On their first outing Steely Dan were an actual group, as opposed to the partnership of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen surrounded by an armada of session musicians. This status as an actual band results in a more gripping, immediate sound, rather than the more sedate, mellow feel that the session musician embellishments would subsequently inundate nearly all their material with.
This isn't to say that the group sounds like a conventional rock band; right from the start Steely Dan has a unique identity, a mixture of lush, elaborate instrumentation and cynical, sophisticated lyrics. While this instrumentation is hardly as complex as it would become on subsequent releases when the remainder of the band was exiled in favor of recruiting myriad session musicians, the group's instrumental chops are still impressive, and have a distinctive sound that differentiates them from other rock outfits, while the lyrics already have the dark, intelligent feel that would come to define the band throughout their career.
One aspect of Can't Buy A Thrill that certainly distinguishes the album from the group's later output is the fact that band member David Palmer actually assumes lead vocals on a couple of tracks when his brand of sweeter singing is appropriate for the material. While this departure from the band's norm, with the voice of the group Donald Fagen having his position usurped by a lesser colleague, can be rather jarring, Palmer actually functions well in this capacity, as tracks like Dirty Work and Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me) are more conducive to his more conventional treatment than Fagen's customary style. There are problems inherent to this dynamic, as Palmer's vocals tend to make the songs sound somewhat generic when contrasted against the rest of the material, but this is compensated for by the quality of his vocals.
The most important part of an album is, naturally, the caliber of the songwriting, and it's here that the band truly distinguishes itself. The duo of Becker and Fagen compose each song, and right from the start they're immensely gifted at this endeavor. This becomes evident right from the beginning of the album with the dark opener Do It Again, a track that sports a tenebrous atmosphere, exceptional instrumentation and a brilliant vocal performance from Fagen.
There are myriad highlights, however, from the fan favorite hit Reelin' In The Years to obscure gems like the Kings, which boasts terrific vocal melodies. The album is bereft of filler, as each song is meticulously crafted, with precise instrumentation and uniformly clever lyrics.
Ultimately Can't Buy A Thrill is a brilliant debut, establishing the band's sound from the very beginning and showcasing Becker and Fagen's prodigious songwriting skills. The presence of an actual band enhances the experience, as it gives the album a more spontaneous feel as opposed to the near clinical detachment evident on subsequent releases (which isn't to disparage their later work, as that approach fits their future material quite well).
The level of quality is truly remarkable for a debut, and the chemistry between band members is already quite developed. While it may lack a plethora of elite session musicians, the other members are still quite capable of helping Becker and Fagen realize their musical visions, resulting in an excellent outing that exhibits the band's considerable talents.
The Steely Dan lineup remained unchanged after Can't Buy A Thrill, save for the departure of Palmer (which left Fagen to tackle the softer numbers like Pearl Of The Quarter which, in the past, he would have delegated to him), but stylistically the group was already beginning to change.
One of the respects in which these changes manifested themselves was with regards to session musicians; while there are a mere eight on Countdown To Ecstasy, which is nothing in comparison to their future projects, it's still an important fact to note, a sign of greater changes ahead.
Another significant disparity from their debut is that there are now fewer tracks (eight opposed to the ten of Can't Buy A Thrill), resulting in longer and increasingly complex songs. Likewise many tracks shift into prolonged jams, hinting at the instrumental excesses on their subsequent work (though here the jams aren't excessive; on the contrary, they're well performed, as they feel like organic extensions of the songs and are universally enjoyable).
Some of these changes are evident from the beginning, as the opener, Bodhisattva, features a terrific, lengthy jam, leaving it with an inflated runtime. This trend continues throughout the album, from the distorted hard rock solos on The Boston Rag to the wah-wah passages on King Of The World.
What's remained the same, however, is the high caliber of the songwriting; in fact, Countdown To Ecstasy surpasses Can't Buy A Thrill in this department, making it the band's best album. Boasting classics like The Boston Rag, which shifts from anthemic rock to metallic jamming, the extremely catchy, profoundly misanthropic (but unfortunately failed from a sales perspective) single Show Biz Kids, and the majestic, post-apocalyptic closer King Of The World, the album is devoid of filler, and even the lesser numbers like Razor Boy, My Old School and Your Gold Teeth, constitute minor classics.
Ultimately Countdown To Ecstasy is the band's crowning achievement; while it doesn't really break too much new ground from the debut, it features every merit from its predecessor and refines them to perfection. The elongated length of the tracks fits the band's growing ambitions (artistically, if not commercially), and the quality of the band's jamming continues to improve.
Can't Buy A Thrill functions as a template for the band's subsequent endeavors, providing a foundation on which to grow and develop. While the debut was already excellent, Countdown To Ecstasy manages to improve upon the original in every respect, making for a true masterpiece.
Pretzel Logic is the band's most commercial outing; this mainstream character manifests itself in myriad ways, though its most important element is that this time around the group opts for many short songs as opposed to the fewer, longer song structure of Countdown To Ecstasy.
This shortening also results in a simplification of the songs; this time around the band eschew the musical complexity of the album's predecessor, likewise largely abstaining from the group's signature jams. This omission was necessary in order to achieve the diminished lengths of the songs, making for a more streamlined, accessible album.
This commercialization also applies to the stylistics of the songs; nearly every track is filled with hooks, with a much poppier atmosphere permeating the album. Not every track is a pop song, but there's certainly a tangible accent in that direction, and nary a song on the album is a challenging listen.
Whether or not this constitutes a sellout is irrelevant, however, as the album is a very strong one, boasting a high caliber of songwriting; one may prefer the more ambitious character of Countdown To Ecstasy, but it's hard to deny the quality of the tracks present on Pretzel Logic. The album may largely consist of simple pop, but it's still pop of the highest order, as the band was far too talented to merely churn out rudimentary, pandering melodies.
Ironically enough the album's big hit, Rikki Don't Lose That Number, is the LP's weakest cut, coming off as soft rock at its most bland and generic. It's hardly an auspicious opener, but fortunately all of the subsequent songs are vast improvements over its insipid muzac, quelling any fears over the album's quality that doubtless arose from its unfortunate placement.
Pretzel Logic is filled with strong tracks, from the funk rocker Night By Night to the subtle menace of the title track to the irresistible pop of Barrytown (on which Fagen adopts Dylan-esque vocal intonations to good effect).
There's also a fair amount of diversity on the album (that is, as much diversity as is possible when a similar poppy approach is employed on nearly every track regardless of genre), from the hard rock of Monkey In Your Soul to the terrific instrumental East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, which, as a first for the band, is quite a pleasant surprise on an album primarily composed of more predictable, conservative creative directions.
By virtue of its status as an overtly commercial product and the compromises inherent to this role Pretzel Logic can't match the sonic brilliance of its predecessors, but for an album of its type it's an excellent listen, as the songwriting genius of Becker and Fagen transcends the creative restrictions imposed upon them. Every song save the opener is strong, and the band prove their mastery over clever, catchy pop hooks. The album lacks any classics on par with the top highlights of Can't Buy A Thrill and Countdown To Ecstasy, but a high level of quality is sustained throughout, making for a profoundly entertaining listen.
Katy Lied was recorded in the midst of a transitional period for the band. Rather than acting as the product of a collaborative effort from a rock group, the album is ostensibly the work of the duo of Fagen and Becker, with a vast legion of session musicians contributing to the arrangements. While Fagen and Becker had always functioned as the primary creative force in the group, the other members had nevertheless been granted at least a modicum of artistic freedom; on Katy Lied, however, Becker and Fagen achieve a dictatorial level of control, while on the few occasions when erstwhile band members appear they're merely several of countless faceless musicians helping to realize Becker and Fagen's creative visions.
With such a critical paradigm shift one would assume that the band's sound would resultantly change as well, and it most assuredly did. While the band had never conformed to the typical notion of what a rock group should sound like, they nevertheless retained the trappings of the genre, with the vestiges of rock music manifesting themselves from time to time throughout their work.
On Katy Lied, however, the band largely eschews rock altogether (save for one notable exception), rather embracing the jazz pop style that would subsequently become their signature sound. This style is an immaculate, highly polished smooth sound that lacks nearly any of the roughness or edginess inherent to the rock genre, with a cadre of elite session musicians coming together to ensure that each note is placed and played with utter precision.
Thus Black Friday, a tune that hearkens back to Steely Dan's days as a rock outfit, is a highly misleading opener, as it's one of the most straightforward rockers in the band's catalogue. It betrays none of the stylistic self-reinvention that arrives on subsequent tracks, and in this regard it's a breath of fresh air amidst massive stylistic uniformity.
While the other tracks can indeed be accused of being somewhat one note, as they adhere to similar soft jazz pop dynamics, upon further inspection each song has something unique to offer, not to mention the fact that they're universally well written.
The incongruous Black Friday is certainly a highlight, and may make the listener yearn for the golden days of the band, but if one is willing to give the other tracks a chance they'll find much that's praiseworthy.
Bad Sneakers is simply gorgeous, while the adulterous Rose Darling perfectly matches the mood evoked by the band's new modality. Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More is catchy with bluesy overtones, while Doctor Wu is the album's magnum opus, complete with stellar vocal melodies and an utterly irresistible refrain. Any World (That I'm Welcome To) is highly compelling with its despairing atmosphere, while the closer Throw Back The Little Ones boasts yet another infectious refrain. Everyone's Gone To The Movies is more notable for its controversial lyrics than any real melodic substance but it's still an enjoyable experience; Chain Lightning, much like every track on the second half of the album, is somewhat weaker than the first five songs on a musical level, but is still decent enough, while Your Gold Teeth II is a wholly superfluous sequel to a great track but it still retains some of the charm of the superior original.
From the perspective of viewing Katy Lied as a transitional album there's certainly far more content on the side of the destination as opposed to the starting point, but the band has already refined this newfound style to near perfection. While one will doubtless miss the edgier, more direct and energetic tone of the group's past work, once one accepts the band's new direction they'll find that this incarnation of Steely Dan is quite brilliant in its own right.
The album is very strong, filled with impressive tracks that make good use of the band's new sound. While in my opinion their work in this style never quite measures up to their classic work, I can still appreciate it for its numerous merits, and am far from condemning the band for this new sound (which admittedly complements their talents exceedingly well). The band had developed a unique musical voice, one that was sufficiently strong and conducive to their goals that it's still sustaining them to this day decades later.
While Katy Lied certainly pointed a way to the future for Steely Dan, it failed to fully provide a template for the band to adhere to in their subsequent endeavors. Thus The Royal Scam depicts the group in a desultory state, uncertain about which direction to proceed in.
The result is a plethora of musical meanderings as the band attempts to find a niche for their songwriting, yielding tepid, unfocused content bred from uncertainty and confusion.
Thus the album begins on a deceptive note with the bouncy rocker Kid Charlemagne, a tune that boasts better, more immediately gratifying hooks than any other track on the album, not to mention the fact that it's far more energetic and vibrant than most of its lifeless, inert brethren on the LP.
This qualitatively lopsided paradigm extends further than the opener, however; the subsequent two tracks, The Caves Of Altamira and Don't Take Me Alive, are both strong as well, as the former contains a catchy refrain while the latter rocks more convincingly than nearly any other Steely Dan track from this phase of the band's development.
Unfortunately, after this superb trio the course of the album instantly turns awry, with a rapid deterioration of the quality of the songwriting. While few of these later tracks are overtly bad (save the wretched The Fez), by and large they're bland, nondescript and consummately forgettable, comprising the group's worst efforts to this point in their career.
While the lyrics remain a valuable asset for the band, the music suffers immeasurably from group's inability to find and embrace a new direction. Steely Dan lacked the luxury of time to meticulously hone a new creative style, and thus The Royal Scam feels like a prolonged game of trial and error, with most attempts constituting the latter.
The music simply fails to be compelling, a parade of generic, sterile tunes that refuse to come to life even with the aid of countless session musicians. Most tracks lack anything unique to differentiate them from the other numbers, with pedestrian melodies and a paucity of hooks.
The album still receives a good rating, but solely due to the quality of the first three tracks (and given that the LP is nine tracks that's an entire third of the record). The lesser tracks are ultimately pointless, eliciting no strong response from the listener while lacking any true correlations with the band's subsequent output. Thus this side of the album can simply be forgotten, with, thankfully, but a modicum of reminders of it on their later material.
The sound of Aja is truly immaculate, with every edge smoothed over and a glossy sheen coating every last note. Unfortunately, this ubiquitous level of polish is the album's greatest liability, as it prevents any degree of excitement from being generated or any measure of energy from being cultivated.
The all encompassing smoothness can make matters truly monotonous, as the album simply flows over one with nothing to grab one's attention, merely consisting of waves upon waves of soft rock and jazz pop that are far too slick for the listener to cling to.
The songs themselves aren't bad; they're largely unremarkable, with a dearth of hooks and the chronic smoothness that makes the album seem like a collection of background music as opposed to an immediately engaging experience, but nevertheless tracks like Black Cow and Deacon Blues feature some decent vocal melodies, and while the rocker Josie is subjected to the same smooth treatment as the other tracks it's at least commendable for its attempt to infuse some rock and roll excitement into the proceedings.
This soft, smooth sound is the logical progression from albums like Katy Lied, but unfortunately it inherits more of that LP's defects than its merits; Aja simply takes this sound too far, thus whereas Katy Lied contained compelling melodies and an edgier tone Aja submerges its melodies beneath its massive instrumental arrangements and slick production which badly dilutes their potency, not to mention negating the band's musically edgier tendencies.
The primary problem with Aja is that it dispels nearly all of its central assets through its sterile production treatment. Ergo whenever an otherwise strong hook or melody appears it's neutered by the album's soft, slick sound, while the consummate monotony of this ever present tone will invariably lead to boredom on the part of the listener.
This is a pity, as Aja is a fundamentally solid album, but it simply can't be appreciated in the same fashion as the band's earlier work. It still can be enjoyed on some levels, as while the production is detrimental to the album's overall quality it still sounds good while one is listening to it, and at least a modicum of strong songwriting is capable of penetrating the LP's membrane of smoothness, but ultimately Aja never arrests the attention of the listener the way Steely Dan's early work did.
The album does make excellent background music, but that's hardly a compliment for the work of a band as immensely talented as Steely Dan. Nevertheless it can still remain enjoyable while one listens to it, and while it's difficult to retain much of the material in retrospect that's enough to make Aja a pretty good outing, and as always the arrangements are impeccable with legions of session musicians displaying their instrumental expertise. Aja can grow tedious, and its production conspires against its main strengths, but it's still an impressive enough work on a technical level that it's far from a total misfire.
One may notice the profusion of tens received by late period Steely Dan reviews, and these ratings are perfectly understandable; the band had struck upon a formula that was completely inoffensive yet innately flawed, with just enough merits to warrant a 'good' grade.
As Becker and Fagen failed to deviate from this formula once they had concocted it, an array of albums were spawned that were inherently reminiscent of one another, equipped with the same strengths and suffering from the same defects, all due to their adherence to this new paradigm.
Thus Gaucho is essentially more of the same, a rehash of Aja that fails to break any new ground whatsoever. Both albums contain the same smooth, polished sound and de-emphasis of catchy melodies, with elaborate instrumentation courtesy of virtuoso session musicians supplanting the role that clever hooks and memorable music occupied on their early work.
Like Aja, Gaucho is far from a bad album but, once more like Aja, it's a highly limited one, constrained by the parameters of the band's new style. The arrangements are universally tasteful and highly professional but they betray little in the way of hooks, while the unfortunate need to smooth over every last edge once more results in tracks bereft of any momentum or excitement.
There are a couple of tracks that, while still bound to this established framework, are superior to the others, transcending the limitations of this style and thus offering a more compelling experience. The opener, Babylon Sisters, is easily the catchiest, most melodically driven song on the album, while its follow up, Hey Nineteen, is atmospheric and engrossing.
Few other tracks leave a lasting impression, however. As a result of their identical production treatments they invariably blend together, with their differences dispelled via the ubiquitous smoothness that smothers the album.
Ultimately Gaucho is a solid, if severely flawed, outing, much like its predecessor. It's an admittedly enjoyable listen, though this enjoyment is often eclipsed by one's inability to retain much in the way of melodic substance once the LP is over save a few disconnected fragments.
So while a few tangible instances of strong songwriting remain, overall the album gets by on the impressiveness of its arrangements and its dark atmosphere, not to mention typically superb Steely Dan lyrics.
With little to differentiate it from its predecessor, Gaucho often feels interchangeable with Aja; they're hardly identical, and from an individual song by song perspective there's little in common between them, yet both fall prey to the same overarching dilemma of how to convert the band's new formula into something that adheres to this newfound style while remaining involving, compelling and memorable. This is a conundrum that the group was never able to resolve, condemning the band's second phase to drift in the nebulous limbo between artistic success and conventional enjoyment.
Two Against Nature was composed and recorded a full twenty years after Gaucho, but there's little to betray this chronological gap; the band's signature sound remains fully intact, with but a modicum of changes to their formula, with these few alterations manifesting themselves in the forms of an older lyrical perspective and Fagen's aged voice.
Why the group decided that this was the ideal time for a comeback is truly mystifying, as the entire album sounds anachronistic in the new millennium; Becker and Fagen have done nothing to update their sound, and the result is a classic style Steely Dan album displaced in time and space.
Thus Two Against Nature shares the same merits and flaws as its predecessors; the sound is still aggressively mellow and smooth, inducing the same repercussions as before.
Strangely enough, however, the album fares better with regards to catchiness than the LPs that precede it. While there's little in the way of hooks in the music (save the occasional clever bassline), the album shines in the vocal melody department, with a plethora hooks riddled throughout Fagen's singing. This hardly elevates the songs to classic status, but it's still a relief after the previous albums' deficiencies in the area of memorability.
Not every song sports a strong vocal melody, however, and many of the tracks simply drag throughout their over inflated runtimes. Filler abounds, and while there's nothing qualitatively offensive (save perhaps the colossally awkward Negative Girl) much of the album is eminently forgettable.
Most of the songs lack enough creative ideas to sustain them throughout their elongated lengths, making the listener long for the golden days when Steely Dan albums could feature over nine songs on their tracklist. These overlong tracks aren't even necessarily extended to accommodate classic Steely Dan jams; many of the songs are simply repetitive, showcasing the same drab, nondescript melodies ad nauseum with no relief in sight.
While it's amazing that the band could reassemble and continue exactly where they left off, one has to question the motivation of this reunion, as the band, in all honesty, didn't have anything new or different to say. However, be it for profit or out of nostalgia the band did return, and they did so with a perfectly solid outing.
Any fan of Steely Dan's second phase will find much to like here, as it's fully on par with the band's later work. It recaptures their sound with the utmost precision, as somehow Becker and Fagen were able to simply step into the recording room with several dozen session musicians and emerge with a product that sounds as if the intervening years had never transpired.
Ultimately Two Against Nature is basically just a good Steely Dan album; it doesn't redefine the band, the songs don't sound as if they simply had to be recorded, and the LP adds little to the group's legacy. Nonetheless it's well worth owning, and it's certainly a welcome surprise to discover in CD racks amongst contemporary bands and rock artists; a new Steely Dan album is always a good thing, and it's an aural experience one would never have expected to hear again.
Everything Must Go is ample, irrefutable proof of the band's stunning consistency, but unfortunately it's a consistency that borders on uniformity. Steely Dan have, in effect, been churning out stylistically identical albums since the late 70's, religiously adhering to the same formula with nary a sign of growth or progression. Ergo by this point in their career their albums approach the realm of redundancy, exploring no new territory and offering little in the way of surprises.
While clinging to the style that has sustained them for years at least guarantees a solid product, it comes at the expense of creativity and originality, castrating any potential artistic development that could otherwise transpire.
Thus Everything Must Go is an exercise in predictability, with the same smooth jazz pop sound, the same degree of polish and the same elaborate arrangements as its predecessors. Once again their unfortunate need to smooth over all the edges results in monotony and a comprehensive suppression of energy or excitement, and once again the substitution of session musicians for bandmates yields a sterile, impersonal and clinical feel to the proceedings.
Yet, as always seems to be the case, there are enough merits present to ensure a good rating. For example, the song Godwhacker boasts a stellar riff and great vocal melodies, not to mention lyrics dealing with Deicide; the title track also features strong vocal melodies, while Things I Miss The Most offers a dose of nostalgia as only Steely Dan could provide.
While the creative rut that the band has collectively been stuck in for the past few decades still yields overall positive results, the ensuing albums are also an exercise in frustration, inspiring the listener to yearn for either a return to their golden years or at the very least some measure of artistic growth. Once more, however, Becker and Fagen opt to abstain from either reversion or progression, simply reveling in their consummately limited, apparently comfortable position. While they can't be blamed for milking a style that actually works for this long, they're still resigning themselves to creative paralysis, a static state in which nothing ever changes for the worse or the better.
Thus while Becker and Fagen may have changed with time, their band remained exactly the same, susceptible to neither the vicissitudes of time nor the artistic developments of an ever changing musical community. The duo has decided exactly what they want the band to be, and thus it will never be more or less than what they've irrevocably defined it as.
So, in the long run, Everything Must Go is another good album from the group, albeit ostensibly the same good album that they've been releasing since the band exiled their bandmates in favor of session musicians. It's not the work of a true rock group, and while that's not a defect in and of itself it's something that the listener must keep in mind to be capable of enjoying Steely Dan's music. And by all means every Steely Dan outing, including this one, can be thoroughly enjoyed; as long as one accepts the group's limitations they'll find that Steely Dan do what they do extremely well, even if what they do covers little ground.