TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 13 February 2013
I'd like to say I love this album, and give it five stars, as I've always felt I loved Donald Fagen, and that he couldn't put a foot wrong. But, as a drummer, I have to say that I share the reservations of some reviewers I've read on't interweb; given the stringently high standards required of his drummers in the past, both with The Dan and solo, having drums that sound 'assembled' as opposed to played (I suspect the drum tracks are, at very least, 'collaged' from numerous takes, if perhaps not outright sequenced) isn't the best modus operandi to be adopted by DF.
Still, at the end of the day, Michael Leonhart (aka Earl Cooke, Jr) has put together very good rhythm tracks, however he did it. However, some reviewers are saying the recording sounds more warm and organic than previous DF dishes, and I can't really see that, especially not with what amounts to robotic drumming underpinning the whole subaquatic edifice.
As already mentioned, I love DF - his music has brought me countless hours of joy (and more than a few tears too) - and it's clear to me that, as a reviewer I read somewhere put it, he put the 'Steely' into the The Dan, especially if one notes the continuity of vibe between Dan material and Don's solo output. As DF himself said in an interview with a Stateside DJ, these days his material more or less writes itself. That's tantamount to saying he's found formulae, and that's effectively saying he's repeating himself. Which he is.
The only notable exception being the cover of Isaac Hayes' Out Of The Ghetto, which DF has described as being an 'Ashkenazi' take on the original, reclaiming the ghetto for a Jewish identity. Fagen's work in the NY Rock and Soul Revue, and his jamming at Levon Helm's place (an association one might not have expected, if based purely on musical pedigrees) seem to have softened him up enough to go back to a cover. Whilst not without precedent -the last time being his sublimely harmonious Ruby Baby, on The Nightfly - he chooses a very different song, and gives it a very different treatment here.
If, like me, you like The Dan and the Don, more of the same isn't all bad, but I think there are really only two, perhaps three, standout cuts here: Memorabilia and Miss Marlene being the best, with the blues of Weather In My Head coming up in third place. Memorabilia harks back to Nightfly themes of Cold War nuclear ideas ('souvenirs of a perfect doom'), done as only Don knows how, with a mellow, laid back groove akin to (albeit more 'swung') Kamakiriad's Snowbound.
Miss Marlene manages to rise to the alchemical level of his best golden nuggets, with his evocation of the tragic Miss M rolling bowling balls along moonbeams at the local alley: 'Can't you hear the balls rumble? Can't you hear the balls rumble?' He sings, reaching a high soulful register against a pillow of easy horns. Classic Don, nuff' said! Weather In My Head is as frank and confessional as DF has ever been, the 'burned out hippie clown' of Slinky Thing now has to 'live with the pain'. In the interview I alluded to earlier he mentions that he's on antidepressants. The tortured soul of the artist. A sad but familiar refrain.
Elsewhere there are more neutral genre pieces, such as Good Stuff, where a gangster yarn allows Fagen to strut his verbal stuff, to excellent if less moving effect. There's his trademark dry wit, on the back-to-front or inside-out reinvention of a lost love song, recast as ode to liberty and rejuvenation, that is I'm Not The Same Without You. Slinky Thing and New Breed show DF worriedly aware of the ageing process, the first redeemed by the upbeat groove, whereas the latter over-eggs the cyber-soufflé, for me at any rate, and is the closest the album gets to filler (altho' some seem to feel Ghetto is filler too).
I've never bought DF's whole trilogy schtick, regarding his previous three solo albums. Nightfly remains, for me, the most consistent and best of all of them thus far. Kamakiriad's not quite as good, but I do go back to it quite a lot. Never gotten into Morph The Cat (his most pristine and hi-fi recordings ever, sonically*, but the ones that least involve me emotionally), even after trying it again having listened to Sunken Condos.
So, if you like Fagen (and/or Steely Dan), you'll probably like this. Some more great music from DF, but only a few tracks that are really exciting new additions to his illustrious catalogue.
* Apparently several numbers off Nightfly, I forget which, became standard sound-man PA testing fare. Are they still, I wonder? They certainly lack the rich bass and crystalline clarity of Morph, which is a brilliant album to use if you ever need to compare a bunch of speakers!