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Indeed there are moments in this successor to 2001's Two Against Nature, the first Steely Dan studio album in 20 years, when Fagen and Walter Becker seem to be going through the motions, when familiar routines from earlier albums seem to have been slotted in to produce mix 'n' match productions rather than organically new compositions. In addition, the duo's stylistic range has narrowed, the lusciously saturated and varied arrangements of the 1970s (and Fagen's own 1983 album The Nightfly) mostly superseded by leaner, bluesier frameworks. Also, despite good solos from tenorists Walt Weiskopf and Chris Potter, the all-star line-ups of old are absent. Nevertheless, the clarity, detail and musical ambition are still here and in a musical climate that, more than ever, values style over content, another Steely Dan album is a positive blessing, a reminder of high musical values jettisoned in the primitivist purge that began sweeping through popular music in the late 1980s.
Given Steely Dan's distinguished track record, new classics may be hard to come by, but three pieces here compare favourably with the masterpieces of the 70s: "Slang of Ages" introduces Becker's first vocal in Steely Dan's three-decade history and the combination of funky blues shuffle and blooming, lyrical middle-seven (that's right) is a perfect illustration of the transmutation of the blues that lies at the root of many Becker and Fagen songs. "Green Book" has a five-foot deep groove dominated by a vinegary, menacing chord cluster and punctuated by a delicious Headhunters-type unison blues refrain, and "Lunch with Gina" develops a bouncing shuffle vamp into a bright 20-bar blues sequence with a surprisingly sinewy Fagen synth solo.
The successful rebirth of Steely Dan may, at least in part, be a symptom of the retrospective environment that has nurtured numerous revivals since pop went seriously post-modern in the late 80s. One difference in the case of Steely Dan is that although it's second time around, they're still way ahead of their time. --Mark Gilbert
Kicking off with 'The Last Mall' the guys are quickly off and running with a cool and confident opener. Production to these ears is just awesome, something that permeates the whole album. Is this something to do with the analogue recording and live tracking in the studio? Whatever, let's have more of it.
I should mention at this stage that the album comes in a number of formats and I can't wait to hear the DVD-Audio version which, if my plain old CD is anything to go by, must be an experience worth queuing up for.
'Things I Miss The Most' continues in a sad vein as Donald Fagen tells how he misses a whole host of things now that the love affair is over, but can't seem to bring himself to admit that he misses her most. Well that's my take on it anyway. I hope that Gary Clark (formerly of Danny Wilson fame) is listening, as this is the kind of song he should be surfacing with when he eventually decides to come out of his own self-imposed retirement.
Previous albums have had their lighter moments ('Cousin Dupree' as an example) and 'Blues Beach' fits that genre to perfection. Top down, cruising by the beach......bliss!
Throughout the album I keep hearing little links to the past and 'Godwhacker' takes me back to the 'Gaucho' era or perhaps Fagen's first solo album, 'The Nightfly'. Interesting instrumental break - reminiscent of Toots Thielman?
Next up is 'Slang Of Ages ' which is something that fans of Walter Becker's '11 Tracks of Whack' CD will welcome. Walter sings! Well, kind of.Read more ›
I initially played it twice a day for 3 solid weeks, got pretty fed up with it, gave it a rest for a week and then found myself pining deeply for it. It's now superglued into my deck and I'm humming the indelibly burned tunes and lyrics all day long.
As regards heightened expectations, it's difficult not to expect a stormer from the boys after relatively so long. They've certainly delivered, but it's a vastly different tack. We've just got to get used to it. Don't get me wrong - I can't begin to tell you how much I miss the session pro guitar solos and fills. Walter's nebulous noodling doesn't really come close. More drum dynamics coupled with more vocal doubling for Donald would also be good. He's not as clear or strong as he once was. I guess that's 'Nature Against One'...
But listen to me! What am I saying? This album obliterates anything else made in the last twenty years (including their previous album 'Two Against Nature') It's a masterpiece!
Each song has a story and the beauty of them is that the poetically hip lines leave you guessing as to the actual meaning. Hey presto - a different story every time. The music never wears out, complete with the intensely polymorphic imagery.
I guess jazz lovers like me will gravitate to numbers like 'Green Book'. This is as close to old Dan stuff that I've heard since Aja. Simply superb. Check out the imagery as he cruises through 'this dirty city': "The festive icons along the way, the boardwalk, the lovers, the house on fire".
Get out the lyric sheet and read what the female backing singer is singing in 'Pixeleen'.
But I can say that they seem to have their juices flowing once more, with some really grooving tracks and great lyrics ("I'm building the Andria Doria out of balsa wood" cracks me up every time as a witty summation of the dumped male's desparation, especially with the twist Fagen puts on it while singing the line in The Things I Miss The Most).
The feel is a bit more like one of their earlier 70's albums, such as Katy Lied or The Royal Scam, with most of the songs fairly short and sweet rather than sprawling out like some of their later works. And the tunes have returned, although they are perhaps a bit twistier than they used to be. The best tracks are probably Blues Beach, Pixeleen and Everything Must Go, with Green Book and Godwhacker coming up close (although it's a matter of personal taste - as with all Steely Dan albums, some songs are better than others, it's just that the really good ones are better than everybody else's).
So why just 4 stars? One of the joys for me of the earlier albums was the sheer quality of the instumental work, especially some of the tastiest solos (Reelin' In the Years, Rikki Don't Lose That Number, Kid Charlemagne, Peg, Deacon Blues) I ever heard.Read more ›