(5 Over 12)
really funny to notice, in real time, how history gets to be
"rewritten" as it happens today in the case of 11 Tracks Of Whack
(1994), the only solo album by Walter Becker before the recent release of
Circus Money, which any reviewer worth his/her name has to contextualize.
But to tell the truth, at the time of its original release, the reviews had
been for the most part quite terrible; or, better said, few in number, and
not really very favourable (I remember - at least, it was true the last time
I looked - that Steely Dan's official site had in their archives two reviews
of that album, one "pro", one "cons", the comparison
being quite useful). Of course, critics had "contextualized": and
what's more hideous than an album that - starting with its title - appeared
as if it was introducing itself as a "hack job", with those strange
drum machines and a singer (Becker himself) who sounded as somebody who had
never sung a note in his life? And though the blurb on the cover read "Produced
by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen" nothing in that album appeared as
being remotely similar to those much-loved "Kings of Cool and Precision".
Having bought the album "used, like new" not long after its original
release, I decided to wait for a sequel that could make things clearer.
when it comes to Steely Dan time can produce quite a few surprises. There
had been that unexpected hiatus (which in hindsight appeared to have been
entirely logical) that came after Gaucho (1980), their "coolest" album
(readers are invited to check Ian MacDonald's perceptive analysis) released
after their (tiny) big seller, Aja (1977), and their guitar opus The Royal
Scam (1976). While the release of Donald Fagen's first solo album The Nightfly
(1982), still held in high esteem today, made it easier for listeners everywhere
not to mourn the disappearance of the historical brand, it forced them
to ask themselves a question: if The Nightfly had Steely Dan's keyboards,
Steely Dan's lead vocals, Steely Dan's music, Steely Dan's moods, Steely
Dan's harmonies, and almost Steely Dan's lyrics, what had been Walter Becker's
role in Steely Dan?
it may sound strange, I have to confess that I preferred 11 Tracks Of Whack
to Kamakiriad (1993), Donald Fagen's new solo album (produced by Walter
Becker) after an absence of about ten years: though I was aware of the
fact that Fagen's album carried more "weight", I found myself
liking Becker's album more. Though it was true that 11 Tracks Of Whack
needed a lot of things to change in order to be called entirely successful,
the album possessed a certain graceful air of faux naïveté that made it
sound a lot fresher than Kamakiriad, a good album whose main problem was
that of sounding like a tired copy of The Nightfly.
can't say I was terribly happy upon hearing that Steely Dan had come back,
at first, in the 90s, as a concert attraction, then on record: Two Against
Nature (2000), the winner of four Grammys, and Everything Must Go (2003)
are not bad albums, but the group's use of digital recording, their building
"from the grounds up", and their efforts of making good drummers
sound just like drum machines, didn't help the music, which (logically enough)
was not as fresh-sounding as when they were in their prime. Meanwhile, Donald
Fagen's decision to produce Morph The Cat (2006) all by himself appeared
to make that album the best work of that kind since The Nightfly. Hence,
the question: Now, what? (A question pertaining to the albums only, since
tours continue - up to now - with fine results, as I happened to witness
all know how difficult (besides being an uncomfortable, and often not really
productive, job), given its nature of "collective creation",
trying to determine "who did what" can be - check the Beatles.
I think that in the case of Steely Dan it's still possible, as a first
approximation, just as a research hypothesis, without necessarily having
to go back all the way to Do It Again, to try to separate those tracks
that are more likely to be born while sitting in front of a keyboard than
having a guitar in one's hands - let's say, Aja and Gaucho on one hand,
and Josie and Haitian Divorce on the other. So we can ask ourselves this
question: how an album featuring only tracks like the latter two would
sound? (We already know how an album featuring only tracks like the former
two would sound: like The Nightfly and Morph The Cat.)
the only exception of learning of a long-standing friendship, the news
that Walter Becker had chosen Larry Klein as producer for his second solo
album, fourteen years after his first, were not really surprising: an experienced
bassist, also a writer, step by step Klein had become an excellent, and
highly regarded, producer, in a travelogue that had started with his first
works with Joni Mitchell in the early 80s, up to the recent Grammy winner,
Herbie Hancock's album River: The Joni Letters, through a long series of
albums by female singers, the most recent being Luciana Souza and her The
New Bossa Nova.
surprisingly, it was announced that the album would feature Reggae and
Ska rhythms, with a pinch of Dub. Which in a way was not too surprising,
since tracks that one could call "reggae" had appeared on albums
by Steely Dan, Becker, and Fagen. But a whole album?
# 2, Klein was the co-composer of (almost) all tracks, in what way it was
don't exactly say, but I've heard that the "basic tracks" for
the whole album were recorded (live in the studio, in ten days) in New
York by Jay Messina and Elliot Scheiner, with overdubs recorded in California,
in Santa Monica, by trusted Klein collaborator Helik Hadar, who also mixed
the album. Mastered by Bernie Grundman. In so mirroring these changing
times, the album is self-released by Becker. It's also available - obviously
besides on CD - in two downloadable formats: so-so sounding MP3, and FLAC.
I reviewed the CD edition.
it really a reggae album? Sure it is... up to a point. It's obvious that
here reggae works as a unifying element. Taking for granted those "up
tempo", and those "skratched" guitars, there are a few well-known
items - the female vocalists coming "late" on Darkling Down is
a classic move - but if the rhythm in God's Eye View really resembles Black
Uhuru's is something this writer doesn't know.
Becker (here he's also on guitar) is a fine bass player, and I bet he had
a lot of fun "driving the group from the back". It goes without
saying that the drummer's role is crucial, but here the choice was a no-brainer:
already held in high esteem for his live playing in the most recent Steely
Dan tours, Keith Carlock is at his considerable best here; it's obviously
"strict" figures we are talking about, but he performs them with
a lot of verve and inventiveness, never running the risk of being mistaken
for a drum machine.
a few musicians featured here come from Steely Dan line ups, past and present:
on guitar, Jon Herington and Dean Parks do a lot, subtly, with a nice variety
of timbres and chords (listening on headphones helps), Chris Potter appears
on tenor sax, and Ted Baker is on various keyboards; not as familiar to
me in a Steely Dan context, Roger Rosenberg plays very well the bass clarinet
and the baritone sax, while Jim Beard is on piano and on various keyboards;
let's not forget Larry Goldings on Hammond organ. Also countless female
vocalists, now in a dialogue, now unison, now in a classic background role
(Klein's expertise in this field sure must have been useful), those most
familiar to me being Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Cindy Mizelle.
it's Becker the singer that's the real surprise. The same voice as before,
sure, not really strong not with a wide range, sporting an intonation whose
agility has more to do with his being an intelligent musician than with
his vocal cords. But here the production has made the most of his vocal
emissions, the whole becoming richer for it. Listening with attention reveals
many captivating moods, so proving that the vocal performances are credible.
goes without saying that this is the kind of album that gets richer the
more attentive the listener. Not all all difficult, it reveals in time
the great care that went in creating it. Dynamic mixes that don't make
themselves too apparent, snare drums whose range goes from the classic
to the highest "brass piccolo snare". Et cetera.
dramatic long decay "crash" opens the first track, Door Number
Two, alongside a grand piano and an electric piano (the second "crash",
at about 9", is softer). Female vocals reminding one of Babylon Sisters,
a dry bass drum, a slow tempo, "ghostly" guitars placed in the
back, on the right, nice tenor sax solo, a fine vocal performance by Becker.
Not to be missed: those piano arpeggios that parallel the main characters'
elegant start for Downtown Canon: two sequenced arpeggiated chords and
a drum machine give way to a drum roll and to a triumphant Becker announcing: "I
cracked the code". The track's rhythm is reggae (rimshot, the skin
gets hit in the chorus), but it's really a Soul Ballad à la Marvin Gaye.
Nice chorus, with a good use of the female background voices. Excellent
Hammond organ, in combination with a soft electric piano.
was quite surprised, last year, when I heard the way the reggae Haitian
Divorce, having a surprising concert rendition starring Becker on vocals,
could sound a lot like a country & western ballad, and the same thing
can be said of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore. An impossible to forget bass
part, an excellent rimshot/bass drum figure, a dub interlude with those
echoes. With lyrics that can be described as being quite clear and "impossible
to get" at the same time.
a spectacular intro from a dry drum set sounding almost like timbales,
Upside Looking Down almost sounds as a "typical early 60s ballad",
with fine guitars and an appropriate solo by Dean Parks; when the chorus
arrives, with those high female vocals and Becker whispering in falsetto,
it's really time to get one's handkerchief out.
know why, but Paging Audrey left me cold. Nice tenor solo, though.
Money is the strangest track: written by Becker only, with Klein on bass,
it reminded me a lot of Walkin' The Dog by Rufus Thomas, as arranged by
Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Excellent drum part, sounding a lot à la Steve
Gadd, with a resonant snare drum. Also Becker's phased vocals, and a nice
Calliope and a start sounding halfway between Broadway and a cartoon for
Selfish Gene (does anybody remember those theories anymore?). Lazy tempo.
The music for the first two lines of each verse reminded me of a song by
Tom Petty (maybe the one called You Don't Know How It Feels - is it true?
was it by chance?). Luciana Souza has a solo part, nicely performed. There's
a rare bridge at 2' 04", bridges being almost non-existent on this
brass snare", and a big bass drum, for Do You Remember The Name; guitar
arpeggios, a "lazy" track. A nice melody, a fine vocal unison
by Becker and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery. Also an excellent slide solo
by Jon Herington.
Saturday Night is very Zappa-like, lotsa swing, jazzy, with an excellent
female chorus, quite Ellington-like, and with a fine solo by Becker.
Down (a track that features both the words "nihilism" and
"Muscatel", not easy!) has a dry snare drum and features the female
vocalists. Nice Hammond organ, and a very good solo by Becker.
Eye View has the most complex lyrics (quite appropriate!), a nice dialogue
of male/female voices, a frenetic bass line, nice guitar, electric piano,
and an excellent bass clarinet, both as colour and a solo.
melodic piano intro tells us we're at the end credits. A contagious rhythm,
almost a Dancing In The Streets in a "Plastic Soul" version,
baritone sax, piano, rhythm, keyboards that mime an organ à la Aretha Franklin,
"soul" chorus, and a fine solo by the baritone saxophone. It's
Three Picture Deal.
an appropriate ending, but the "International Edition" has one
more track, the bizarre-sounding Dark Horse Dub, with those expected echoes,
and a strange orchestration: trombone (by the fine-as-per-his-usual Jim
Pugh), and a
"little band" (baritone and soprano saxophone, clarinet, alto flute)
as played by Roger Rosenberg. Here, just like on the rest of the album, the
excellent percussion are played by well-known Gordon Gottlieb.
© Beppe Colli 2008
CloudsandClocks.net | July 24, 2008