The Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian
January 29, 2015 1:41 PM   Subscribe

"And forget the relaxed cheeriness of the context that slotted them into the yacht-rock ranks with Loggins & Messina and the Doobie Brothers — shared sessionman personnel and L.A. neighborliness notwithstanding, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were New York to the core, all Brill Building gone Burroughs, using the language of pop as their foot in the door to ease in creepier, more unsettling things. No amount of multi-tracked studio trickery, woodshedder scrubbed-up arrangements, or perfectionist, precise ultra-virtuoso slickness could really obscure the existential dread and hip-panic self-consciousness that made their lyrics resonate. So they piled on as much gloss as they could, stitched together all manners of hopped-up jazz and rhythm & blues permutations into the weave of their sound, and infiltrated the subconsciousness of future yuppies everywhere like some kind of Manchurian Candidate virus to make them eventually realize there’s futility in optimism." Steely Dan albums from worst to best. (You're seeing them at Coachella this year, right?)
posted by naju (111 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yacht Rock. Those Channel 101 videos were the funniest things I've seen in a decade, but I'm sure there are people who I can show them to who will go, "wha?". They make no sense, they make total sense.

Then again, I was in bands in the eighties with musicians who geeked out about Steve Gadd drum fills, so maybe I'm easy.
posted by C.A.S. at 1:45 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Bonus fun: Steely Dan's letter to Wes Anderson.
posted by naju at 1:45 PM on January 29, 2015 [12 favorites]


If you're still having trouble getting them, let Paul and Storm Steely Dansplain it to you.
posted by bondcliff at 1:47 PM on January 29, 2015 [8 favorites]




You're seeing them at Coachella this year, right?

Damn you. I was confused and bewildered, thinking this was just some kooky internet myth/rumor, so I looked at this year's lineup, and damn it all, I really, really want to go. Coachella sets, like most festival sets, are annoyingly short, but for folks who don't have easy access to these bands otherwise, it's totally worth the trek.

Damn you, damn you, damn you.

(At least it's sold out, so I can't really have that internal discussion of how get out there for a long weekend)
posted by filthy light thief at 1:53 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


William Gibson notes in.
posted by ovvl at 1:55 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Granted, I need to finish RTFA, but I'm not quite in agreement with the worst to best list.

Though any mention of Steely Dan on the Blue makes me squee. :)
posted by luckynerd at 1:55 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Becker even contributes his first-ever lead vocal on "Slang Of Ages" (and sounds jarringly out of place).
Well, then, who sings the lead on Dirty Work?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:56 PM on January 29, 2015


Opinion piece is opinionated but GAUCHO. C'mon, Gaucho. You know it's #1, amigo.
posted by mintcake! at 1:57 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


After the bottom two more recent albums that I didn't even know about, this list is in the exact opposite order from how I would list my preference.

I can never read anything people say about these guys. Much like Steely Dan itself, I can never quite tell if what people say is the opposite of what they really think or if what they're saying is really a detailed defense of a view. I get the sense that maybe people think that most people can't stand them at all, but I've never actually encountered that person.

That said, I like and admire Steely Dan a lot. Unironically, if that needs to be said.
posted by cmoj at 1:57 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


Also: deslided.
posted by cmoj at 1:58 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


You know what reminded me of Donald Fagen and the gang? "Villians," a tune from Gabriel Kahane's album about architecture from a few months ago. It's superb, it's got that sort of swagger that Fagen always had, and unlike Steely Dan it's actually as witty as it tries to be.
posted by koeselitz at 1:58 PM on January 29, 2015


Previously.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:00 PM on January 29, 2015


Well, then, who sings the lead on Dirty Work?
David Palmer
posted by luckynerd at 2:01 PM on January 29, 2015


Fan, at a Steely Dan Q&A: Hey guys! Is the song "Peg" secretly about Peg Entwistle, the starlet who lept to her death from the top of the "H" in the Hollywood sign in 1932?

Donald Fagen:
Well, it is now.
posted by Iridic at 2:01 PM on January 29, 2015 [29 favorites]


Well, then, who sings the lead on Dirty Work?

David Palmer. Becker's voice is nowhere near as good. (If Palmer had stuck around as lead singer I might have liked Steely Dan much more.)
posted by jbickers at 2:02 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I respecfully disagree. Katy Lied and Countdown to Ecstasy are better than Gaucho
posted by just another scurvy brother at 2:04 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow, luckynerd -- I swore I read on the liner notes to their Greatest Hits package that it was Becker.

I learned something today!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 2:04 PM on January 29, 2015


After the bottom two more recent albums that I didn't even know about, this list is in the exact opposite order from how I would list my preference.

So you think Aja is their worst album?

Come on, now.
posted by saul wright at 2:12 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


One of the highlights of the lineup this year and I hope they're not followed by some big band because it would be awesome to not be crushed up in the front.
posted by viramamunivar at 2:15 PM on January 29, 2015


Saw SD at the Beacon last year when they played Aja and, while exciting (because Steely Dan!!) it was also somewhat underwhelming since Walter babbles on and on and on and isn't that great of a guitar player, live, and Donald is showing his age in terms of keyboard performance and vocals.

And they didn't play FM, which I found unforgivable.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:19 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Aja, waaaay too high, as with Gaucho.

Can't buy a thrill way too low...
posted by Windopaene at 2:19 PM on January 29, 2015


For me Aja is their masterpiece, with Gaucho following closely after. But I'm really due to listen to their entire discography more closely.

Steely Dan pops up strangely often in my twitter feed. I love the obsessives debating the merits of each album, and I think there's a major hipster rediscovery of them currently happening.
posted by naju at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2015


So you think Aja is their worst album?

Worst? No, just my least favorite. It's too polished for me. It feels like they nailed down their schtick and just made an album of solid, polished SD schtick. Which isn't to say I don't like it or think it's good, it's just my least favorite.

Steely Dan is one of those bands with so much pure skill in every department that I don't feel like I'm in any position to make value judgements about their work, so all I'm left with is preference.
posted by cmoj at 2:21 PM on January 29, 2015


Back in my punk and post-punk youth, I saw Steely Dan as the enemy, a decaying cultural artifact best ignored. Now, I'm older and wiser and I realize Steely Dan is a punk band - and a damn good one.
posted by davebush at 2:23 PM on January 29, 2015 [12 favorites]


Black Cow is about all I can listen to on Aja. Any Michael MacDonald is too much IMHO.
posted by Windopaene at 2:24 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]




I can never read anything people say about these guys.

Couldn't agree more. "New York cool," "cynical," or this article's particularly egregious "puncturing the remnants of the flower-child ’60s with a New York bohemianism," repelled me for a long time until I actually sat down and fell in love with Countdown to Ecstasy.

Here's my take: "Alfred E. Newman does the blues," now somebody pay me.
posted by gorbweaver at 2:26 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Like a castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
But I stay here just the same..."
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:27 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


FTA on Katy Lied: If you want a good waypoint for where Steely Dan truly earned their rep for delivering acidic fatalism under cover of unflappable smoothness, here's where their ennui finally curdled.

The smooth acidic fatalism makes me so damn happy. I've been in the winter doldrums, but this week I put Steely Dan back in my rotation after having it out for 6 months or so, and the chorus to Razor Boy (not to mention the steel guitar solo) just made me grin like a kid on Christmas.
posted by just another scurvy brother at 2:27 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


They had some great music but some lousy album covers.
posted by Daddy-O at 2:28 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pretzel Logic, Gaucho and Aja all have fantastic album covers.
posted by saul wright at 2:30 PM on January 29, 2015


I have a strange relationship with Steely Dan. I like a lot of their music quite a bit, yet whenever I go to a bar or restaurant that's trying to project a "mature" or "sophisticated" vibe, these guys'll be playing which kinda gets on my nerves for some reason.
posted by jonmc at 2:32 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm just annoyed when people think I mean this when I say Steeleye Span. NO.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:36 PM on January 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


I'm just annoyed when people think I mean this when I say Steeleye Span...

...trying to come up with some joke involving Peg and Pegrum; failing.

...me loves both Steeleye and Steely...
posted by foonly at 2:45 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I generally like Steely Dan albums unreservedly, even the two 2000s ones. I got the 70s back catalogue from iTunes while they were selling it all as one album for £7.99 (which would have been a costly mistake if anyone apart from me had noticed) - I'd bought it all on vinyl and even cassette during the 80s and it was the cheapest way to get a complete, modern set for my iPod. Anyway, I don't really understand the need to put things in some "worst-to-best" order, I just listen to the albums I like when I feel moved to put them on, which happens more often for Aja than Everything Must Go, true, but The Royal Scam slightly less than either.

I'm very tired today, long story, but looking at the reviews that go with each album... I don't really understand what the hell the writer is going on about; there doesn't seem to be any actual content but a whole bunch of words. Has the writer been secretly replaced by a Markov Chain algorithm?
posted by Grangousier at 2:46 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Now I want there to be a Greil Markov, automatically generating impenetrable record reviews.

Also, they ranked "Katy Lied" too low.
posted by fedward at 3:11 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


pretzel logic is their best - concise, punchy songs with precise arrangements that aren't trying to be slick jazz rock, even if they have a lot of jazz in them

2nd is can't buy a thrill - not as concise, or punchy, but still a fine collection of songs

i'll put aja at 3rd - it's the one album where they actually put enough songwriting strength and enough good cameo performances to overcome the static jazz-rock style they'd developed

countdown to ecstasy, the royal scam and katy lied all seem like the music takes too much precedence over the songwriting, although the music's very good, and there are standout tracks

gaucho really only hits with time out of mind, mostly because of the groove - hey nineteen is too calculated and the rest of it i can't even remember

two against nature is just a bunch of meandering boring tunes with overly slick but expertly played arrangements - (the one thing you can never say about a steely dan record is that it was less than expertly played)

i haven't heard everything must go - if it's anything like two against nature, i'm not real interested

overall, they were better as a real band instead of two guys with a crapload of session musicians and better when they were doing pop/rock with jazz ideas rather than jazzy r&b with little bite
posted by pyramid termite at 3:11 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm 41 years old and I feel like if I were going to get Steely Dan (and The Grateful Dead, and The Smiths), it would have happened by now.

I do like a lot of covers of "Do It Again," though.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:46 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I mostly agree with the album ratings as presented in the post.

I feel that almost every Dan album has two or three excellent compositions, with the rest as filler. Everything is always meticulous and polished, so even the filler is kinda like perfect filler in a sense, not bad songs, but just polished songs that don't quite capture my imagination. 'Aja' and 'Gaucho' have at least three or four excellent songs, so proportionally they score a bit higher. The songs that I like best would mostly tend to coincide with the first few titles specifically mentioned in the main essays.

My personal feeling is that 'Rikki Don't Loose That Number' is their most perfect song overall.
posted by ovvl at 3:55 PM on January 29, 2015


"Listen! Is that dark sarcasm?"
posted by creade at 3:55 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


That girl that didn't know Aretha Franklin is now 54.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:59 PM on January 29, 2015 [12 favorites]


just another scurvy brother: I respecfully disagree. Katy Lied and Countdown to Ecstasy are better than Gaucho

I'd also stick Pretzel Logic ahead of Gaucho. Glad you signed in, stranger.

(Also waiting for any major dude and Dr. Wu to make an appearance.)
posted by hangashore at 4:01 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Black Cow is about all I can listen to on Aja. Any Michael MacDonald is too much IMHO.

Everything you are saying is dumb and bad.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 4:02 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


like some kind of Manchurian Candidate virus to make them eventually realize there’s futility in optimism.

Not Steely Dan, of course, but "A virus wearing pumps a pearls..." does somewhat telegraph that sentiment.
posted by mikelieman at 4:03 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


"A virus wearing pumps a pearls..."

( which of course inspired what might be the best game since "Lunch Money"...

Alien Angels
posted by mikelieman at 4:05 PM on January 29, 2015


'yacht rock'...can't agree with that...even as a derisive name of a manufactured genre.
posted by j_curiouser at 4:08 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


The writer at Stereogum is right on the money. Most of the acclaim that Steely Dan gets is for their expert musicianship, but their true genius is in the lyrics.
posted by hwestiii at 4:21 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm 41 years old and I feel like if I were going to get Steely Dan (and The Grateful Dead, and The Smiths), it would have happened by now.

I got almost two decades on you. There is plenty of music I listen to now that I didn't have the patience for when I was in my early forties (let alone twenties). Then again, I still don't like the Grateful Dead and I've had more than one friend try to convert me.

I've been listening to Steely Dan since back in the day, when 98% of what I listened to was guitar-driven hard rock. They were such an outlier back then, no one else attempted that combination of dark acerbic lyrics with such smooth-on-the-surface music. You had other smoothies, like Boz Scaggs or the McDonald-led incarnation of the Doobie Brothers but that music never had quite the sophistication of the Dan's, let alone such a lyrical parade of low-lifes, losers, users, wannabes and grifters. There's really still no one like them.

It's a pity that they're playing Coachella now, with Walter fading and Donald's voice getting worse with every tour. They still play with the best musicians money can buy but it's not the same as it was when they finally started touring again. There's some boots out there that just BURN (cough Manassas 2000 cough).
posted by Ber at 4:31 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


Most of the acclaim that Steely Dan gets is for their expert musicianship, but their true genius is in the lyrics.

I agree, but with one modification. Their genius is in marrying perfect words with the perfect music. They are able to provide additional, often ironic subtext to the lyrics, which usually have their own subtext, through their musical style and embellishment. Exhibit A is "Deacon Blues."
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:39 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I saw the "Dukes of September" tour in 2012 – that's Fagen, McDonald, and Boz Scaggs doing all their hits – and at 48 I was about the youngest dude in the audience. Fagen was struggling by mid-show, dropping not just notes but whole words. McDonald's falsetto is a little gravellier and wobblier than it was back then, but Boz Scaggs was in excellent voice.

Someone in the know tells me that Steely Dan and Elvis Costello will tour together this summer...
posted by nicwolff at 4:41 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


'yacht rock'...can't agree with that...even as a derisive name of a manufactured genre.

It's a typo. They meant to say 'yak crotch'.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:43 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Someone in the know tells me that Steely Dan and Elvis Costello will tour together this summer...

Hey, I guess that means I'll finally see Elvis Costello.

Aja came with my first record player, when I was a child. My parents bought me a little turntable and there were three albums that came with it. I don't remember the other two, but Aja has stayed with me through my life. And yeah, the boys aren't as good live as they were 10-15 years ago, and the last two albums aren't all that, but I'd still rather see them being mediocre than a lot of other bands at their best.

Also, Gaucho is way too damn high in this ordering.
posted by immlass at 4:49 PM on January 29, 2015


ovvl: "I feel that almost every Dan album has two or three excellent compositions, with the rest as filler. "

I do kind of agree with that sentiment; their best songs are god-damned sublime though. They have some really odd ones that really work, like "Your Gold Teeth II", which starts out kind of like Zappa noodling, almost atonal, and then kicks in with jazzy smoothness (words which when put together often sicken me, but I love it). And yeah, the only Michael McDonald I can really stomach is with them.
posted by Red Loop at 4:50 PM on January 29, 2015


"Listen! Is that dark sarcasm?"
posted by creade at 5:55 PM

That was hilarious. Thank you.
posted by Daddy-O at 5:11 PM on January 29, 2015


I'm 41 years old and I feel like if I were going to get Steely Dan (and The Grateful Dead, and The Smiths), it would have happened by now.

I'm right there with you, and I agree. I would love to get David Bowie. I get that he's a genius and I listen to some of his stuff and, while cringing, think 'Hmphf. That was clever.' I've tried, really, I have. I just can't.

Steely Dan, however, I got with one song: 'Your Gold Teeth II' from Katy Lied. In the late eighties, an older friend/mentor was trying to explain some nuance or other of the recording process to me and used that track, on that album, on a nice pair of 60's-era studio cans. He then followed that up with a pitiful attempt at trying to explain some other process with Boston, but I kept coming back to that doubled Fagan voice, that razor sharp guitar tone, the spread of the drums in the stereo field, the whole package. My friend smiled and said 'Well, that's what really good studio work can get you'.

On preview: jinx, Red Loop.
posted by eclectist at 5:22 PM on January 29, 2015


If you don't want to go to Coachella, the Dan will be doing a full show at the Vina Robles Amphitheater (which is off Highway 101 midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles*) on April 14th, with tickets going on sale on Saturday.
*Could anybody planning to come up from L.A. stop and pick me up from my little enclave just north of Pismo Beach?
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:22 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


The things you pass for knowledge I don't understand.

He's the King of the World as far I know.

Are you reelin' in the years, stowin' away the time?

In the morning, you go gunnin' for the man who stole your water.

I hope to Jesus one day I'll be frozen in amber and decocted by some future version of mankind and when they ask me of my day and age, I'll have them listen to Steely Dan.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 5:47 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


I used to like Steely Dan. Then I started gambling, a lot, playing poker all night in Casinos from Oakland to Upstate NY with all kinds of dreamers and shady figures, losers and bigger losers all. Now it hurts to like them but they won't let me go.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:48 PM on January 29, 2015


Meanwhile their best album is The Nightfly. Fight me.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:49 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


Potomac Avenue - just drink your big Black Cow and get out of here. :)
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 5:50 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anecdote: I was working as Music Director at a radio station in Kansas when Aja came out. This was an MOR station (Middle of the Road)--no hard rock stuff.

I still remember peering at that cover and wondering, "WTF is this?!?" I thought it was a band named "Aja" and wondered if it was some band that couldn't spell "Asia."

I thought the record was jazzy and mellow and fit in well with our playlist and ordered 35 "Promo" copies to give away to listeners.

Our GM called me in and gave me a griefing for promoting "that junk." Told me to stick to Barry Manilow.

I ended up taking the promo copies home, mailing them off to various friends, and cranking that sucker up on the big JBL speakers I had (whilst imbibing...).
posted by CrowGoat at 6:08 PM on January 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'd put Aja at 1 and Can't Buy a Thrill at 2. Let's say Gaucho and Pretzel Logic at 3-4. Not that you asked.
posted by box at 6:15 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you hated Two Against Nature, pyramid termite, don't bother with the next one, which was sort of a blander Two Against Nature.
posted by thelonius at 6:24 PM on January 29, 2015


Insert eponysterical comment about the Royal Scam coming in second here.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:25 PM on January 29, 2015 [7 favorites]


I think there's a major hipster rediscovery of them currently happening.

FUCK. Why???????!??!
posted by ReeMonster at 6:30 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


See, everybody always says the lyrics are the best thing about Steely Dan, but - maybe I'm missing something. They always sounds to my ear like they're just trying so hard to be witty, and then falling down on the other side smugly thinking they've just totally nailed it. Meanwhile, the wit is usually in the form of 'oh, you might not have realized this song is dirtier than it sounds at first listen!' - oh, come on, they're named after a dildo after all, and wasn't that the name of the game in the 1970s? And the tunes are just so polished, so produced, but generally in this empty soulless way that 70s pop is, like they're aiming for some Platonic ideal of studio perfection that has nothing to do with actual music (which is the feeling one gets reading about their experiments with drum loops). Generally that just doesn't interest me, particularly considering the amazing raw music that was happening at the same time, music that didn't meet this weird standard of fake perfection they were setting up.

My girlfriend has recently been attempting to inculcate in me some reverence for Yacht Rock (the genre, not the web series, which is impossible not to reverence) and with repeated listening I begin to feel like their draw must be in what Mental Wimp describes above: a sort of ironical way in which the lyrics and the music come together, a wryness, and though that wryness sometimes borders into chortling the general overall effect can be pleasant. Like the way "Hey 19" relaxes back into itself, slipping into the cool refrain referenced in the post title even after establishing such ironic distance.

Is that it? I don't know.

I still get a bit irked about them ripping off the opening to Horace Silver's "Song For My Father," though.
posted by koeselitz at 6:36 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


(I can't count the number of times when I've been in some place and I hear those low piano notes, and I think "hey, awesome! They're playing 'Song For My Father' on the radio!" only to get sad and sullen when I hear the jangle of the acoustic guitar and realize it's Steely frickin' Dan.)
posted by koeselitz at 6:41 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Home At Last" from Aja is a song I have looped endlessly in past times of despair. Victor Feldman's keys...Fagan's voice...gold. Weeping gold.
posted by umberto at 6:42 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fagan's voice...gold. Weeping gold.

CUERVO gold.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:01 PM on January 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


I like Aja as a whole, but that unutterably perfect syncopation of the phrase "she serves the smooth retsina" in "Home At Last" gives me a little thrill every damn time.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:12 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's something about the perfect surfaces of Aja and Gaucho (and The Nightfly, which I count as the lost--and most tuneful--SD album) that make the seamy stories even more engaging. The early albums are great, of course, a bit coarser in their sound, even to the tone of the guitar solos. But "Babylon Sisters" is one of the best album openers ever--that mildly opiated kickback of a convertible on a sunny late afternoon. And "Aja" and its angular banjos I've used to test speakers on three continents.

The first cassette I bought for my first Walkman, purchased that day at some discount place (Crazy Steve's?) on Canal St., was Aja, and walking down Canal, even with all the ambient noise, I could hear parts of that song I'd never heard on my all-in-one dept. store stereo. So, call these sentimental favorites, then.

Plus, I've seen the inspiration for Gaucho's cover art on the wall of a building in La Boca, Buenos Aires, which was a v. cool moment.
posted by the sobsister at 7:18 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


In that making of Aja documentary Fagen says "there was something so funny about the fake jazz in the Sweet Smell of Success. So I like jazz and fake jazz and fake fake jazz." But also, they were super super legit funk stylists. Like top 5 funkiest beats of all time. Ask anybody. That's what's up.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:21 PM on January 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


They always sounds to my ear like they're just trying so hard to be witty, and then falling down on the other side smugly thinking they've just totally nailed it.

This is why I think reading what's been written about Steely Dan is a very bad idea. Yeah they've got some gag-me-with-a-spoon lines (I think the gross Everyone's Gone to the Movies ruined Katy Lied), but Bad Sneakers, Kid Charlemagne, Deacon Blues...those are more than dirty old man jokes.

The Nightfly is probably the better place to start lyrically, but if the slick music does nothing for you, don't torture yourself. I find no ironic enjoyment from the Dan or Donald Fagen, I just love the music.
posted by gorbweaver at 7:23 PM on January 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


But also in that Aja doc they discuss Deacon Blue and for some reason every other shot is of the twin towers. ?? Conspiracy theories abound.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:23 PM on January 29, 2015


The protagonist of every Steely Dan song realizes that his pathetic life is actually pretty funny, he just can't quite bring himself to laugh. Also he's lost in North Hollywood.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:28 PM on January 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


re: major hipster rediscovery of them, I present Midlake.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 7:35 PM on January 29, 2015


gorbweaver: “if the slick music does nothing for you, don't torture yourself”

Oh, make no mistake – I can like slick music. And I probably was too quick when I said I liked "raw music" of the 70s better – if it can be believed, I was actually thinking of McCoy Tyner and some of the other jazz exiles of the 70s, not that proto-punk stuff, which I like plenty but – well, I'm a jazz guy. So maybe my stupid 'not real jazz' sense is getting in the way. I am totally going to give Steely Dan another chance, based both on this thread (which is chock-full of great recommendations, thanks all) and on the fact that I think I'm probably going to have to take my girlfriend to one of those shows this Spring.
posted by koeselitz at 7:40 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Clean this mess up, else we'll both end up in jail;
the test tubes and the scales, just get it all out of here.
Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there's gas in the car.
I think the people down the hall know who you are..."


As musically sophisticated as Steely Dan are, and no matter how much I love them and Donald Fagen's storytelling, I can't help but feel their music does chronicle a subset of the first wave of Boomers as they truly gave over and embraced their inner sliminess and cynicism.

And it's pathetic, really, but what are you gonna do? In the end, it's 1978, here you are at 33 or whatever, and you're not awesome, you're just like your parents after all, or your drug business went bust like Owsley's did, or you've found yourself after the gold rush somewhere in Laurel Canyon with the rest of the losers who didn't leave once the golden children like Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash did, and this is your life! There is no escape. You might as well puff, puff, pass that fine Colombian weed, go chat up that 19-year-old hottie at the boardwalk on the beach, and blot that fact out for a while.
posted by droplet at 7:44 PM on January 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


I'll learn to work the saxophone,
And I'll play just what I feel,
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel.

I keep this disc in my van, my phone, my computer. When southern Utah is flying by and I am listening to Aja, then everything is exactly right in my life for the duration of that piece.
posted by Oyéah at 7:55 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's some boots out there that just BURN (cough Manassas 2000 cough).

That board tape is fire. Hell yes.
posted by mintcake! at 7:58 PM on January 29, 2015


I like Aja as a whole, but that unutterably perfect syncopation of the phrase "she serves the smooth retsina" in "Home At Last" gives me a little thrill every damn time.

My favorite song on an immaculate record - a horn chart and sound matched maybe only by 'Savoy Truffle' as pop songs go.
posted by mintcake! at 8:01 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I love that this thread has brought out so many Steely Dan aficionados. I love this band so much it is hard for me to talk about.

Now I want there to be a Greil Markov, automatically generating impenetrable record reviews.

This is a brilliant idea. I would read that blog.

All the review words in the world just pale next to their cool, knowing, masterful sophistication. Even when they were self-parodying, they always came out on top, because they knew it. The songs are novels, vignettes, short films.

As far as I'm concerned, Aja's place is deserved. My first real job was a restaurant job. I was 16-17 years old, and I got the chance to work making salads in an open kitchen at a new, urbane, rustic-Italian place that opened in my New Jersey hometown the mid-1980s. It is hard to describe now how paradigm-changing this place was. It had exposed brick walls, breadsticks on the tables, and served an exotic beverage called cappucino. It was the first of its kind locally, and let me tell you, it was hot. People waited two hours to get in on a Friday or Saturday night. Well, as far as ambient music, this place had a CD player (GLITZY RIGHT?), and it owned 3 CDs: Aja, Spyro Gyra's Breakout, and Ricki Lee Jones' Pirates. It seemed like enough. But it was Aja that was really on constant rotation. The songs are coded into my body now, the long hours of prep chopping small bits of mozzarella and artichoke hearts, the insanely-paced, feverish mid-dinner hours slamming plates by the fours and sixes on top of my stainless steel countertop while cooks hollered madly, stoves cranked, and waiters bitched, the winding-down hours around midnight when the waitstaff went out to smoke and the owner poured shots of limoncello for the underage staff. The songs hinted at an adult world of reserved, skepitcal but powerful sophistication that it felt like I was, at that time in life, entering for real.

So while I would give Pretzel Logic and Can't Buy a Thrill #2 and #3, I have to admit that Aja is part of my life DNA in a way that few things outside of Abbey Road can be, and and that's the way it is. I do still need to listen to some of the later recordings.
posted by Miko at 8:14 PM on January 29, 2015 [9 favorites]


Well, then, who sings the lead on Dirty Work?

David Palmer. Becker's voice is nowhere near as good


thus spurring my obligatory observation that The Dan have never been as good as they were on their first album and the best song on that album is Dirty Work. Ever since, it's been a slow decline into "... multi-tracked studio trickery, woodshedder scrubbed-up arrangements, or perfectionist, precise ultra-virtuoso slickness ..." which actually does "... obscure the existential dread and hip-panic self-consciousness that made" ... didn't let "... their lyrics resonate."

I mean, I really, really hated Peg.

So you think Aja is their worst album?

I wouldn't say that because I honestly didn't listen to their albums that closely past about Pretzel Logic. But certainly what I heard from Aja (and it got a lot of soft rock FM play back in the day) only made me want to hurt people.

But that first album -- that's one for the ages.
posted by philip-random at 8:18 PM on January 29, 2015


Oh, also?

Now you swear and kick and beg us
That you're not a gamblin' man
Then you find you're back in Vegas
With a handle in your hand


Everything I've ever tried to quit ever.
posted by Miko at 8:20 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


the best song on that album is Dirty Work

This is a big taste thing. Dirty Work is the only SD song I've ever attempted to cover on the guitar, and that makes a lot of sense because it's a rare [ for them], basic rock-chord song I-b2-IV-V structure with choruses and no crazy outré jazz chords and stuff. But it's so different aesthetically from where they ended up driving that it becomes a real outlier. I think it's a great song, but it's always felt to me like a song by another band. And in a sense, it was. I feel like it's analogous to how the Bee Gees did The Air That I Breathe , which is a good song, but has so little in common with what they became best known for.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on January 29, 2015


Steely Dan crafted a singular sound that makes my soul relax & sigh with contentment. "AHhhhhhhh". People who pick nits and find fault with them would probably find something wrong with the Hope Diamond.
posted by spock at 8:23 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's awfully gaudy. Gauche, really. And wouldn't your hand get so exhausted wearing it?
/kidding
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on January 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


it's analogous to how the Bee Gees did The Air That I Breathe yt , which is a good song, but has so little in common with what they became best known for.

I'm pretty sure that's the Hollies there. A song that Albert Hammond wrote.

This is a big taste thing. Dirty Work is the only SD song I've ever attempted to cover on the guitar, and that makes a lot of sense. But it's so different aesthetically from where they ended up driving that it becomes a real outlier.

it absolutely is a taste thing as the further Steely Dan got from the high points of Can't Buy A Thrill, the more I found myself running away as fast as I could the other way. What was I so afraid of? The smooth, unblemished, Hope Diamond-like perfection of their sound.

Perfection has always freaked me out.
posted by philip-random at 8:30 PM on January 29, 2015


Hollies, yes. Sure, my mixup. Same thing applies though: an outlier.
posted by Miko at 8:35 PM on January 29, 2015


I am glad you corrected me because now I've delved into listening to Hollies singles. That band was so amazing. They were never quite as revered in the US as in the UK but what a passel of hits - many of their songs are still in rotation on "oldies" stations here. I grew up on a bunch of them and have a lot of love for "Carrie Anne" and "On a Carousel" and "Stop Stop Stop." That is some tuneful Brit-pop right there. But I hope my analogy makes sense - "Air That I Breathe" is acoustic and melancholy and introspective and straightforward in a way that diverges from this group's ouevre, in the same way "Dirty Work" does for Steely Dan.
posted by Miko at 8:50 PM on January 29, 2015


yeah, point taken. But I think that goes for much of the first album -- certainly Midnight Cruiser. Which turns it back into a taste thing. I prefer my Steely Dan with a little more pop, a little less polish. Which isn't to say that there isn't polish all over the first album. Just not as much as eventually piles up by the time you get to Aja which I would liken to something like this ....

Still rock, but something essential seems to be missing.
posted by philip-random at 9:09 PM on January 29, 2015


Well...de gustibus. Though I believe the polish is an essential part of the overall statement only they had the perspective and the chops to make.

They were astute in their assessment that the world of the early 1970s was not in need of another earnest acoustic-rock band.
posted by Miko at 9:30 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have a pandora station that is just Steely Dan and Jethro Tull. Everything else that comes up gets downthumbed into oblivion.

Now, after 8 years of training, it works pretty well, and it is one of my favorite stations.

As much as I enjoy Aja, I'd have to put Katy Lied first because Any World is on my short list of stop what I am doing and listen closely songs.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:31 PM on January 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm just going to jump in here and say that I love "Everything Must Go" and wish they would play some songs from it when they play live, instead of only the older hits.
posted by Hicksu at 10:16 PM on January 29, 2015


"Perfection" is such a weird thing to ascribe to music. As far as I can tell, it can only mean that you like the music down to minute details. But there's a lot of music I feel that way about. Duke Ellington's band in the late 50s and early 60s was perfection to me. The Mekons have achieved perfection at times. The piano work of Art Tatum is a finely-crafted jewel of perfection. But perfection meant something different in those cases.
posted by koeselitz at 11:35 PM on January 29, 2015


music-theory-bait

Woof.
posted by colie at 11:42 PM on January 29, 2015


I was once talking to Mrs. Example about the similarities between Steely Dan and Gary Numan as I saw them--i.e., that the music is superficially cool and detached, but if you look past the surface and dig into the lyrics, there's some real gut-wrenching emotional stuff going on. Without missing a beat, she said "No wonder you like them so much".

Sometimes that woman is too damned perceptive.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:32 AM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


That girl that didn't know Aretha Franklin is now 54.

I came to love this band because my mom owned Gold and played the hell out of it, on 8-track and then cassette. You know when you're a kid and everything your parents do is uncool, or you make yourself think that it's uncool? I remember struggling to not like Steely Dan. And I failed. I found a copy of Gold at a pawn shop when I moved out and played the hell out of it myself. My roommate, who preferred Green Day, seriously threatened to throw it out the window of a moving car.

In case anyone else fondly remembers Fever Dreams, the SD lyrical interpretation site that existed intermittently around the millennium, it's archived here now.
posted by heatvision at 4:04 AM on January 30, 2015 [3 favorites]


Woke up and decided to play The Royal Scam, got curious about what the hell Kid Charlemagne is about, and read this. I'm usually skeptical of song origin stories because they do accrete a layer of fan BS, but this one seems relatively substantiated. This is the kind of lyrical density that blows my mind. First, it's a good catchy song I've known since I was 10. Then, there is meaning in the general atmopshere of losing your place as a social leader, even if you have no idea what it's about. Then, when you do know what it is about, it becomes about the entire death of a counterculture that had become clownish and sad. When you hold it up against so many other bands, it's the rare few that can muster that marriage of melody, musicianship, and lyrical depth.
posted by Miko at 6:40 AM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


As much as I enjoy Aja, I'd have to put Katy Lied first because Any World is on my short list of stop what I am doing and listen closely songs.

Vocally, Fagen found something in Any World that blew away his usual cynicism. It's the best of the "loser seeks redemption" songs. That whole middle section is just...life-affirming and that's not something you usually find in a Steely Dan song.
posted by Ber at 6:46 AM on January 30, 2015


Which turns it back into a taste thing. I prefer my Steely Dan with a little more pop, a little less polish.
posted by philip-random


Agreed. Though as you say, its hard to talk about Steely Dan as lacking polish at any time in their career. Their music was always impeccably produced. So much so that Can't Buy a Thrill was the (or at least my and most people I know) gold standard, along with Dark Side of the Moon, for testing stereo speakers back in the mid-1970's. The drum and vibe intro to Do It Again and a few minutes of vocals would pretty much tell you anything you needed to know.
posted by rtimmel at 7:47 AM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've always loved SD. And when the Santa Anas blow, which is often, I always think of that lyric. Even after being here 15 years.

Now, what are the dirty old man jokes in kid Charlemagne and Bad Sneakers?

I figured there was some sort of revival (or there soon would be) when Kanye sampled them.
posted by persona au gratin at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2015


Ah, so apropos of not much, I can finally tell my Dan stories.

I was indifferent to the Dan until college in the mid 80s when I got it bad for them my freshman year in a roundabout way (via the jazz fusion I was listening to at the time). I did bad things because of them. I had a roommate resembling HST's "lawyer" that went Full Sociopath on me about two months into my tenancy, so I had to move out in a hurry. In my haste I may or may not have taken his original pressing collection of Dan LPs and left my far inferior second pressings in their place. He may or may not have noticed and come to my new apartment to demand them back, and the police may or may not have been involved.

I was in love that year, and she and I listed to the Dan endlessly ...her parent's beach house in Charleston, in her car, in my bedroom. Things started going badly between us the next year, and by Christmas she'd broken it off. In February I discovered that she'd been seeing my best friend at another university behind my back for the last six months, the friend I'd been pouring my heart out to about my declining relationship. And literally all my other friends knew and never told me. The Dan was, in my mind, so tied to her, I may or may not have drunk an entire fifth of Dewar's (and wound up in the ER with alcohol poisoning the next day) and thrown my entire collection of Dan LPs out of my sixth story window. Oddly, my landlord did not let me renew my lease at the end of the year.

I got over her and back into the Dan.

Fast-forward to the mid 90s, and my friend has a friend who has a small radio station way the fuck out in the polder in Holland. This friend may or may not have had another friend who, once a year, turned his attention elsewhere than the BBC bird he oversaw. So I'm tipsy and maybe a little high, and my friend and I are squirting the bird, playing Dan song after Dan song until the friend with the access comes in and tells us to cut it out and puts someone else on the mic.

Finally fast-forward again to the early 2000s and the first reunion tour in support of Two Against Nature. I had met a Well-Known Author whose writing had a big impact on my life at a few book signings, and he kind of knew who I was. Via a mutual friend, he contacted me to say he had two tickets to the Dan concert at the Beacon, and his main friend in NYC hated, just hated the Dan, and would I like go with him? So we met, had a coffee, proceeded uptown and then up the winding back stairs at the Beacon. We hear Walter warming up and knock on the door. I find myself backstage at the Beacon hanging out with my favorite author and one half of possibly my favorite pop group, and they are just chilling, talking about a city where they both have connections and being completely down to earth, making their own coffee and no fuss whatsoever. Walter walks me through his amp's settings, let's me play a tiny bit on his ax. For about 30 seconds.

Now here's where it gets Meta. Just as the opening act was closing, Walter waked us downstairs. My author acquaintance had met Walter before, but never Donald, and he's a massive Dan fan. So we're standing in the wings and Donald is standing there watching the opener finish their set. So I'm watching my favorite author (whom I'm really meeting for the first time) meet Donald, one of his favorite musicians, for the first time.

I've been to a lot of concerts, been back stage many times, got to mess around with Pat Metheny's Sinclavier during a sound check in 1985. Hung out with a very 'flu ridden Adrian Belew after a mind-blowing Bears' show. I even played the Milkyway in Amsterdam myself once in the mid 90s on keys for a Dutch language band fronted by a now-well known cartoonist who sadly has bad tinnitus now.

But nothing compares to that Dan show.
posted by digitalprimate at 10:12 AM on January 30, 2015 [16 favorites]


And on that note, I guess it's worth mentioning that tickets to Steely Dan's Las Vegas and San Diego shows in April went on sale five minutes ago. Spoiler alert: there are no tickets available for less than a hundred dollars. So... I guess I'm not going to take my girlfriend to see Steely Dan.
posted by koeselitz at 12:08 PM on January 30, 2015


They played last summer in an outdoor ampitheatre in NH's lakes region for like $37. WE really should have gone but we had a bunch of reasons that felt like it was going to be too hard. I can't imagine much more enjoyable than listening to SD while sitting in the grass seats with a bottle of wine under the northern stars would have been.
posted by Miko at 2:36 PM on January 30, 2015


Is no one familiar with the soundtrack to "Me, Myself, and Irene"? Say what you will, about Jim Carey or the Farralley Bros., it's sort of an unoffical Steely Dan tribute album with covers by Wilco, Brian Setzer, and others. A lot of fun.
posted by hwestiii at 2:43 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: "Perfection" is such a weird thing to ascribe to music. As far as I can tell, it can only mean that you like the music down to minute details. But there's a lot of music I feel that way about...

When I use the word "perfection" when talking bout 'Rikki Dont Loose That Number' I think my brain is vaguely aspiring towards a reflection of some kinda ecstatic platonic ideal or something... one of the things about 'Rikki..' is that the song intersects the expected Dan technical polish with an uniquely uncharacteristic display of emotions...

Regret to hear about the opening chords conflating an expectation of Horace Silver. I used to have the same problem with the opening beat on Phil Collins 'Can't Hurry Love' thinking it was going to be 'Town Called Malice'; or the tolling bells on 'Hells Bells' thinking it was going to be Lennon's 'Mother'. (Actually, after all of these years I now like 'Hells Bells' more.)

(Oh and speaking of Duke Ellington, who I never followed closely, I just recently discovered Money Jungle, blowin' my mind, man...)
posted by ovvl at 4:22 PM on January 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh, yeah, 'Money Jungle' is a top-tier album for all three of those dudes, and that is... not faint praise.

And, yeah, as somebody who likes hip-hop and listens to the r&b/old-school station, I have those hoping-it's-this-but-it's-that moments all the time.
posted by box at 7:37 PM on January 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Although largely known as a great studio band before they resumed touring in the 1990s, Steely Dan was pretty good live, too. Check out this live radio broadcast from 1974.
posted by Man-Thing at 5:54 AM on February 1, 2015


It's worth mentioning in this thread, since folks here are likely to be interested:

The Steely Dan / Elvis Costello tour that nicwolff mentioned above now has confirmed dates:
7/9/2015 Auburn, WA White River Amphitheatre. Ticket Sales TBD
7/11/2015 Mountain View, CA Shoreline Amphitheatre. On Sale 2/20/2015
7/13/2015 Los Angeles, CA Hollywood Bowl. On Sale 2/20/2015
7/15/2015 Albuquerque, NM Isleta Amphitheater. Ticket Sales TBD
7/17/2015 Austin, TX Austin 360 Amphitheater. Ticket Sales TBD
7/18/2015 Houston, TX Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. On Sale 2/20/2015
7/19/2015 Dallas, TX Gexa Energy Pavilion. Ticket Sales TBD
7/22/2015 St. Louis,MO Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre On Sale 2/21/2015
7/24/2015 Highland Park, IL Ravinia Festival. On Sale 4/28/2015 (without Elvis Costello)
7/25/2015 Highland Park, IL Ravinia Festival. On Sale 4/28/2015 (without Elvis Costello)
7/27/2015 Clarkston, MI DTE Energy Music Theatre. Ticket Sales TBD
7/28/2015 Cuyahoga Falls, OH Blossom Music Center. On Sale 2/20/2015
7/30/2015 Boston, MA Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. On Sale 2/20/2015
7/31/2015 Boston, MA Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. On Sale 2/20/2015

8/1/2015 Holmdel, NJ PNC Bank Arts Center. Ticket Sales TBD
8/3/2015 Camden, NJ Susquehanna Bank Center. Ticket Sales TBD
8/5/2015 Bristow, VA Jiffy Lube Live. On Sale 2/21/2015
8/6/2015 Raleigh, NC Walnut Creek Amphitheatre. On Sale 2/21/2015
8/8/2015 Nashville, TN West Riverfront Park. Ticket Sales TBD
8/9/2015 Atlanta, GA Chastain Park Amphitheatre ASO. Ticket Sales TBD
8/11/2015 Tampa, FL MidFlorida Credit Union Amp. Ticket Sales TBD
8/12/2015 West Palm Beach, FL Cruzan Amphitheatre. Ticket Sales TBD
Sounds pretty awesome. I have seen Costello several times, and he's consistently good in concert; and it'll be interesting to dig into Steely Dan, and even if they aren't something I've warmed to yet, I'm looking forward to seeing them. Best of all, they're playing in Albuquerque, so I won't have to travel.
posted by koeselitz at 10:56 AM on February 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


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