Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were wiseass New York musician nerds stranded in L.A. in the early Seventies, and they poured all the cynicism and paranoia of that circumstance into Steely Dan, the most notorious studio band in the annals of classic rock. Their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, was the only record by the reclusive duo written for an actual live band, and you can tell -- especially on hoo-ha! cuts such as "My Old School," a catchy little tune about college placement and prostitution, with its pounding, stupidly grinning piano riffs; scorching guitar solos, somehow both showy and unself-conscious; and above all, jubilant horn charts. "The Boston Rag" begins as a sophisticated, jazzy number, but then the band players forget themselves: The solo by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter is as nasty, distorted and molten as rock guitar has ever been. The jump and jive of "Bodhisattva" is so celebratory, it could be the music for a Looney Tunes cartoon. Smart, conflicted bands from Weezer to the Eels owe Steely Dan big time, not because guys with glasses should stick together, but because on Countdown to Ecstasy, the band was human, not just brainy. Like good stretches of the Stones' Exile on Main Street, this is a record where Steely Dan let slip their extraordinary mask of sarcasm, and could not disguise the joy in these excellent songs, or the fact that they were having a blast playing them.
(RS 934, October 30, 2003)
(Posted: Oct 8, 2003)