SteelyFan Journals, Vol. 1

Sun 2-Jan-00 19:04

So, yeah, they're staging a comeback. Actually, these two media-shy guys have been edging into this comeback since the early '90s, when they actually put together a touring big band and hit the summer "concert shed" circuit. (And these were the guys who swore off of ever touring again back in 1974.) Then they issued a "live" album of their tour (well, sort of--studio-rats that they are, they couldn't resist cleaning up a few things here and there).

But now, with the imminent release of their first album of all-new material under the Steely banner in 20 years, the comeback is on in earnest. Sort of.

Checking out their official website -- http://www.steelydan.com, nu, what else -- one detects a marked ambivalence on the part of Messrs Walter Becker and Donald Fagen regarding this whole media-hype record-marketing thang. They do have up a page dedicated to this new entity, enticingly named "Two Against Nature," plus the release date (2/29/00) and even some MP3 sound clips. And even a contest for those who preorder The New One (as it is ubiquitously known) through their fan newsletter. But they also have up there a shitload of self-written parodies -- PR memos and other hunks of gonzo-goof humor -- all as if in an effort to ward off the Evil Eye of Media-Marketing-Demonology. Pity the poor irony-impaired reporter from the East Pig's-Knuckle News and Tribune who hits their site in an attempt to research a squib about The New One.

In this era in which we see Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young touring again behind a new album that sounds like more of themselves only with louder guitar solos, and Carlos Santana releasing a comeback album laced with every Gen-X recording star he could get his hands on, ya gotta wonder if there's something in the water. Or whether this is a sign of the End Times. But at least it will be interesting watching Becker and Fagen do the comeback thing in their own curmdgeonly style. Do a compare and contrast. A case study in -- is it possible? -- how to do a comeback with one's sense of humor, if not dignity, still intact.

By the way, I have listened to all the advance stuff on the album that one can get one's hands on legitimately or semi-legitimately on the Web, and the sounds auger well for this new album to be a legitimately Damn Fine Steely Dan Album, totally separate from any hype or hijinks that may ensue.

Wed 5-Jan-00 19:32

It looks like Seattle-area station KMTT-FM a.k.a. "The Mountain" has won the right to do the exclusive Puget Sound premiere of the first focus track off of "Two Against Nature." They'll be playing it tonight at approx 10:20ish pm (some new music focus slot they have on at that time).

Sigh. I'm of course pleased as hell the song is hitting the airwaves, but it continually bugs me how Steely Dan keeps getting relegated to either "aging baby-boomer" and "classic rock" stations or -- worse yet -- the goddam lite/smooth jazz stations. But then, I suppose this is another by-product of the niche-marketing splintering of the FM radio dial. So ... I'm stuck listening to KMTT, much of whose programming I'd prefer to be stuffing in the nearest oubliette, in order to hear four minutes of my favorite band on the air. The Guys deserve better. Maybe a "Music for smart-asses" radio-play format (they could play lots of They Might Be Giants and Talking Heads too).

Thu 6-Jan-00 08:54

Okay, so the Steely Dan marketing engine begins to gain steam. Apparently, they are going to be taping a special for PBS in New York City the end of this month. I have heard no word whether this is for a specific show, like for instance the celebrated "Sessions at West 54th," though that seems a likely candidate. Regardless, doing it through PBS is definitely a classy move (sure beats dodging the ads for futons on The End!) In connection with that, at least a couple of radio stations across the country are going to be giving away tickets to be in the audience for that NYC taping -- including KMTT. Sigh. Guess I'm doomed to listen to "adult contemporary" format awhile longer, at least until I figger out the scam.

The Dan have apparently also taken a few notes from Carlos Santana's recent recipe for a successful comeback. Becker and Fagen have given their blessing to the Farelly Brothers to use a large number of classic SD songs in the soundtrack for the directors' upcoming Jim Carrey vehicle, "Me, Myself, and Irene." The twist is that all these Dan songs will be covered by other artists--everyone from Ben Folds Five to Brian Setzer to Smash Mouth to Wilco to Leon Redbone (geez, I didn't even know Redbone was still alive!).

Again, I am of mixed mind about this last foray. I am genuinely interested to hear what some of these performers will do with the material. But the thought of this music running under a Farelly Bros. movie majorly gives me The Fear. Ah well. Again, I guess we will see.

Oh yeah. I heard the "focus track" (vas ist das new piece of jargon from record labels, anyway?), Cousin Dupree, on goddam KMTT last night and this morning. Sounding good! (Certainly better than the scratchy MP3 download I've had of it up to this point.)

Thu 6-Jan-00 20:54

Given that the Net is especially fertile ground for all sorts of fandom subcultures, I'm sure it'll be no surprise to anyone that there's a rabid Steely Dan fandom out there in cyberspace. And they've been going into full effect as the New One nears its release date. One of the recent games has been to piece together the lyrics of "Cousin Dupree" just from those scratchy MP3s recorded off of broadcast or netcast radio. No sweat -- one of the favorite hobbies of Danfans for decades has been arguing about the lyrics. It was fun -- I helped. :-) Between a whole bunch of us across the North American continent, the UK, and points elsewhere (including at least one dude who I think was coming in on the morning scan from Arcturus) we got it sussed out. And then somebody plunked it on their fan website for all to admire.

And here they are: Cousin Dupree (courtesy of the Official SD Website)

Well, as SD lyrics go these are relatively straightforward, at least on the comprehension level. Content-wise, of course, there's a nice Dannish twist -- seems the Guys have graduated from writing about chasing near-jailbait to writing about casual first-cousin incest. But this song is a relatively "light" satire -- there's at least one other song I know to be on that album that is much much darker ("Jack of Speed," which they tried out on their '96 tour). And probably much more "downer surrealism" besides.

Meanwhile, the Harriet-the-spy secret-decoder-ring action carries on amongst the cyber-Danfandom. (And a few choice alien ringers.)

Fri 7-Jan-00 10:07

Oh yeah, the music to Cousin Dupree is excellent too. They take a standard Southern-rock roadhouse boogie, keep it nicely uptempo but cool the instrumentation way out a la their Aja/Gaucho-era style, throw in some jazzy chord changes and a Becker guitar solo on the instrumental break after the bridge, and then outro with a classic Dannish multipart-harmony repeating that "How about a kiss for your Cousin Dupree" hook. Donald's vocals are coolly sardonic throughout.

It's interesting--as he's entering his 50s, Donald no longer does that full-throated bray made famous on the early albums. Part of me misses it, part of me is glad he's taking better care of his vocal cords (there were rumors about a year ago that he had a bout of serious throat trouble). At the same time, he's also learned a lot more vocal finesse, adding some really soulful turns (to hear this in full effect, get a copy of his 1992 solo album Kamakiriad--very R'n'B/funk-influenced in a Fagenesque ultra-slick way; he even throws in some falsetto turns!)

Fagen's voice has always fascinated the shit out of me anyway. He is not really, nor ever has claimed to be, a "natural" singer--in fact, there are some famous stories about how he tried his damnedest to get out of being the lead singer/frontman for Steely Dan when they first formed, because, musical perfectionist that he was, he wasn't sure he had the chops or the presence to pull it off. This is why there is this other dude, David Palmer, singing lead on two songs on their first album (Can't Buy A Thrill), and their drummer of the time, Jim Hodder, singing lead on "Midnight Cruiser." But Palmer turned out to be a total mistake (one of the many thorns in Don and Walt's sides, as it turned out, when they had their first miserable experience as a touring band), and got booted. Plus the two big Top-40 hits off of CBAT, "Do It Again" and "Reeling In The Years," featured Donald on lead--to fabulous effect. So Donald sorta got stuck with it.

And it's a damn good thing for all of us, because Donald Fagen has one of the most fascinating, distinctive-sounding voices in all of pop music. It's a strange sounding voice. Okay, maybe it's not as totally whack as, say, Tom Waits, but it's definitely non-standard. And yet it's an incredibly compelling voice -- dark, sardonic, very adult, and surprisingly sexy. I've laughed many times at reviewers' attempts to describe Donald's voice. At the very least, most agree that it uniquely suits the ironical nature of the SD lyrics, much better than any traditionally "pretty" voice ever would.

But there's more to Fagen's vocals than that. He may not have started off as a trained vocalist, but he is a crack musician -- and one who steeped himself early in bebop jazz and early-60s pop. This apparently has given him a terrific ear for precision in rhythm, harmony, and melody. The result is that when he sings, he makes his voice get where it needs to go -- nomatter how complex the song he and Walter have dreamed up. To see what I mean, try singing along with Donald on those verses to "Reeling in the Years." Yeah, all those tongue-twister words--try to get them all in on time, without rushing 'em. He does it, and makes it sound easy -- and he does it equally spot-on in live performance too. Or try singing along with him on some of the more modal stuff from the late 70s -- like the refrain to the title cut from Aja, with the jazzy modulation way up high on "I run to you." He gets there. No sliding -- right on it. Not just in the studio, but live. Now that's a singer. (No matter how he continues his self-deprecation trip.)

Sun 9-Jan-00 20:26

Now Steely Dan is apparently going to be taping a show for VH-1's "Storytellers" series, in addition to the PBS taping. Several someones in their PR firm have evidently been working their asses off, to good effect.

There's a short article on the Guys in this month's Rolling Stone, too. Most notable seems to be a smart-ass remark from Walter about how releasing this album signifies they are "striking while the career-iron is lukewarm." Oh yeah, RS talked to the Farelly Brothers too, and some guys from Smash Mouth, which group will be doing one of the SD covers on the "Me, Myself, and Irene" soundtrack.

Meanwhile, on EBay a brisk business has sprung up in copies of the promo CDs that were ostensibly released to radio stations only and not for resale -- CD singles of "Cousin Dupree" and "What a Shame About Me." There's even a test pressing of the entire new album up there. Ah well. Welcome to supply-and-demand economics at its most stark -- Adam Smith would have been grimly amused.

Fri 14-Jan-00 15:05

The UK newspaper The Guardian has an excellent new interview with Becker and Fagen on their website. The piece's wonderful title: "Librarians on Acid."

The interviewer does a terrific job, getting some serious commentary out of the Guys as well as some of their usual warped humor (Fagen points out the volumes of implications that can be drawn when comparing just the name "Steely Dan" to, say, "Limp Bizkit").

Sat 29-Jan-00 22:35

The PBS tapings are happening in New York City. Those lucky-dog members of the Internet Danfan Mafia who won or scammed or cadged tickets to the tapings are posting reports in the various newsgroups and e-lists and web-chatspaces where the rest of their bretheren and sisteren await reports with baited breath. The early reports are unanimous: the show is smokin'. D&W; have assembled another crack band, many of whom played on the new album, probably the exact lineup of the band with which D&W; will tour this coming spring and summer.

The performance seems to have totally blown away all our correspondents -- both the selections from the new album and the old standards. Terrific solos, Donald's vocals in excellent form, and the usual snide quips from him and Walter, especially as they watched their band endure video-attacks from the camera-crew -- apparently there were booms zooming and mobile camera-folk charging up to get hot shots of solos all over the goddam, prompting Walter at one point to snark off about a soloist being submitted to a "cinematic gang-bang."

Donald, meanwhile, apparently started off the evening looking a little annoyed, reportedly at how many industry suits had been given tickets to this show as opposed to rank-and-file fans, but, again apparently, as the show wore on and those fans who were in attendance, and even the suits, began to groove into it, he got over it and just had a damn good time (you can tell when Donald Fagen is having a really really good time when you catch him actually cracking the faintest shadow of a smile -- just one of the Great Stone Faces, he is).

PBS has posted to its website a full-page squib about the show that will result from these tapings, due to air March 1st as part of its IN THE SPOTLIGHT series.

Meanwhile, Amazon.com has been doing a brisk business in advance sales of "Two Against Nature." It's been floating around in their top ten highest-selling CDs for several days now -- the only advance-order CD anywhere on the list I believe, or anywhere in the top 100. I find this peculiarly gratifying, though I will find it more so when the album knocks Mariah Carey's CD offa its perch on the list.

To be continued ...