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Donald Fagen - Doing it again
on 15 October 2012
It all starts with a signature groove so nasty it could be a pantomime villain and before you can shout "behind you" we are deep into the new Donald Fagen LP "Sunken Condo's". With the "Nightfly Trilogy" now safely tucked away the erstwhile Steely Dan frontman is free to cast away the concept shackles and provide a straightforward set of expertly delivered jazzy rock tinged with soul. Whether he and Walter Becker will ever follow up the decade old "Everything must go" is a moot point but frankly as long as both artists produce wonderful solo material from time to time we should pay homage to the mighty forces. There have been some reviews claiming that "SC" ranks alongside "The Nightfly" as Fagen's best solo effort to date. This suggestion deserves outright scepticism since his first solo album recorded nearly 30 years ago remains peerless and his latest doesn't match it. What "Sunken Condo's" does represent is further evidence of that unswerving and alarming quality control that Fagen has achieved on all his albums ensuring that nearly all of them remain head and shoulders above most artists. It's all about cool detachment, a sprinkling of cynicism and songs like onions that you peel away and discover different layers. By doing so they reveal something slightly quirky and original. The delight of an unnoticed backbeat, deep bass run or a jazzy guitar phrase so that every listen sucks you in to Fagen's sheer level of musical craft.
The albums opener is the louche jazz of "Slinky thing". It has everything you would expect from Fagen present and correct. The band is tighter than a gnat's chuff, lyrically we have females standing next to a "Reptile cage" and great understated guitar solos from Jon Herington. Next up "Not the same without you" is so pure Steely Dan it could have been on "Gaucho" where ironically forty years after "Can't buy a thrill" Fagen tells us "that I'm evolving now/at a really astounding rate of speed". Who are we to argue? Third track "Memorabilia" is one of those upon first listens seems rather repetitive but stick with it since it turns out to be a lovely song. "Weather in my head" is one of the toughest urban blues songs Fagen has penned and references Al Gore with great horns from co-producer Michael Leonheart, while "New Breed" has one of those slight reggae vibes which are a specialty of our hero and echoes "Gaslighting Abbie". One bump in the road is the cover of Issac Hayes funk anthem "Out of the Ghetto" which would no doubt make a great encore in a live show but doesn't really fit here. Do not fret too much however since Fagen follows this with his best song in many a long year and the albums highlight. "Miss Marlene". This is a brilliant and effortless collection of jazzy grooves so infectious they could cause a pandemic and his acerbic nasal croon is as good as ever. A fine Fagen lyric underpins it and the band is cut loose resulting in some of the greatest "Dan style" instrumentation since "Aja". Download it immediately and think kindly of your reviewer. More cool nasty funk follows on the truly excellent "Good stuff" a song which deals with the shipping of an illegal special brew which requires that "Tonight we jack the convoy/ Two hundred barrel run /Trucked in from Agooey/In East Patterson". Closer "Planet D'rhonda" has a superb solo at its heart from jazz guitar giant Kurt Rosenwinke (thank you Erik) but at this stage it sounds like one of the weaker songs on the album.
So there it is. The master returns with yet another dose of what Adam Sweeting has described with pinpoint precision as "a set of impeccably tailored grooves which wear their expertise with insolent nonchalance". "Sunken Condo's" also confirms that there are a generation of musicians like Donald Fagen who qualify for Saga holidays but who refuse to lie down and indeed seem to be thriving into the third age. This album is quite a treat and you really would be very foolish not to let it soundtrack your daily existence for a short while.