Tag Archives: Donald Fagen

SUNKEN CONDOS by Donald Fagen

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. 

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“Reelin’ In The Years”

Like coffee, Steely Dan is a bit of an acquired taste.  I grew up in a household where, for a few years, there were only two CD’s in the house: The Beatles REVOLVER and A DECADE OF STEELY DAN.  That greatest hits compilation gathered quite a bit of dust.  The appeal of a band like The Beatles is instant and able to transcend age and experience.  The appeal of a band like Steely Dan is…a bit more complicated.

To be fair, I never gave Steely Dan more than a causal listen before casting them off as “lame.”  I must say, the band has a certain reputation among rock fans, many write them off as “dad rock”, self-indulgent, and worst of all: boring.  One of my all-time favorite comedians, George Carlin, even has a pretty funny joke that has the lameness of the band’s fans as part of it’s punchline.  Another factor at play in my inability to fully enjoy Steely Dan was my own ignorance of jazz.  Steely Dan, unlike most rock bands, are more jazz-influenced than they are blues-influenced. Jazz is a funny thing, and like coffee (and Steely Dan) a bit of an acquired taste.

“You been tellin’ me you’re a genius
Since you were seventeen
In all the time I’ve known you
I still don’t know what you mean”

And so, I remained ignorant of the greatness of Steely Dan until my second-to-last year of college.  I was driving home from school one autumn afternoon when I heard “Reelin’ In The Years” on the local classic rock radio station.  I’m sure I’d heard it before, but I must not have been ready because that afternoon I was struck-dumb by the song.

“Reelin’ In The Years” is  awesome for two reasons: the blazing guitar work and the incredible delivery of the lyrics.  The guitar work is exceptional, so much so that guitar god Jimmy Page has been quoted as saying that the guitar solo in “Reeling In The Years” is his all-time favorite solo.  That’s mighty praise.  Singer Donald Fagen has gone on to sort of roll his eyes when it comes to the song, calling it “Dumb but effective.”   And I guess it’s effective, like a shotgun’s effective when fired within a foot of it’s target.  To be fair, “Reelin’ In The Years” is a great blunderbuss of a song compared to the more nuanced work Steely Dan produced over their long run.  I guess the fact that it’s more of a straight-up rocker is part of the reason it’s the most-played Steely Dan song on classic radio today.

“Reelin’ In The Years” would be an noteworthy if all it consisted of was Elliott Randall’s out-of-this-world solo-but then there are the song’s lyrics, which perfectly match the quality of the guitar work.  Like all of Steely Dan’s best songs, “Reelin’ In The Years” is equal parts bitter and wistful.  “Reelin’ In The Years” is accusatory and at the same time filled with a sad-sort of desperation.  Steely Dan’s lyrics are famously opaque, but on “Reelin’ In The Years” the band is a bit more on-the-nose obvious than usual, without the usual literary flair or West Coast double-talk found in most of their songs.  I think that’s another reason why the song is so popular on classic rock radio: it doesn’t take a PhD in English to figure out what the hell the song is about.

Admittedly not the coolest dudes in rock.

All the best lyrics in the world don’t mean anything if the delivery is off, though.  The lyrics, though a bit dumbed-down as far as Steely Dan songs go, are delivered spectacularly.  They come come fast and furious.  There’s so much venom in Fagen’s voice as he spits the words out, his voice barely keeping up with the wailing guitar.  The amount of information, the sheer volume of emotion and narrative conveyed so perfectly and so quickly it’s downright Dylan-esque.

The song ended and I switched off the radio.  I went home and got online and started reading about the band, trying to figure out which album I was going to buy first.  A month later I went back home to visit my parents, before I left I found that dusty copy of A DECADE OF STEELY DAN.  Without asking, I slipped the album into my duffle bag and have never looked back.  I never thought I’d be a Steely Dan fan, but I am.

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I first discovered Canadian Indie-rockers Boxer The Horse last year while browsing eMusic.   I really dug their awesome first album WOULD YOU PLEASE, especially the song “Bad Apples” which was one of the best songs I heard last year.  I played it countless times (so many times I literally lost count).   So as you can imagine I was pretty stoked when I found out that the band released a new album this week.  Boxer The Horse is a bit like the films of Wes Anderson–you’ll either dig their somewhat twee-sensibilities or you’ll loath it.  Their songs are carefully constructed, literate, and despite having a shiny-pop veneer are often pretty dark.  

FRENCH RESIDENCY finds the band improving and growing in just about every sense–the songs are better, the hooks are hookier,  and the songs are longer/more fleshed out.  One of the things I really like about Boxer The Horse is how diverse their albums sound.  They do spooky-indie pop (“Me & Steve McQueen”), straight out rockers (“Rattle Your Cage”), a kind of neo-folk (“Tough Luck”), and punk (“Bridge To The USA”).  I think it’s cool that the band does what they want genre/conventions be damned.  That said, I  can see how this might come across as a bit schizophrenic to some, and might even be considered a weakness for those who need everything carefully slotted into neat categories.  Regardless,  I find it refreshing and I’m sure this diversity makes them one helluva live act.

The best song on FRENCH RESIDENCY is “Rattle Your Cage.”   It’s that awesome brand of hard-charing pop song  the radio used to adore when we were kids, it’s shocking how good it is.  It reminds me of ROOM ON FIRE-era Strokes (that’s a good thing).  I love the hook, the guitars, and the awesome way the song collapses at the end.   “Rattle Your Cage” is the sort of song that demands to be played in an arena.  On the other end of the spectrum is “Me & Steve McQueen” which is quiet and intimate, almost anti-arena rock song.  It’s a murky, mysterious ballad that materializes and then quickly vaporizes like a ghost.  It’s less than 2 minutes of bliss.

I love that the laid-back “Tough Luck”  leads into the aggressive “Bridge To The USA.”  It’s a thoughtful bit of album construction that you don’t see much of these days.  The song “T. Rex” won me over as I was typing this review with the hilariously spot-on lyric: “don’t look so depressed on a Sunday morning /well don’t act like such a slut on Saturday night.”  That’s a Fagen & Becker-ish bit of cattiness I can’t help but love. The album is filled with little nuggets and flourishes that really impress and reward repeat listens.  I’m also intrigued by the fact that there’s a darkness lurking just under the surface throughout FRENCH RESIDENCY.  It reminds me of the way a lot of John Lennon’s solo albums felt.

Bad Apples, the whole lot…

That’s not to say that everything is perfect on FRENCH RESIDENCY, it’s not.  There are a few tracks that only-half work for me, the biggest offender being the Vampire Weekend-like “Party Saturday.”  It’s a bit too cute, even for me (though it does have a nice guitar solo).  “Karen Silkwood” is the other song on the record I just can’t get behind.  It’s so damn bizarre, lyrically, that I think I’m going to have to listen to it a few more times before I can figure out what it’s trying to say (if it’s trying to say anything).  A quick Google search reveals that Karen Silkwood was an Oklahoma labor activist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1974.  With that in mind, the song “Karen Silkwood” opens thusly: “I’m in the car when Karen Silkwood was killed / Texas Ranger won’t you marry me still?”  I’m all for complex lyrics and interesting narratives, but that’s just strange to be strange, right?  Speaking of odd things, I noticed after a few listens that there are multiple references to blood and bleeding scattered throughout the album.  I can’t say for certain, but I think this might be a subconscious-tic on the part of the band.  I know that as a writer there are some words and phrases I will use repeatedly if I’m not careful.  I wouldn’t be surprised if no one in the band was aware of this.

Historically, the second album is the one that separates the men from the boys.   FRENCH RESIDENCY is not a just an excellent sophomore album, it’s an excellent album in general.  It proves that WOULD YOU PLEASE wasn’t a fluke, but rather the beginning of an exciting career.

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