Named after a dildo in William Burrough’s novel The Naked Lunch, the newly formed Steely Dan immediately delivered one of the decade’s finest debut albums despite never having played a live gig together. This album immediately presented all of the group’s renowned trademarks, in particular the sophisticated songwriting of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, whose provocative lyrics generally offer cynical viewpoints and are rarely overly obvious. The exotic, Santana-esque “Do It Again” and the brilliant “Reeling In The Years” were the big hits here, the latter containing great lyrics and several heavenly Elliott Randall guitar solos. Then again, dazzling guitar solos (another band trademark) highlight practically every song here, and though at first I thought less of this more commercial sounding album than its immediate successors, I’ve come to love just about every song here too. Yes, even the “easy listening” ones sung by the dulcet toned David Palmer (“Dirty Work” “Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)”), who didn’t really fit in with the band and who would soon be dismissed from their ranks. Drummer Jim Hodder sings the excellent “Midnite Cruiser,” as Fagen had yet to assume sole singing responsibilities (he never wanted the position in the first place), while “Only A Fool Would Say That” presages the “smooth jazz” of Aja. Elsewhere, “Kings” is a catchy piano rocker (and this track does rock) that’s boosted by female backing vocals (yet another band trademark), while the upbeat “Change of the Guard” (with its memorable “na na na”’s) just might be the best album track here - it’s of course capped off by another great guitar solo, this one by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. What these songs (as well as the fine “Fire In The Hole” and “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”) all share is an unerring melodicism no matter how complex the composition, and the band’s unique mixture of jazz, rock, and soul is always effortlessly natural and inviting.
Countdown To Ecstasy (MCA ‘73) Rating: A
No sophomore slump here, though this album wasn’t nearly as commercially successful as its predecessor, in large part because the album lacked any hit singles, though for my money “My Old School” is the best thing that these guys ever did. It sports some perky piano, choice horns, and several jaw dropping guitar solos from “Skunk” Baxter alongside a campy chorus that chugs along for six glorious minutes. Most of the other songs here are longer, too, as the band extends their swinging grooves on tracks such as the largely instrumental “Your Gold Teeth.” Meanwhile, “Bodhisattva” and “Show Biz Kids” each sport repetitive mantras that are more than redeemed by the dazzlingly sophisticated virtuosity of their instrumental passages. The former song also showcases the band’s sense of humor, while the latter is a sarcastic putdown of the L.A. lifestyle. Meanwhile, “Razor Boy” and “Pearl of the Quarter” effectively show off the band’s mellower side, proving that they could convey straightforward ballads effectively if the mood so moved them. The intense “The Boston Rag” (which, in a typical Steely Dan wink of the eye manner, takes place in New York) is another album highlight, while the jazzy but rocking “King of the World” closes things out with an unforgettable synthesizer melody. Overall, Countdown To Ecstasy contains consistently inventive songwriting and inspired performances by the many musicians credited, and Fagen’s soothing voice has settled in nicely as being a signature part of their sound. The end result is an exceptional second effort that expands upon their excellent debut.
Pretzel Logic (MCA ‘74) Rating: A
All of Steely Dan’s strengths again appear in spades on their third album, which many regard as their best (for the record, I slightly prefer the first two, though all are in the same ballpark). Pretzel Logic was also notable because it was their first album after abandoning the notion of being a “real” band (that did stuff like tour) and becoming simply a studio creation consisting of Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and a cast of the best session musicians that money could buy (some of whom were actually in the original incarnation of the band). The duo were infamous studio rats who were beginning to spend more and more time there, and as a result this album boasted crystal clear production values. Compositions such as their exceptionally sad and atmospheric cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and their tribute to “Parker’s Band” (as in Charlie) reflected an increased leaning towards jazz, while the melancholic “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” gave the band the hit single (one of their best) that they missed out on with their last album. The compositions are more concise, but they're also slightly less meaty this time out, as the whole album clocks in at a mere 34 minutes long. Still, that’s enough time for plenty of imaginative piano and horn parts, slyly seductive singing by Fagen, and (of course) some great guitar (often provided by Becker himself) within their melodic yet oddly intricate rhythms. Other album highlights are the catchy, upbeat “Night By Night,” the easy listening pop of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” the bluesy title track, and the mournful anti-drug tale “Charlie Freak.”
Katy Lied (MCA ‘75) Rating: A
This immaculately slick sounding recording was another absolute gem by one of the ‘70s most consistently excellent recording artists, though it was generally less highly regarded by critics than their previous albums. “Black Friday” begins the proceedings with a funky synth groove worthy of Stevie Wonder, plus lyrics about a Stock Market crash that showcased the band’s intellectual bent, while “Bad Sneakers” is boosted by the soulful backing vocals of Michael McDonald (later to find fame fronting the Doobie Brothers, another very popular band whose ranks would also include Jeff “Skunk” Baxter) and a great guitar solo by Becker. Next up is the fine “Rose Darling,” a tale of a Lolita-like temptress, before the bluesy but repetitive “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City Anymore” sees a slight drop-off in quality. This is soon rectified by “Doctor Wu,” one of the band’s very best songs that’s highlighted by Phil Wood’s saxophone solo. Warmly melodic piano and sax highlight the musically bright (but lyrically dark) “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies,” while “Your Gold Teeth II” presents a satisfying sequel to the Countdown To Ecstasy track. The soulful sing along “Chain Lightning” is about a visit to a Fascist rally that is again helped along by McDonald, who shines brightest on the cynical “Any World (That I’m Welcome To),” a track that soars come chorus time, before the catchy and melodic “Throw Back the Little Ones” ends the album on a pleasingly modest note. Katy Lied continued Pretzel Logic’s trend of relatively short and soothing songs (despite at times disturbing lyrics) that seemingly belied the complexity of the music, especially since the harmonized choruses are so catchy. The end result is a seamless sound - despite the multitude of guest musicians credited and instruments used - that can easily appeal to people of all ages.
The Royal Scam (MCA ’76) Rating: A-
Some of this album sounds overly familiar compared to its fresher sounding predecessors, and a few of these choruses are repeated too many times for my taste, but this underrated album isn’t near the dip in quality that many tout it as being. In fact, in addition to being a guitar lover’s dream (the goods being supplied primarily by Larry Carlton, but also by old standbys Denny Dias and Elliott Randall), “Haitian Divorce,” “The Caves Of Altamira,” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” are all first rate songs, while “Kid Charlemagne” continued the duo’s tradition of delivering at least one brilliant classic rock radio track per album. That said, the songwriting does slack at times, and the great guitar solos (which liven up virtually every song here) are more likely to lift a solid song than to add an exclamation point to an already great one. For example, “Sign in Stranger,” while not a great composition, is elevated by several strong solos and some sparkling piano work, while the jazzy synth-groove of “Green Earrings” is likewise mostly notable for Elliott Randall’s use of echoplex effects (it kinda reminds me of Tommy Bolin which is high praise in my book). The danceable, disco-y “The Fez,” which really grooves along, was certainly an enjoyably atypical track, and throughout the album the lyrics are again worthy of your attention. “Haitian Divorce” (synopsis: cold dissection of a marriage turned ugly), “The Royal Scam” (synopsis: Puerto Rican immigrants come to the U.S.), and “Everything You Did” (synopsis: an evil tale of romantic betrayal and its sadistic aftermath) all memorably show Steely Dan at their most cynical and nasty, and on the whole The Royal Scam was another very strong if not quite as essential entry.
Aja (MCA ‘77) Rating: A+
Way back when (too many years ago to remember exactly when!), this was the album that initially got me hooked on the intoxicating sounds of Steely Dan. Whereas the group’s earlier records featured a rock band with jazz leanings (among other things), Steely Dan were now jazzy popsters who made music designed for far more sophisticated tastes. With every sonic detail perfectly in place, Aja became the perfect dinner party album, as the duo had by now refined their rock-based early sound for a more easy going and romantic vision that presaged the “smooth jazz” sound that’s so prominent today (and which is almost never performed with this duo’s imagination and taste). True, Aja approaches bland perfection at times and lacks some of the excitement of their more rocking earlier work, but it’s nearly impossible to resist the soothing sounds of “Black Cow” and the wonderfully melodic title track. The high quality continues on the warmly melodic and inviting “Deacon Blues” (like “Aja” almost 8 minutes long), which, along with the perfect pop of “Peg” and the catchy light funk of “Josie,” became popular radio tracks over the years. Also enjoyable though less memorable, “Home at Last” and “I Got The News” round out this seamless 7-song collection, on which horns play more of a major role than ever before alongside many an elegantly restrained guitar part. The end result is a beautifully textured and melodic album whose overall ambience is easily the band’s warmest on record.
Gaucho (MCA ’80) Rating: B
Although Steely Dan are often remembered for their perfectionist ways, they were also fairly prolific, producing at least one album per year from 1973 to 1977. This one took awhile, though, as record label and personal problems took their toll. As a result, though solidly professional like you’d expect, the music on this album sounds tired at times. Right from the start “Babylon Sisters” sports less energy than usual, and though the hooky female backing vocals, clavinet, and horns lift it above the ordinary, the payoffs on this at times plodding song come and go all too quickly. Elsewhere, “Glamour Profession” grooves nicely (despite being too long), the title track is a bit bland but is also pleasantly melodic plus the playing (in particular on sax and piano) oozes class, while “Time Out Of Mind” is effortlessly likeable and catchy. The playing on “My Rival” is also impressive even if the song itself sorta comes and goes for me, while some soulful Larry Carlton guitar soloing highlights the more memorable finale “Third World Man.” The one obvious classic here is “Hey Nineteen,” one of the duo’s catchiest songs ever which showcased their increased reliance on synthesizers (in addition to an increased reliance on horns, albeit at the expense of the guitars, alas). That song aside, most of Gaucho is too laid back, delivering inviting sounds but offering less than expected in terms of truly memorable songs. Of course, many people felt the same way about Aja, but that similarly styled album was much more creative and catchy than this one, which turned out to be the last Steely Dan album for many years.
A Decade Of Steely Dan (MCA ’86) Rating: A-
What critic Robert Christgau said about an earlier Steely Dan greatest hits compilation also applies here: this is “essential music in a superfluous configuration.” Although this album is loaded with great songs, Steely Dan’s individual albums all had their own distinct flavor, which is inevitably lost in any “greatest hits” gathering. However, while this is no substitute for the original albums, all of which I recommend and most of which I find truly essential, it does nevertheless serve as a good starting point for the uninitiated. It also includes the excellent non-LP single “FM (No Static At All),” though room should’ve also been found for the similarly homeless “Here In The Western World.” Update: Those two songs and 31 others are included on the later released 2-CD complilation Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story 1972-1980, which is a much better compilation option for those looking to get acquainted with the band.
Alive In America (Giant Records ’95) Rating: B
Actually, if you must get some sort of "greatest hits" album, I'd recommend getting the first six studio albums and then adding this live album. It's not great or anything, but it does document what was their first tour since Countdown To Ecstasy. It was also the first Steely Dan album of any kind in 15 years (though they had worked on each others solo albums in the interim), and for a self-professed "studio band" they acquit themselves quite well. Most of the songs you'd expect to find are here; "Do It Again," "My Old School," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Dr. Wu," and "Hey Nineteen" are the most notable omissions, while "Book Of Liars" (a Becker solo song), "Third World Man," and "Sign In Stranger" are comparatively weak left field surprises. By and large the performances are more than solid; these guys are pros through and through, after all, and they predictably expand most of these songs without getting overly adventurous on the arrangements. This strategy wasn't surprising given their long layoff; besides, substituting a sax solo in place of the guitar solo on "Reelin' In The Years" wasn't my idea of an improvement (then again, there's a guitar solo at the end also so perhaps I shouldn't complain too much). In addition, the energy isn't always there, as most of these songs are better suited to small clubs than the arenas they inevitably played in (absence does make the heart grow fonder). However, there are still some jaw dropping moments (like the guitar solo on "Bodhisattva"), making Alive In America an enjoyable if inessential complement to their essential studio albums.
Two Against Nature (Giant Records ’00) Rating: B+
With their much deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and this well-received comeback album (the first Steely Dan studio album in 20 years, it had a big night at the Grammys), 2000/01 was a great year for Steely Dan. It’s ironic that Becker and Fagen likely benefited by the furor created by Eminem’s hateful lyrics, because a close look beyond the classy music here reveals some truly twisted words that flew under the radar. For example, “Gaslighting Abbie” is about an arson plot, while “Janie Runaway” and “Cousin Dupree” deal with sleazy older men trying to seduce a homeless girl and cousin, respectively! Of course, these tales are matched to light and catchy melodies (and therein lies the band’s brilliance), and other songs such as “Janie Runaway” and “Almost Gothic” likewise have jaunty little melodies. The album this one most reminds me of is Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly but with Becker’s acid tongued additions, while a whole new host of session hotshots (there’s rarely less than 10 instruments featured on any one track) fill in for former old reliables like Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Elliott Randall, Denny Dias, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Michael Omartian, and Larry Carlton (among others). Some of these overly sanitized songs could use a little edge musically, but though this wasn’t quite an essential Steely Dan album, it nevertheless was a most welcome comeback. Favorite song: “West of Hollywood,” an 8+ minute epic that’s highlighted by Chris Potter’s superb saxophone solo.
Everything Must Go (Warner Brothers ’03) Rating: B
Basically a continuation of where their last album left off (if a bit less impressive), this is clearly formula at this point. Then again, they own this formula, and this is another entertaining album that's even more impressive when you consider that they've been at it for 30+ years. Of course, it's far from perfect; the lyrics are a little lazy by their exacting standards ("it's last call to do the shopping"?), and the music is again too slick and sanitized. The sometimes-cheesy vocals (predictably, with plenty of female backing harmonies) don't help, but as usual it's the music that matters most. On that front the band mostly excels, though many of these jazzy, groove-based melodies seem set up simply as an excuse to add solo bits (guitar, sax, horns) here and there. Fortunately, the upbeat music is funky enough to keep feet moving, and though I sometimes get the feeling that these guys could do this in their sleep, only they could, and Everything Must Go, which clocks in at a refreshingly concise nine songs spread out over 42 minutes, should satisfy the majority of the band's fans, most of whom would also admit that they've done better before.
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