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Donald Fagen finds his bad self...and does just fine
on 25 March 2006
A state of uncontrolled excitement came over me when I discovered Donald Fagen was releasing a new solo album - this great man's music has given me unparalleled enjoyment over the years. With 'Morph the Cat', Fagen has again crafted an absolute masterpiece of songwriting, musicianship and groove - entities that seem to have become conspicuously absent in the majority of popular music.
The advice from the ghost of Ray Charles appears to have been taken literally by Fagen - "Don don't despair, take some some time, just find your bad self you're gonna do just fine" - well it's been 13 years since Kamakiriad, he's certainly found his "bad self" and the music is pure joy.
As with all the classic Steely Dan albums and The Nightfly, there seems little point in highlighting "stand-out" songs, as with each listening, every track becomes a favourite. The musical nuances are gradually revealed, the subtle irony in the lyrics starts to fit together, the groove becomes thicker than ever, and another piece in the complex jigsaw of the Steely Dan character (and concept) fits into place.
Where to start? Well firstly this album SOUNDS so fantastically gorgeous it's nearly impossible to switch it off. Elliot Scheiner has replicated the lovely 'live' feeling of Everything Must Go - Fagen's vocals are fantastically well-recorded: punchy and direct on Brite Nitegown, soothing and soulful on What I Do. The assertive and soulful tone of Freddie Washington's bass underpins the whole album - how wrong I was when I thought Tom Barney was the only man for the modern-day Dan.
The music is full of challenging harmonic changes (check out the bridge on Brite Nitegown...oh my god!), carefully crafted melody (The Great Pagoda of Funn) and subtle counter-melody in the horn arrangements. For me, one of the most beautiful moments comes in 'What I Do' with the entrance of the backing vocals in the closing moments of the song - Brother Ray would be proud!
As ever, Fagen provides character analysis like nothing else - the tragic suicidality of Mona, the perverse infatuation on Security Joan, the contemporary paranoia in Mary Shut the Garden Door, and perhaps a love song in the Great Pagoda of Funn? I like to think so.
Superlatives aside for a moment, if I had to make a criticism it would be in the tenor sax department - for his angular qualities and beefy sound, Walt Weiskopf is great, but sorry Don, I'd much rather have the complex and swinging post-bop of the mighty Chris Potter.
Becker and Fagen believe Keith Carlock is "destined to be one of the greats", and let's face it - they'd know. The Steely Dan drummer's chair has been occupied by a veritable Who's Who of modern drumming (Purdie, Porcaro, Gadd, Lawson, Chambers, Erskine, Colaiuta), and to this album, Carlock brings class and versatility. The rhythm section works incredibly well, and adding in Jon Herrington on guitar (the modern-day Larry Carlton?) makes for a tight ensemble. As for 'Phonus Quaver' on vibes, I'm inclined to think this particular character may be another figment of Fagen's imagination...!
There is music in this album that I will continue to discover for many years, and I find it a privilege to be around at a time where Steely Dan are having such a fertile period. So my advice - buy, borrow or steal this fantastic music from somewhere, you won't regret it!