A HAT TRICK
From page 29 of Classic Rock Magazine May 2000
Three Must-Have Steely Dan Albums
Dense, slick, verbally idiosyncratic, it's a strange and complex mix that has elevated Steely Dan to prodigious celebrity. This year's excellent 'Two Against Nature' — their first all-new studio album for 20 years makes good on their legend: spiky, rich, deliciously jazzy and, in parts, deliberately ambiguous.
Across eight albums it's hard to damn Steely Dan a band who've taken an impeccable, almost intractable approach to intricate musical passages and transposed them seemingly without effort, into four minute radio manna.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that they glistened most keenly at three different points in their languid reign over America's airwaves, and that there are three Steely Dan albums no one should be without.
The first, 1972's debut entitled, 'Can't Buy A Thrill', introduced the basic Steely Dan template: durable, assured melodies, spiralling guitar
solos , twisted
lyrics and sophisticated, jazzy beats. As a result, the band was instantly aligned to the then emerging West Coast scene quite wrongly, as it turned out (Fagen and Becker had met when they were students at New York's Bard College). But the arrival of their first Top 10 US hit, 'Do It Again', had made them an overnight staple of FM radio alongside such 'easy-listening' contemporaries as the Doobie Brothers, The Eagles and Elton John.
'Do It Again', meanwhile, instantly established Fagen's voice: wry and ruminative, equally assured as an instrument of scorn or as an embellishing tool of compassion; it would eventually help oust original vocalist David Palmer (who would later resurface in the Big Wha-Koo). Even while Palmer blares away in his flawless pop vocal, Fagen's voice figures predominantly throughout the album and is a strong indication of the immaculate control the Becker/Fagen partnership is already beginning to show.
'Reelin' In The Years', the other hit single from the album, cemented their rapid rise, stopping just outside the Billboard Top 10 as their refreshing hybrid of jazz, soul and rock — guitarist Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter's lucid playing gave the album the occasional, warmly welcomed edge — began its almost decade-long overhaul of the musical sensibilities of contemporary America. Witty `Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)' reflective 'Turn That Heartbeat Over Again' and poignant 'Kings' taken as a whole, 'Can't Buy A Thrill' was the smartest, most surprising of calling cards.
After the relative commercial failure, by comparison, of 'Countdown To Ecstasy', the follow-up album in 1973, Steely Dan responded by editing the extended, sometimes unwieldy, jazzier workouts scattered across 'Countdown...' to concise, shorter pieces for 1974's 'Pretzel Logic'. Though the idea of shorter songs may sometimes indicate a tendency towards pop convention, 'Pretzel Logic' confounded the notion with an album heavy with musical nuance that never lost its immediacy for even a moment.
By the time of the album's US hit, `Rikki Don't Lose That Number' (written about guitarist Rick Derringer, who would later contribute to the 'Katy Lied' album) Steely Dan had decided to take a hiatus from touring their last show for three years would be on Independence Day in Santa Monica and had taken up exclusive residence in the studios of Los Angeles. For its part, 'Pretzel Logic' captures Steely Dan at a creative and commercial peak: from the first sad piano chord onward, it's a record that projects an intriguing, almost unbearable sense of romantic uncertainty.
Vibrant with unpredictable musical juxtapositions, the title track itself fleetingly embraces blues and jazz. Like the songs that surround it, `Pretzel Logic' remains seamless yet somehow idiosyncratic and thrillingly accessible.
With the songs now paramount, it makes sense that 'Pretzel Logic' is less of a band album than its predecessors (the idea of Steely Dan as a working, touring band would break down almost completely not long afterward). It is perhaps the most rewarding and fulfilled album of their career. From the backhanded Dylantinged `Barrytown', to the opulent 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You', 'Pretzel Logic' remains an enduring and illuminating legacy of Fagen and Becker's enticingly skewed view of the world.
Picking up the Best Engineered NonClassical Recording award at the 20th Grammy Awards, Steely Dan's 1977 release `Aja' — their first official release as a duo — remains for many, the pinnacle of their achievements.
A measured and textured album filled with subtle melodies, sophisticated arrangements and a smattering of blues and jazz solos that blend easily into lush instrumental backdrops, 'Aja' is a seductive yet complex album. It is sometimes achingly self-conscious and preoccupied with its own gleaming lines, but is brilliantly honed. Even the sunny pop of the single, 'Peg', is suffused with smoky jazz harmonies.
Utilising the very best that the session world had to offer, the roll call of musicians on the album read like an alumni of musical excellence: Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton and Rick Derringer, to name just a few, were all utilised cleverly by Fagen and Becker.
The aforementioned 'Peg' and the absorbing `Josie' illustrate the arc of compelling perfection the album was built under. It consists of tight, cohesive tunes with a spellbinding hook, intricate counter-rhythms and brilliantly concise playing. Topped off with complex horn charts, synthesizers and lush vocals, it makes for an intoxicating brew.
Criticised in some quarters as soulless, obtuse and cynical (the latter almost always in reference to the band's lyrics Frank Zappa once described their imagery as 'downer surrealism'), 'Aja' suffered for what was seen as the band's calculated approach to making music. Which was to overlook the stylistic innovation they brought to their music; diversifying from the pop ethic by introducing jazz and bebop as an inspired play on familiar, contemporary themes. Musically ambitious at one point during the 70s they were celebrated as pop's anti-heroes Steely Dan and `Aja' confounded the norm with an almost absurd approach to what may or may not constitute good music. As always, they were committed to playing it their way or not at all. An overused epithet, but pertinent nevertheless: a masterpiece.