Tag Archives: Jazz

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.

*Flush*

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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That Time I Saw The Apples In Stereo

Back in my college days, I used to trudge down to the local record shop (as in vinyl records) and film some of the free in-store performances.  The first one I ever did was of The Apples In Stereo, who were in town promoting NEW MAGNETIC WONDER. If you’ve never heard The Apples In Stereo, give them a listen they’re a great pop band.

Wait, who is playing? Seriously though, Vintage Vinyl is a fantastic store.

The band came out on time (noon) but it took them a half hour to get settled in. They had them set up in the Jazz section, and while Robert the lead singer settled in (he’s kind of a prima donna) the rest of the band kept yanking out jazz CD’s and saying “Holy crap! I need this” or “Hey don’t you collect these guys?” I was surprised at how steeped in jazz those guys were. I figured all they listened to was rock and pop…but then again, why should they? I’m not in a band, and I listen to all sorts of music.  I discovered in college that people that play instruments tend to listen to all sorts of crazy stuff.

Well I was pretty nervous, to be honest. I always read about these stories in Rolling Stone about Guns ‘N Roses going ape shit at the sight of a camera. I guess filming is different because there is no flash (which I think would get a little old after a while…I mean who wants to be blinded?). Anyway, I whipped my camera out and filmed three of the 7 or so songs they did. I was really hoping that they’d do the new single “Energy” and they did! I almost got them doing “Go!” from THE WORLD INSIDE THE MOONE but they decided they didn’t have enough instruments (this was, after all, a free show in the back of a small-ish record store…they didn’t have drums or anything). I thought they did a great job, especially considering that they’d been up all night drinking and playing rock the night before. All I did was watch and I was exhausted!!!

By the way, if you’re ever in St. Louis you need to visit Vintage Vinyl. 

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