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Music of Incandescent Beauty



When MCA released the 'Citizen Steely Dan' 4-CD
box set a few years back, they could do no wrong : this is
- quite simply, and in spite of some rather tasteless packaging -
one of the most essential collections in Rock'n'Roll music.

As one critic once put it, there are many reasons for loving Walter Becker's and Donald Fagen's music : the beautiful melodies, their fascination for Jazz and the way they used to inject it into their compositions, the disconcerting (sometimes opaque, often angry) lyrics, their incredible musicianship ... I guess that it's the whole combination that attracted many of us. Steely Dan was formed by Fagen (vocals & keyboards) and Becker (bass) in 1972 ; prior to that, the two of them had been part of Jay & The Americans' touring band. When guitarists Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias joined, the group was ready to catch fire. By 1975, they had scored a couple of top 40 hits plus three gold albums (notably the sumptuous 'Katy Lied').
Then, Baxter departed for The Doobie Brothers, so Becker and Fagen relied on top session players to weave their musical groundworks. In 1977, they released one of the landmark albums of the Seventies, 'Aja'. Their next one ('Gaucho', 1980) would be their most sophisticated yet, but also their last. Donald Fagen went solo and scored big with 1982's superb 'Nightfly'. Becker and Fagen would still work together occasionally ; they even toured the USA in 1995 (cf. the 'Alive In America' LP on Giant). Now, in 2000, they released a new studio CD, 'Two Against Nature'.

Just for a change, I'd like to cite some of my very favorite cuts on the above-mentioned CD-set (MCAD 4-10981) and comment briefly on them.

* Do It Again : One of their first hits. A Doors-influenced masterpiece (sort of 'Light My Fire' in reverse), with a phenomenal guitar
(or is it electric sitar ?) solo from Denny Dias and fine keyboard work from Fagen.

* Dirty Work : Laid-back vocal and a pretty, soothing melody.

* Reelin' In The Years : Great guitar from session man, Elliot Randall (who was once part of The Druids of Stonehenge). Seems to me that Steely Dan did influence the Southern Rock bands of the mid-'70s (as did Cream and Traffic before them).

* Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me) : Nice Country overtones thanks to Jeff Baxter's steel guitar (twenty years later, he would play the steel on The Stray Cats' rendition of 'Can't Help Falling In Love').

* Turn That Heartbeat Over Again : Now, I'm telling you, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I feel like cryin' each time I play it. The shared lead vocals - on the right and on the left -, then the blending of the voices in the middle, the slick chord progressions, plus the sensitive, Hank Marvin-like guitar solo, make for stunning listening.

* King Of The World : Another song to haunt you, with more penetrating keyboard work from Fagen.

* Rikki Don't Lose That Number : Borrowing that fabulous intro from Horace Silver's 'Song For My Father' (cut for the Blue Note LP of the same name in '63).

* Pretzel Logic : Heavy beat and another nice hook. Strange words, as usual.

* With A Gun : Simple & effective Country Rock ditty.

* Bad Sneakers : One of the highlights of the 'Katy Lied' album. Dig that guitar break from Walter Becker whose bass work in most cuts is really boss !! And the ending sounds a little bit Motown-ish, to boot.

* Chain Lightning : The kind of Blues-based numbers I like so much.

* Any World (That I'm Welcome To) : Bitter and catchy.

* Throw Back The Little Ones : Ooh, this is great, too !! Donald shines on piano and keyboards, and I detect some little bits from Joe Henderson's marvelous 'Mode For Joe' (Blue Note again, 1966).

* Kid Charlemagne : A big hit and a showcase for Larry Carlton's talent.

* Haitian Divorce : What will I say, now that I'm out of superlatives ?! Reggae-styled and laced with terrific talk-box guitar (à la Frampton but even better), this is a killer !!

* The Royal Scam : Built around a sometimes irritating guitar figure but superior nevertheless. Great trumpet arrangement.

* Aja :  The whole LP is a beauty but the title track is truly something else. The extended instrumental break ranks as one of the best and most sensitive pieces of music ever written and played. Wayne Shorter's sax solo is fruity, sinuous and totally bone-chilling. The band - including Chuck Rainey, Joe Sample, Plas Johnson & Jackie Kelso - cooks with ease and class. Call it 22nd Century Music.

* Peg : So lovely !! Particularly the vocal chorus and Jay Graydon's Danny Gatton-like guitar break. The live version on 'Alive In America' has a much better, bluesier vocal from Fagen  - who's never been a great singer but whose way of singing perfectly suits Steely Dan's sarcastic tone.

* Deacon Blues : Impossible to overlook this desperate song and Pete Christlieb's tenor sax solo.

* FM : Walter doubles on guitar and bass on this.
Love the string arrangements ('as long as the moon is bright' ...).

* Hey Nineteen : Romantic but danceable. Strong bass and delightful keyboards. Haven't checked the stats on this one but it sure was one of their biggest hits.

* Time Out Of Mind : Another tremendous cut from the 'Gaucho' LP. A blueprint for Donald's soon-to-come 'New Frontier'. Plus some atmospheric guitar from Mark Knopfler.

* Let's close with 'My Rival', with its barrel organ-sounding organ, a typically well-crafted song which combines all sorts of influences - and demonstrates once and for all that Steely Dan had few rivals at creating music of the highest caliber during that magical decade.

(Paul Vidal, 1998)


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