Monday, May 18, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #129 - Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

Once upon a time, there was a band called Steely Dan. A real band, with a regular lineup, they even went on tour. The era of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker crafting exquisite studio-only productions was just around the corner, but in 1973 they were as close to being a regular rock & roll band as they ever were. Though plenty of studio musicians still augmented the albums, the core was not just Becker and Fagen but guitarists Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias plus drummer Jim Hodder. This was the lineup that cut the second Dan album Countdown to Ecstasy. I'll say this is my personal favorite Steely Dan album but I won't say it's their best. That's because their initial run of 6 albums in 6 years, 1972-1977, from Can't Buy a Thrill to Aja, is absolutely perfect. Every song, every arrangement, every note played and sung, everything is exactly as it should be. Yet there's still passion, verve, and even soul behind the slick sounds and ironic detachment of the lyrics. The best is whichever one is playing at the time. But I can only write about one, so Countdown it is. 
The album starts off with what just might be the most kick-ass rock track in the Dan repertoire, "Bodhisattva." As Fagen croons cheesy westernizations of eastern philosophy, the band kicks up a blues-rock ruckus highlighted by some blistering guitar from Skunk Baxter. After that things quiet down a little bit for the jazzy "Razor Boy." This one takes on a more traditional feel than the smoothed out jazz that would dominate the group's later work. The pace is slowly built back up with the building climax of "The Boston Rag." More cryptic lyrics from Fagen, apparently chronicling some sort of drugged out debauchery, are married to a slow building rocker that leads to a great sing-a-long chorus. The bottom drops out for a piano break, then builds again to a dramatic finale. Next it's time to jam, with "Your Gold Teeth" providing a funky, latin-jazz dance party. The musicians have a chance to spread out on this one, keeping a loose vibe while still hitting all the notes like a Steely Dan combo should.

The second half kicks of with the slide guitar of guest Rick Derringer and another of the Dan's more rocking numbers, "Show Biz Kids." Fagen calls out the privileged and self-obsessed culture of fame while making self-referential mention of "Steely Dan t-shirts" and even dropping an f-bomb for added emphasis. On "My Old School," Fagen and Becker reminisce not so fondly about their days at Bard College. This is probably the best-known track on the album and with its jaunty horns and catchy chorus, it's easy to see why. "My Old School" is one of the best examples of Steely Dan's oft-noted penchant for melding biting lyrics to infectious tunes. Another breather comes with the gorgeous "Pearl of the Quarter." Could this actually be a straightforward love song? Is there something more going on that I'm missing? Either way, it's another brilliant, catchy song. The album concludes with "King of the World," as propulsive synths end things with a futuristic vibe. Of course, that future is surely of the dystopian variety.

  As previously noted, Steely Dan would continue their streak of perfection throughout the 70s. Yes, things would get a lot slicker but the quality of songwriting and performance were never overshadowed by the production. Cracks started to show with 1980's Gaucho, which still had a few great songs but also seemed to show Becker and Fagen running out of gas after their greatest success. Steely Dan would then disappear for a while with no activity at all throughout the super-slick 80s, an irony surely worthy of a Donald Fagen lyric. Then, miracle of miracles, Fagen and Becker reunited in the mid-90s and, in another great irony, turned Steely Dan into a touring machine who have been active ever since. They even played this year's Coachella festival. Yes, the strange and winding career of Steely Dan could all really just be the subject of a Steely Dan song. Chew on that for a little while. And listen to Countdown to Ecstasy while you're doing so.
            - Adam Reshotko

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