Monday, April 12, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 54 - Steely Dan

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Jazz fusion.

Are there two words that are more terrifying to anybody who even considers themselves to have slightly good taste in music? I chose Steely Dan this week because I figured that I was due to listen to a seventies band. But when I opened up the Wikipedia article to do some quick background reading, I saw that they were classified as "jazz rock" and I wondered just what I gotten myself into.

When I hear the words "jazz rock" or "jazz fusion", I immediately think of smooth jazz, possibly the worst genre of popular music today. Smooth Jazz is like Kenny G on sedatives. It's that shit you hear on the Weather Channel during the Local Forecast. It's stuff that middle-aged housewives listen to in a feeble attempt to feel connected to the jazz scene. It's the stuff in the Hallmark Store next to those CDs that combine classical music with ocean sounds. I loathe it.

At least, I loathe the modern jazz fusion that gets radio play. As I discovered this week, jazz rock has roots in far more experimental kind of music, and its artists used to be far more musically ambitious. Though bands like Steely Dan have received their share of mockery over the years, even their detractors have to admit that they're miles above the tripe that gets labeled with the "jazz fusion" moniker these days.

Jazz has always been one of those genres of music that I've felt that I should enjoy a lot more than I actually do - intellectually, I can appreciate the theory behind the music, but I find a lot of it pretty uninspiring stuff to actually listen to. As a general rule, the less jazzy Steely Dan was, the more I liked them.

Which is not to say that I don't appreciate what they're doing - it's nice to hear some songs that aren't based around the same few chord structures. But appreciation is one thing, and emotional stimulation something else. Though from what I gathered about Steely Dan, they're the sort of band who values this objective, detached listening over wild emotional stuff. So perhaps my listening was not too far off the mark.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Really nothing. I think my mom told me that I should check out Aja at some point, but I can't pinpoint anything specific I knew about the group before this week.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Pretzel Logic (1974) every day this week. I also listened to Aja (1977) three times, Can't Buy a Thrill (1972) twice, and Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) once.

WHAT I LIKED: I liked Steely Dan best before they retreated into the studio entirely. Their first few albums were recorded as a "band" band, and not as two audiophiles bossing around a bunch of session musicians. As a result, I think their earlier efforts have a lot more life to them.

Can't Buy a Thrill is the most "rock" oriented of their early stuff, and might be the favorite of the albums I listened to. "Reelin' in the Years" is still a classic rock radio staple, but I liked the upbeat samba of "Do It Again" and the singable chorus to "Kings". Even on this early album, the band is very deliberate and intentional with every musical decision they make, from the use of backing instruments to the meticulously harmonized chorus of female vocalists. But the songs feel energetic, full of life, and you get the feeling that the band is having a lot of fun with this material.

Countdown to Ecstasy opens with the even more upbeat and exciting "Bodhisattva", complete with perfectly calculated handclaps. But Pretzel Logic is another competitor for the best Steely Dan album. Clearly more of a studio effort, this record is the band's best combination of pop and jazz. The title track contains a great bluesy riff, and "Parker's Band" pays tribute to Charlie Parker while utilizing two drumsets beating out perfectly syncopated rhythms. Even "East St. Louis Toodle-oo", a goofy little instrumental track based on a Duke Ellington piece, combines ragtime with Steely Dan's studio precision.

So what did I like? I liked all the meticulously scored songs, well-written and performed by a virtuoso set of studio musicians. At the beginning of the week, I was a little unsure about Steely Dan (it didn't help that the first song I heard is "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", which I can't find myself to like despite it being one of their bigger hits). But after my third or fourth listen to Pretzel Logic, I found the music very listenable, and fun to get lost in. It's never raucous or emotional, but there's always something interesting going on, and there's always something new to discover when you go back to listen again.


On the one hand, Steely Dan creates diligently crafted pieces of songmanship. On the other hand, this sort of perfectionist attitude, combined with their opaque lyrics, serve to make their music rather sterile. By the time that I got to Aja, I was less enthralled with the material.

On Aja, most of the energy is gone. The songs are meandering, bordering on indulgent, and though I can admire the "jazziness" of this album, it just didn't strike a chord with me like their earlier stuff. I should be impressed by their ability to incorporate brass solos in songs like "Aja" and "Deacon Blues", but really the music just doesn't affect me in any way.

The other thing that never clicked with me about this band is that their lyrics are far too clever and mysterious. Steely Dan seems to be all about this emotional detachment, ironically looking down on the very music they create (in this way, they're like the godfathers of modern day hipsters). But this also means I have no connection with the lyrics. This is not to say I couldn't, but it seems like more a mission for those true Steely Dan devotees to work through all the group's mysterious lines and trace all the references to discover what they're actually singing about. As a Steely Dan amateur, the lyrics didn't connect to me on any level.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: The band's name comes from a phrase that William Burroughs uses to describe a dildo in Naked Lunch.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There are more Steely Dan records out there: mid-period Katy Lied (1975) and The Royal Scam (1976), as well as the late Gaucho (1980) and the relatively well-received reunion album Two Against Nature (2000). But I think my next step might be Donald Fagen's solo effort on The Nightfly (1982) which seems to have been met with resounding acclaim.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Reelin' in the Years"

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Change of the Guard". Really, any one of the lesser known tracks on Can't Buy a Thrill might work, but I'll go with this one.