigour as previous endeavours, and sometimes the solos are so well versed they’re too well versed. The lyrics are so profound and wholehearted they’re actually quite meaningless, or more fairly stated, tough to grasp, but their skill of producing their jangly jigsaw is to behold, always.

“Jack” is back, and so’s my critical hat. Kind of. The skills of the sessions are still at the fore, be they less drug-infused, but more streamlined. (A-)


Katy Lied (1975)


The distorted jazz rock of the opener “Black Friday” isn’t really indicative of the remainder of the first half’s overproduced and over-mechanical vocals, alongside the sickly-sweet over-niceties of “All I ask of you/Is make my wildest dreams come true”. Even their trademark flow is at times trite, begging for a kick in their tactful tacks.

The second half, however, grasps what they delved into in their original form – nostalgia, be that in fact trite or foppish; “Your Gold Teeth II” drawing from the vast druggy atmosphere of Countdown to Ecstasy and “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”‘s utopia-longing daydream, like our predecessor’s “Barrytown”. It gives the album that extra bit of spice and listenable quality that was lacking.

The guitar solos are very technical like Pretzel Logic, but Pretzel‘s carried with them a like-minded approach alongside the lyrics and vocals. Here, they’re lost in the over-mechanical drone. The vocals aren’t as free or as natural until the penultimate beauty of “Any World”.

The more blues-inclined-over-jazz-fusion drawl of the first half is overpowered, thankfully, by [a slightly watered-down version of] what they know. Pity about the vocals. It only barely attains this grade, mind. (B+)


The Royal Scam (1976)


“Did you realize, that you were a tampon in their eyes?” That’s literally what I heard… twice! The mystical boogie and programmatic guitar solos aren’t enough to elicit a redeeming response from much of the same rigmarole. Their prowess and competence in the studio lends itself fastidiously to the realms of top-forty fortitude, but it feels safe – plenty of sax fills and functional instrumentation. More humanity, please.

This album’s vignettes on a host of American heroes/anti-heroes leave us pondering whether we’re misunderstanding their view – are they glorifying drug use or pulling the piss out of “Kid Charlemagne”‘s depleting narcotics business? I don’t know. The lyrics are indeed less personal and more observational of American life, which is good, but if you’re going to fling “Green Earrings” at us, please refrain from creating a parody of yourselves, lads. The guitar is either hiding or hideously overpowering for much of this record. I’ve never heard a guitar attempting to eat itself before (“Haitian Divorce”), and when it fails, it cries (“Everything You Did”).

They always have some sort of feature which shields them from ignominy, and that’s their general sound, not all of it is shit at once, and you can get away with making pap when you possess that quality. Even the ridiculous funk cheese of “The Fez” is quite serene and playful enough for you to dive into.

A small bit longer in length, not utilising that time for anything new. Apparently, Donald Fagen gave up on them being “one of the big, important rock groups” quite a while ago. Kind of feels like it. (C+)


Aja (1977)


US Western rock permeated the youthful minds of the ’60s and ’70s – the surf rock of The Beach Boys, the chooglin’ Creedence Clearwater Revival and the hotel-hogging Eagles. The Dan brought their talents to Western pop culture. Though born in the steely surrounds of New York, they flung forth the effervescent jazz of so many of their East Coast influences, sounding naturally West in the process. This album illustrates such sentiments.

If an album could sound like the sun, sound outdoors, sound like beers in the back garden in the evening, here it is. The first side’s disco and soul surrounds fill the soul with amiable joy. It’s got that aforementioned California sound, it paints a picture of Western lifestyle. “Black Cow”‘s mellowness is met head on with “Aja”‘s differing jazz timbres and tones, which is met thereafter with the defiant “I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I play too long/This brother is free/I’ll be what I want to be”.

The second side’s “black-sounding” classic of “Peg” keeps the joy rolling but is somewhat halted by the middle portion’s mundane attempt at the first side’s ambience; “I Got the News” is a little crass, don’t you think? “Could it be that I found my home?”, forgetting New York are we, lads? “Josie”, with its delectable guitar work, is a finish to keep in mind the opening quartet’s beauty. Also, I must add, this record is probably Steely Dan’s best use of the session musician – Larry Carlton’s slick guitar, Victor Feldman’s electric piano, and the differing solos, be they guitar or sax.

There’s something I miss about their older sound, however. Maybe it’s Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, maybe it’s less jazz fills, but if this is what I’m going to get from now on, fine. (A-)


Gaucho (1980)


I thought initially I had discovered a gem, but the over-obsequiousness of the production is too much. “Living hard will take its toll” – their “illegal fun” has caught up with them, and though their vignettes of somewhat obstreperous characters continues to efficient and anecdotal proportions, I would like less mechanics and more touch and feel, which we’ve more than heard previously.

The backing vocals and harmonies are vortex-like listening, sucking you right in. “Hey Nineteen/No we got nothing in common” leaves my nineteen-year-old self tracking back to the same flashes of teenage remnants, and a severe lack of dance moves. The vocals are also quite mechanical which actually coincides with the automated instrumentation. So many sessioners, so little time.

The lounge atmosphere of “Babylon Sisters” (those female vocalists, yum) and my teenage flashbacks are quite quint, but this record has been a victim of studio studiousness, unfortunately. Over-obsessiveness and fear of the banal can be quite… banal, I should know.

Maybe these characters are who Fagen and Becker long to be – third world men? With all of the picking and choosing of session musicians, maybe. (B)


Two Against Nature (2000)


Twenty years out of the studio and they still haven’t learned their lesson. It’s gorgeously methodical, preppy and polished, illicitly intricate. “You can choose the music/I’ll set up my gear”, Christ, we could be here a while.

What separates this from Gaucho is its start-middle-end approach; it actually feels like the songs have an ending, while Fagen and Becker are still producing the predecessor in their lunatic, meticulous minds twenty years on. However, this possesses some of their best pulp, and what’s most striking is Donald Fagen’s unwavering vocals after nearly thirty years – production, people. Some Miles Davis is tapped into with the “Two Against Nature” intro and “Almost Gothic”, which is almost not that at all, is mostly nothing. Only mostly.

Once again, they’re so tuneful it’s unnatural… literally, forcing you to take one grain of character-illustrating or sinew of musicality with you whether you like it or not, and let’s face it, you do, we all do. We are well past the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it phase, I don’t think there’s any return ticket.

What a shame about this. Another initial glimmer of a gem but stymied by the sweet aperitif of genius obsessives. (B)


Everything Must Go (2003)


Steely Dan – like a lemon torte – you’ll bite, you know it’ll be overpowering in its salubriousness, but you’ll bite again. We all have, we all love it. Say it. They still have something to say themselves after thirty years, just ignore “Now did you say you were from the Netherlands/Or was that ‘Netherworld’?”

The modern day riddles of modern society and mysterious characters may not shield you from their yearning to emulate the hip Generation Y kids looking for sex every corner they turn, they’re just a couple of dirty old-timers, but aesthetically this record goes back to their early shenanigans – back on vast instrumentation themselves; Becker on bass; and up-tempo pop to boot. Though their tenacious technicality is still reigning supreme, each of the tracks have a coherent elegance and slip into each other nicely; take into consideration the switch of lead vocals in the middle of the album, it’d pass you by.

Consumerism, technology and, like before, alcohol are on show. Maybe they are hip. Female vocalists again liven up what could’ve fallen flat on its face. Props as always to the contemporary elements of their sound even if I don’t like lemon, which I do, just not in torte form, but I’ll still bite, just in case. Follow?

A comeback of sorts, which was never needed, but this “underrated” piece of sophisti-jazz/pop can go a long way into infiltrating youth culture and, bear with me, rekindling old flames. (B+)



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