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In Review: “The Dan” (Part II)

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image credit: rollingstone.com

In Review: “The Dan” (Part I) covered a brief history of the band. The post can be found here: In Review: “The Dan” (Part I)

For part two, let’s take a chronological walk through their body of work, breaking down the catalog that defined Steely Dan.

1) “Can’t Buy A Thrill” –1972

Cant_buy_a_tcant_buy_a_thrill
all album cover images credited to wikipedia.org

Ratings: Rolling Stone Album Guide – 4 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 4.5 out of 5

The first “Dan” album I owned. Certainly the most unique Steely Dan album in that it featured multiple lead singers. In addition to Donald Fagen, a guy named David Palmer sang lead on a few songs. Add to that, the album’s drummer, Jim Hodder, sang lead on one track  (Midnight Cruiser) as well. Palmer had a nice voice I suppose, but one that sounded more suited for Sunday church service than a rock band. Fortunately, Fagen and Becker would not continue the practice of multiple lead singers following this album as Fagen would assume all lead vocals going forward. The reason casual Dan fans may not know about David Palmer is because the album’s two big hits were both sung by Fagen. Palmer’s song, “Dirty Work” was a hit of sorts. It still gets occasional play on classic rock radio. To me though, it just doesn’t sound like Steely Dan.

It’s not a terrible album, but it may be their worst. Three great songs and seven mostly forgettable ones.

What’s good?

The songs you know: Do It Again, Reelin’ In The Years

The songs you don’t know: Fire In The Hole (my personal favorite on the album)

 

2) “Countdown To Ecstasy” –1973

220px-Steely_Dan-Countdown_to_Ecstacy

Ratings: Rolling Stone Album Guide – 5 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 5 out of 5

From the opening track, “Bodhisattva” to the final track, “King of the World,” and nearly everything in between, “Countdown to Ecstasy” is just that…….ecstasy to a Steely Dan’s fan’s ears. What’s really strange is there’s probably only one song casual fans have ever heard of, and yet I think it may be their best album. For what it’s worth, many critics agreed. It’s doesn’t get any better than 5 out of 5 stars folks.

A tighter, more focused production that served as the blueprint for future Steely Dan albums. In many ways I consider it the first true Dan album. Possibly more than any other, “Ecstasy” is the one you can play from start to finish without any letdown. Very solid.

What’s good?

The songs you know: My Old School

The songs you don’t know: The Boston Rag (my favorite), Bodhisattva, Your Gold Teeth, Pearl of the Quarter, King of the World.

 

3) “Pretzel Logic” –1974

220px-Pretzel_Logic_album

Ratings: Rolling Stone Album Guide – 5 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 5 out of 5

How many bands ever make a 5-star album? According to Rolling Stone magazine, Steely Dan did it two years in a row. I know people who consider this their best work. I don’t think it’s their best, but I can understand why others do.

A worthy follow-up to “Countdown to Ecstasy.” An important album. Pretzel Logic proved Becker and Fagen weren’t a flash in the pan.

What’s good?

The songs you know: Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Pretzel Logic

The songs you don’t know: Night by Night (my favorite), Charlie Freak, Parker’s Band

 

4) “Katy Lied” -1975

Steely_Dan-Katy_Lied

Ratings: Rolling Stone Album Guide – 4.5 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 5 out of 5

This album hums right out of the gate with the powerful rocking track, “Black Friday.” Just a great, classic Dan tune. It’s fair to say the album’s a mixed bag after that. Countdown to Ecstasy was solid all the way through. Pretzel Logic had some tracks better than others, but nothing I’d deem unlistenable. “Katy Lied” however, is the first album since their 1972 to feature a handful of stinkers.

Four good songs on a album is just fine provided everything else is decent. Problem here is I don’t like any of the songs on Katy Lied other than the four I listed below. I consider it a setback album, but in their defense, the previous two albums cast one hell of a shadow.

What’s good?

The songs you know: Black Friday (my favorite),  Bad Sneakers

The songs you don’t know: Daddy Don’t Live in that N.Y.C. No More, Chain Lightning

 

5. “The Royal Scam” –1976

220px-The_Royal_Scam_album_cover

Ratings: Rolling Stone Album Guide – 3 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 3.5 out of 5 stars

In some ways this one reminds me of Countdown to Ecstasy. Much like that album, “The Royal Scam” features more or less no hit songs, and yet, it’s excellent. Sure there may be two tracks I could easily live without, but nothing here stinks. In fact, it’s consistently good from start to finish. I like 7 of the 9 tracks, and I don’t hate the other 2. It’s a nice bounce back from Katy Lied, and probably their best work since 1973.

What’s good?

The songs (you might) know: Kid Charlemagne, Green Earrings

The songs you don’t know: The Caves of Altamira (my favorite), Don’t Take Me Alive, The Fez, The Royal Scam

6). “Aja” –1977

220px-Aja_album_cover

Ratings: Rolling Stone Album Guide  -3.5 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 4.5 out of 5

The four previous albums were similar in many ways. “Aja” altered the blueprint a bit. The album featured less tracks and longer songs. In fact, the title track and “Deacon Blues” comprise nearly 16 minutes of the album’s runtime. It may be Becker and Fagen’s favorite record. In 2013 they embarked on a “Aja” tour where played the entire album from start to finish, track for track, each night. I don’t know of any other album Steely Dan has done that for. Is it their best album? It’s not my favorite Steely Dan album, but yeah, it may very well be their best. “Deacon Blues” is possibly their finest moment as songwriters.

What’s good?

The songs you know: Deacon Blues, Peg, Josie (my favorite)

The songs you might know: Black Cow, Aja

7. “Gaucho” –1980

220px-Steely_Dan_-_Gaucho

Ratings: Rolling Stone Music Guide – 2 out of 5 stars, Allmusic – 4 out of 5

Remember when I mentioned how Walter Becker and Donald Fagen stopped performing in 1974 and spent the rest of the decade solely in the recording studio? Well you know what happens to two people when they spend that much time together without coming out for air? You guessed it…..the 1980 release of their 7th studio album, “Gaucho.” Prior to this album, The Dan recorded and released six albums in six years. Gaucho took two years to record, and a year of law suits with sessions musicians and record companies before it finally hit the shelves. Sprinkle in drug use spiraling out of control and it’s safe to say there was just about no way this was going to be a good album. For what it’s worth, the album featured two great Dan songs. Seven months after its release, Becker and Fagen announced Steely Dan was disbanding.

What’s good?

The songs you know: Babylon Sisters, Hey Nineteen (my favorite)

The songs you don’t know: Time Out Of Mind

……………….In Review: “The Dan” (Part III) will focus on Steely Dan’s activity following their decade-plus sabbatical called the 1980s and early 90s.

Thanks for reading,

Vic

 

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