Duos are a funny thing. A band is like the engine of a car; there are multiple parts working in tandem and all are needed for everything to work. Solo artist are like trapeze artists, they walk the high-line naked and alone. If they fall, they fall with all eyes squarely on them. Duos, however, are a bit tricky. Good duos, the really successful duos, are not made by the merger of two good solo artists but rather the joining of complementary talents. The relationship falls somewhere between husband & wife and mosquito & a pulsing vein.
So what happens when a duo parts ways? Well sometimes it’s good. And sometimes it’s very messy. The best example I can think of as far as a messy breakup is Simon and Garfunkel. When their duo ended it meant great things for Paul Simon…and pretty much the end of Art Garfunkel. Maybe that’s cruel, but I can name 10 Paul Simon songs, but I can’t name one Art Garfunkel song.
Steely Dan started out as a band and then devolved into the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Of the two, I’ve always liked Fagen better. Fagen always seemed cooler to me. When I found out that Donald Fagen had put out a new solo album this month, I was intrigued but not in any rush to hear any of the music. I’m a pretty big Steely Dan fan, but I’ve yet to really venture into any of Becker & Fagen’s post-GOUCHO output. I’ve heard nice things about TWO AGINST NATURE but I’ve been hesitant. Steely Dan has always existed for me as a bit of a relic, a late 1970’s throwback.
But, someone forwarded me mix of Fagen’s solo stuff on Spotify and one track stuck out: “I’m Not The Same Without You.” The horns. The velvety groove. The nasally sneer. The chic, icy poetry. Equally biting and mournful, “I’m Not The Same Without You” is everything that the best Steely Dan songs were. In fact, had I not known it was a Fagen-solo track, I’d have just assumed that the song was from one of the two newer Steely Dan albums.
So I reluctantly dived into SUNKEN CONDOS (pun intended). And I’m here to tell you, that it’s good. It’s really, really good. If you enjoy the acerbic wit and jazzy sensibilities of Steely Dan, you’re gonna love SUNKEN CONDOS. Fagen’s album is everything there is to love about Steely Dan, but slowed down just a tad and with a bit more of a jazz-edge.
The album opens with “Slinky Thing,” which is a pretty good description of the album as a whole, actually. It’s a classic bit of Fagen neuroticism, detailing the unease of dating a much younger woman (the titular “Slinky Thing”). It reminded me a great deal of “Hey Nineteen.” And that’s a good thing.
“I’m Not The Same Without You” is definitely the album’s lead-single and as I mentioned before, it’s really good. As is the last track “Planet D’Rhonda,” about an insane (or insanely fun?) woman that you just can’t leave. It has all the element of a Steely Dan song, but seems slower and feels a bit stripped-down. I’m sure Becker could have gone nuts on this, and pretty much all the songs on SUNKEN CONDOS…but he didn’t. He didn’t because this is the Donald Fagen show, and as such, the songs are a bit mellower. Some might see that as a bad thing, or a weakness of the SUNKEN CONDOS, but I actually dig the laid-back mood of the album.
My favorite song on the record “The Weather In My Head” which compares the turbulent climate change-infused storms to the self-doubt and depression plaguing the song’s narrator: They may fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said, but tell me what’s to be done about the weather in my head? I think that’s a great line. “The Weather In My Head” is a great blues song and it totally knocked my socks off the first time I heard it. Usually Fagen’s writing is so damn obtuse and distant, that it takes a few listens before things sink in, so I was shocked when I not only understood the song’s meaning on the first listen. I also found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the song’s sentiment.
Solid songwriting, impeccable production and musicianship abound on SUNKEN CONDONS. In fact, the only misstep is on “Out of the Ghetto” which sits in the middle of the album. It’s (up) tempo feels off compared to the rest of the album’s slower, unhurried pace. But the biggest problem I have with the song is in the lyrics: the talk of “discos” in 2012, even if Fagen’s being ironic, turned me off. In fact, the song’s tongue-in-cheek take on race struck me as all wrong. I think Fagen’s heart is (mostly) in the right place but I could see the song being…shall we say…misinterpreted by lesser minds. “Out of the Ghetto” is definitely not the track I’d put on for someone new to Steely Dan or Fagen.
Overall I’d recommend SUNKEN CONDOS. It’s a good album that’s inspired me to seek out more of Fagen’s more recent output, as well as made me interested to hear what Becker does when he’s not kicking it with Fagen.
EDIT: It was pointed out to me by a commenter on Facebook (seriously, why aren’t you friends with Defending Axl Rose on Facebook? Go “Like” it right now) that “Out of the Ghetto” was in fact a cover. And in fact, they were correct the song is an Isaac Hayes covers, which not only explains the strange disco reference, but also adds all sorts of interesting shades of irony to the song. Fagen is an interesting, complicated, cat. My knowledge of 1970’s R&B/Soul music is laughably limited, so I would like to thank my friends over at Facebook for pointing this error out to me.
Thanks for the incredibly insightful review. As a huge fan of Fagen’s solo work as well as Steely Dan, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad are on my short list of true favorites. Morph the Cat has grown on me and I really like a few of its tracks. I’ve only listened to Sunken Condos twice so far, and not yet with complete attention. Now I’m definitely looking forward to spending the time it takes to allow it to join the canon of Fagen tunes already permanently downloaded into my brain.
No, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It really means a lot.
I was really surprised by how good this album was, so I’m eager to hear more of Fagen’s solo stuff. What album should I start with? Also, what’s up with Walter Becker having like 2 albums? Seems like he should have been just as voluminous in his output as Fagen.
Lastly, have you see the Yatch Rock TV show? Someone directed me to it on FB and they’re pretty great (episode 10 features Steely Dan).
Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNTARSM-Fjc&hd=1
I LOVE Yacht Rock. Eagles v. The Dan, lol. Hilarious.
Re: Fagen’s solo stuff, I’d say start at the beginning with The Nightfly (1982), then follow it up with Kamakiriad (1993). It feels important to me to not only absorb the different approach and vibe he takes on each album, but to take the time journey on a couple of levels – Nightfly is an homage to the past and Kamakiriad was meant to take place slightly in the (then) future around the year 2000. Morph the Cat (2006), is the end of the trilogy – I’m not sure of the time frame in which it is supposed to take place – I guess it is (was) the present. Also, the three, in another way, deal with the stages of life – Nightfly has a youthful optimism and Morph definitely has some dealings with endings and death. On it’s own, I wouldn’t think of Kamakiriad as being a swimming-through-the-middle-of-life album, but looked at in context, it would make sense to view it that way. But first and foremost, just enjoy the music!
I agree with what you say about duos – when you take them apart, what each produce can be pretty disparate. I love Steely Dan so much that I hate to dis either of them, but I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of Becker’s solo work. I don’t own any of his solo CDs, so also have to say I haven’t listened extensively. For me, I’m not a huge fan of his voice (I’m in LOVE with Fagen’s voice.). The songs are okay, but don’t stand out for me, particularly. But as I say, since I haven’t focused on them, there could be standout exceptions. I do think Becker is a brilliant player and in the live show SD, he’s the one with the humor and personality. I’d be curious to see what you discover delving into WB’s tunes.
So I have been listening a lot to Sunken Condos (such a weird title and image, after the hurricane). I am loving it. It’s the only thing that has been breaking my recent re-obsession with Adam & the Ants. I really like “Weather in my Head” also. It is very accessible, which is nice once in a while. 🙂 I also agree with the problematic nature of “Out of the Ghetto.” I actually dig the groove a lot, then always somewhere in the middle of it I think, “WTF? Really, Donald?!” I can see how he sings a lot about gritty, city culture and felt he had a “pass” to have the character in the song use that kind of approach. Ultimately, I think not so much. With all the weirdness DF and SD have sung about over the years, it may be the first tune that gives me pause in quite this way, And yes, better it doesn’t fall upon ill-informed ears.
Ok, well this was a long comment! Should’ve written my own damn blog, which has been sorely neglected (for at least some good reasons, so I won’t stress too much… but I will get back to it).
I just started listening to The Nightfly, and I’m digging it!
Sunken Condos is really strange for me as I only recently escaped New York following Hurricane Sandy. The title/artwork coupled with “Weather In My Head” are a bit of theme, as is the idea of being “under water” in one’s property investment (which I also know a little about, sadly).
I don’t feel bad for Becker, because he’s a great talent even if he needs a Donald Fagen. There’s no shame in being a better collaborator than solo artist. I will agree with you that Fagen’s voice is infinitely better.
I don’t mind the long comments, so long as you get back to writing on your own website. And hey, there’s no rule that says you can’t review this album yourself.