10. Steely Dan (part two of two)

Last time, we listened to the first half of a 20-song Steely Dan collection. 
Let's pick it up from there.

As always, I did no research when preparing this listening session, and my comments below were written in real-time, stream-of-consciousness as the songs unfolded, with later editing only performed for spelling and clarity.

Steely Dan
The Very Best Of (tracks 11 - 20)

This one I know of course.  This time he's singing to an actress.  Steely Dan have a steely demeanor.  Few of their lyrics are directly introspective.  We never get into their heads.  They're always addressing someone else, and usually in the voice of what seems to be a character, rather than themselves.  Heavy chorus on the keyboards and even heavier on the guitar in the left channel. That intro guitar is buried under processing. Oh, then when the verse starts it goes clean.  So they're singing "Peg, it will come back to you".  I always thought they were singing "Hey, it will come back to you".  The little revelations this project brings.  Who knew they were singing the title of the song.  Ok, that one's on me.  Next: tasty little guitar break.  And these big, complex harmonies.  This sounds like the guy from Doobie Brothers.  Between this band and Fleetwood Mac in the recent past, I'm hearing a lot of these huge layered vocals.  I've worked on quite a lot of stuff like that in the studio.  They're hard to do and very time consuming.

"The Fez"
Is he singing "You're never gonna do it without your fez on"?  What is this, a Shriner porno film?  This groove totally sounds like a porno funk.  All right, I did not anticipate this.  "I wanna be your holy man".  Ha.  So trite.  Nice instrumental track here, porn-funky yes, but also that exotica organ lick.  Short and repetitive lyric.  This one seems like a total throw-away for them. A b-side?

"Show Biz Kids"
This is totally different.  It's like an R+B thing or even a little mutant Motown.  Another one with the other singer.  Or no, wait is it the usual guy in an embryonic form?  The backing vocals keep chanting "Lost Wages", a nickname for Las Vegas.  The man guy is singing about people having fun at night while the "poor people sleeping... all the stars come out at night".  Well, pretty easy to get the message here.  Fun hand claps.  That's natural room reverb too, not any sort of post-processing.  Then this song gets tedious.  This guitar solo is just noodling.  Nothing else changes.  Ok, another quick verse.  This is a four-minute idea stretched to 5m 18s.  Get the razor blades, we need to edit this one.  But this and "The Fez" show a much looser side of this band.

Oh, right I know this one.  I didn't recognize the title.  This one must be from the same album as "Hey Nineteen".  Josie is the girl from "Hey Nineteen" all grown up.  An experienced party girl, coming back to the old neighborhood... with a reputation.  Looks like she accepted the old perv's offer of tequila and coke after all.  Was that an edit at 3:18?  Maybe.  Is this the same guitar riff as "Fame" by Bowie?

"Haitian Divorce"
Another processed guitar.  They like doing that, but it usually works for them.  It's easy to get weird unusual sounds in the studio, but it's hard to justify them in a musical context.  They may sound cool, but they don't often work with the song.  This band seem to have a good track record with that though.  This has got a hint of reggae in there, appropriate for the title.  Seems like the rise and fall of a Caribbean relationship.  "She's drinking zombies from a coco shell".  That's right, they don't do Cuervo Gold in the Caribbean.  This is their least engaging track so far, but at least I'm not listening to Marillion today.  I just zoned out for a while.  Is this song still playing?

"Pretzel Logic"
Bluesy vibe with this one.  Seems like this band had a fair bit of range before they went for the (Cuervo) gold and became the admirals of yacht rock.  They're flirting with lots of different styles.  The past few songs have had hints of reggae, R+B, and blues but without ever drifting too far from being Steely Dan.  I'll bet that a careful and chronological listening to a bigger selection of tracks would allow our forensic team to zero in on the exact moment of when their smooth hipster formula was born.  The character appears early on in their catalogue, but the specific sonorities of his soundtrack took a while to calcify.

"Black Friday"
Oh, I've heard this one.  This is Steely Dan?  Yeah, I guess it's obvious in retrospect.  Competent little rocker.  No one called the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" until fairly recently.  Maybe the early 2000s.  Or late 1990s at the most recent.  This is about something else.  Well, now we know how their smooth coke-and-Camaro date rapist got his money.  Looks like he cashed in and bailed to Australia for a while.  We could write this guy's life story in Steely Dan songs.  A concept album after the fact.  Oh, this fade.  Too abrupt.  Comes out of nowhere.  I'd bring it in eight or even sixteen bars later.  

"Babylon Sisters"
This is like a reggae-blues.  I'm not so into this.  The second half of this compilation is definitely weaker material.  He's talking about drinking kirschwasser.  That's brandy made from fermented cherry juice in Germany.  Kind of obscure there, Steely Dan.  Guess he drank up all available supplies of tequila.  At least three California references in the lyrics, plus mention of sea, shells, sand.  And a reference to "a Sunday in T.J."  That's what southern Californians call Tijuana.  So what's the problem?  Go get some tequila man.  Your nineteen year old coked-up sorority girl is waiting.

"Deacon Blues"
Seems to be about a guy who wants to give it all up and chase his fantasies.  More third-person writing from Steely Dan.  
What do you feel?  
Oh wait, I didn't recognize this song until the chorus.  I've heard this chorus a zillion times.  This song is called "Deacon Blues"?  I didn't have any idea, but of course this is very familiar.  But the verses are so deeply bland that they didn't register at all.  That's a pretty big songwriting issue.  After the chorus here comes the next verse... yeah, this doesn't sound at all familiar, but the chorus is ubiquitous, it's everywhere.  Hm... looks like the kirschwasser ran out and the T.J. run didn't produce any new Cuervo, so he's on to the Scotch now.  All night long!  Yeah, the hook of this one made it a hit, but otherwise this song is really freakin' bland.  Ha, he says "I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long".  Lots to unpack there.  First time we hear Steely Dan admit to (wait for it) ....feeeeeelings.  And my lawyers have been alerted: you're playing too long.  This is another song that very much overstays its welcome.  How long is it?  Ack, 7m 30s.

"Bad Sneakers"
It might have been good to listen to a more curated selection of Steely Dan songs.  Twenty might have been too much.  I'm over this.  The Doobie guy is singing again.  Now he's drinking a Piña Colada.  No, that's a different song from this era, my friends.  Steely Dan isn't about "getting caught in the rain" after his Piñas, instead, in this song, he's "laughing at the frozen rain".  That sounds like a fucking Marillion lyric, and long-time readers know: I fucking hate Marillion.

Ha!  First line of the song, he's drinking "grapefruit wine".  Some enterprising bartender could host a Steely Dan night and do a whole bar menu based on these songs.  This tune is describing current events.  He's singing about Muzak, FM radio, and "no static at all".  These are all references to how people listened to music right around 1977 to 1979 or so.  FM radio was taking over from AM as the preferred way to broadcast music, and the Muzak company was piping what we now call "elevator music" into restaurants and businesses to avoid paying licenses for regular recordings while being able to reliably set a specific and consistent mood.  It was a bastardization of Eno's concepts of ambient music (which he came up with right before Muzak arrived, and himself borrowed from Erik Satie's "furniture music" ideas).  Oh right, but this Steely Dan tune.  I dunno.  It sounds like all of their other later songs. Guitar solo at the end seems to channel Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd. 

Seems like their later music is cleanly engineered and impeccably performed, but (no surprise) it has less variety, less chaos, and less soul than their earlier material.  There's a gleeful anarchy in their older stuff and a controlled capitalism in their later stuff.  The musicianship is consistently good to very good, and they've clearly taken a lot of care with recording it.  Objectively, this is high-quality pop music.  But, like Fleetwood Mac, it just doesn't resonate with me.  

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: "Peg", I guess.

Next: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, coming September 15, 2021

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