Steely Dan

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Can't Buy A Thrill (1972), 6.5/10
Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), 7/10
Pretzel Logic (1974), 7/10
Katy Lied (1975), 6.5/10
The Royal Scam (1976), 5.5/10
Aja (1977), 6/10
Gaucho (1980), 5.5/10
Donald Fagen: Nightfly (1982), 6/10
Donald Fagen: Kamakiriad (1993), 6.5/10
Two Against Nature (2000), 6/10
Everything Must Go (2003), 5.5/10
Morph the Cat (2006), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

During the 1970s, Steely Dan, an invention of pianist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker (two New York-based songwriters), coined an elegant and laid-back style, ideal for living-room relaxation, by fusing pop, jazz, soul and blues, and then embellished it with guitar dissonances, tempo shifts and erudite lyrics. Their success was partly due to producer Gary Katz, who must be credited with the characteristic "clean" sound of their records.

On his own, Donald Fagen has released far more creative and original albums, proving that he was much more than a cocktail-lounge entertainer.

(Translated from my old Italian text by Nicholas Green)

Steely Dan, the brainchild of pianist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker (both New York-based songwriters who had already released a soundtrack), crafted an elegant, laid-back style of lounge music that blended pop, jazz, soul, and blues, embellished with erudite lyrics, guitar dissonance, and tempo changes (credit also going to producer Gary Katz, to whom we owe the characteristic "clean" sound of their records). Despite its intellectual austerity, Can't Buy A Thrill (ABC, 1972) yielded two minor hits, Do It Again and Reelin' In The Years (guitar solo by Elliott Randall), but the sound was still influenced by stablemates Three Dog Night (Midnite Cruiser, Kings, Dirty Work).

Countdown To Ecstasy (ABC, 1973) was the album that set them apart from the rest of the music scene: King Of The World, Bodhisattva, My Old School (guitar solo by Jeff Baxter), and Show Biz Kids offered chamber pop-jazz. The format was that of easy-listening, but the "content" was more aligned with avant-garde music.

Pretzel Logic (ABC, 1974), on which Michael McDonald (future Doobie Brothers), also sings, accentuated the group's jazzier aspects and served up the catchiest song of their career, Rikki Don't Lose That Number. But virtually every song offers something different: Night By Night, Monkey In Your Soul, Through With Buzz, Any Major Dude Will Tell You, Pretzel Logic.

Steely Dan also became well-known for the somewhat snobbish ways in which they avoided concerts and interviews, and for that matter the whole apparatus of stardom.

Formally impeccable, perfected by the creme de la creme of session-men, Katy Lied (ABC, 1975), with Black Friday, Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More, Doctor Wu, Chain Lightning, and Throw Back The Little Ones; was followed by The Royal Scam (ABC, 1976), the group's bleakest album (Haitian Divorce) that nevertheless includes the amusing disco of Kid Charlemagne (which incidentally contains a terrific solo by Larry Carlton); and Aja (ABC, 1977), almost baroque, with Black Cow (a gospel choir turning into pop phrasing, ska guitar and jazz horns) Peg (a guitar solo by Jay Graydon), Deacon Blues (a ballad stretched to eight minutes by a bright sax solo), Josie, Home At Last (a horn-tinged bluesy melody), the eight-minute Aja (a piano-driven jazzy shuffle with a rather implausible instrumental jam of guitar, xylophones and whistle reinforced by a sax solo), set a new gold standard for pop music.

The velvety Gaucho (MCA, 1980) closed out their career with the refined digressions of Hey Nineteen, Babylon Sisters, Time Out Of Mind, Gaucho, and another extended, swinging dance track, Glamour Profession.

Often annoyingly polished, set to banal melodies, ornamented with short musical interludes from jazz pensioners, light to the point of muzak (to say nothing of the lyrics, a concentrate of literary pretentiousness), mellow and chewy for mass consumption, Steely Dan's songs represent the most detrimental aspects of the 1970s "re-alignment", perfectly interpreting the apolitical mood of the middle class that put "quality of life" ahead of revolutionary demands. In essence, they dusted off the easy listening of the 1950s for the Watergate generation. Mutatis mutandis, it was the same philosophy and it was the same sound. But, in that reactionary genre that brought about Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, Steely Dan were truly "artists", or, at the very least, "auteurs".

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

After the split (Becker was notoriously addicted to drugs), Fagen recorded two albums, eleven years apart from each other: Nightfly (Warner, 1982) is a pleasant and soulful collection of intimate music, the quintessence of Steely Dan's art, built around a Pete Townshend-like recollection of his roots. The slick production of horns, synthesizers, piano and choir disguises the upbeat soul ballad IGY, that pays tribute to both Stevie Wonder and Sting, the fibrillating funk a` la Talking Heads of Green Flower Street, the Afro-jazzy soundscape of New Frontier, the call-and-response dialogue of The Nightfly, the Caribbean funk of The Goodbye Look, the swinging soul-jazz finale of Walking Between Raindrops, and, spread all over the album, vocal harmonies that hark back to the quartets of the 1940s and 1950s (Ruby Baby, Maxine). The only drawbacks are Fagen's vocals (rather unoriginal and frequently stretched) and the melodies (rather derivative).

Fagen's follow-up, the eight-song concept Kamakiriad (Reprise, 1993), was a subtle and psychological work, the most ambitious project of his career yet. The funky rhythm and hysterical falsetto of Trans-Island Skyway or the catchy singalongs Springtime and Florida Room are quite trivial, but the manner Countermoon blends James Brown, Prince, big-band sound and a gospel choir, or the smoothly syncopated atmosphere of the seven-minute Snowbound, or the fractured chant and soaring chorus over light jamming of Tomorrow's Girls, redeem whatever cliches are employed by simply overthrowing them. Even the bouncy closer Teahouse On The Tracks boasts a sophisticated interplay of vocal choir and horn fanfare that turns the tables on disco-music. The eight-minute On The Dunes is an abstract mini-concerto of timbres and pauses for a restrained soul meditation in the vein of Stevie Wonder.

Decade (MCA, 1985) is the anthology of the hits.

The duo reformed for Two Against Nature (Giant, 2000), that returned to Steely Dan's trademark sound with Gaslighting Abbie and boasted the tour de force of West Of Hollywood. Everything Must Go (Warner, 2003) was less inspired although still impeccably produced (Godwhacker, Green Book).

Fagen's Morph the Cat (2006) is a fresco of New York after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Fagen has a hard time rendering the sense of paranoia through a sleek pop music that is fundamentally the antidote to any sort of paranoia.

Becker died in 2017.

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