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This review is from: Morph The Cat [U.S Version] (Audio CD)
Every album put out by the guys from Steely Dan, either together or separately, is an event. But also a worry. Their "late period" stuff (from Kamakiriad onwards) has been variable in quality. Plus there is also the weight of expectation - the stuff from the Seventies was, in parts, genius. The later stuff has been, well, just very good. So the arrival of this album through the post brought both anticipation and worry. What would it be like?
Superficially, this feels very much like most of their later stuff. The same rock/funk groove is there, the arrangements are similar, Fagen of course sounds the same. So in that respect there is nothing much to surprise. Tune-wise, it is probably somewhere between Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go - a little bit more melodic than the former and perhaps a bit less pop-y than the latter, and quite jazzy even for a Dan album.
If I was to characterise the tunes, the title track is my least favourite (more like a football chant to a jazz groove than a classic Steely Dan track) while Great Pagoda of Funn kind of loses itself. But Brite Nightgown grooves evilly and Fagen unleashes a Curtis Mayfield-esque falsetto (last seen on Transisland Skyway), while Mary Shut the Garden Door shimmers in a sort of clammy heat, and The Night Belongs to Mona evokes quite effectively NYC at night.
One notable change is that, unlike previous offerings, Walter Becker is nowhere in sight. And that, curiously, seems to be a good thing musically. Virtually all of the guitar solos on the previous two Dan albums and on Kamakiriad were by Becker and, to be frank, they aren't great. Here they have crack session musicians, and it's like being back in the Seventies in one respect - brilliant guitar solos. I always missed than on the last few albums and it's nice to have them back. (Not to diss Mr Becker - his solo album has some great guitar sections, but he didn't seem to rise so much to the occasion on the two latest Steely Dan CDs.)
The album is interesting in a lyrical sense too, in that the words seem much more Steely Dan-like. Fagen's previous solo efforts always seemed a bit divorced from reality - the Nightfly is a paean to his youth, and Kamakiriad had this dodgy science fiction plot. Morph the Cat is very now, with most of the lyrics very much evoking a post-9/11 paranoia and Bush-era politics.
So Great Pagoda of Funn is about a couple trying to insulate themselves in their relationship from the ugly realities of the world outside, with its "severed heads and poisoned skies", and Mona has become a child of the night due to a terror of the outside world (maybe due the "fire downtown"). Meanwhile, a sinister cult has taken over the government in "Mary Shut the Garden Door" (presumably a reference to Bush and the religious Right) and even the light-hearted romance of Security Joan is about an airport security guard ("You won't find my name on your list/Honey, you know I ain't no terrorist/Confiscate my shoes, my cellphone/You know I love, love, love you, Security Joan"). Morph the Cat is about a giant (albeit benign) smoke cloud floating over Manhattan - I, for one, remember the last big pall of smoke in New York. Even the death of Ray Charles gets a look in, with What I Do.
Overall, this is a pretty satisfying package. I think it is fair to say that we are unlikely to see any great innovation in the Steely Dan/Fagen sound any more, and his creative juices are maybe a little drier than in his glory days. But in the latter canon from these two guys, this one can hold its head up high.