Donald Fagen
Morph The Cat


I have no problems in admitting that, a few months ago, when I first heard about two soon-to-be-released solo CDs by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen - better known to most under the name of the "group" of which they are the co-leaders, Steely Dan - the first thought that crossed my mind was "Why so soon?". It was only later, after realizing that Two Against Nature - their "big-time return album" after twenty years of silence - had come out in 2000, and that its successor, Everything Must Go, had been released in 2003, that I had to admit to myself that my reaction was to be filed under "nervous apprehension", not under "expectant anticipation". An attitude I had to really think about.

There had obviously been a time when Steely Dan - as it was the custom for every rock group of the Jurassic era - had released one album per year. Rock encyclopaedias say of a first album released in 1972, Can't Buy A Thrill - it contains the hits Do It Again and Reeling In The Years, still featured in any Classic Rock radio program worth its name -, followed by Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and the hit album Aja; three years later, what was to be their last release, Gaucho. In those days, one album per year had not sounded as too much: because their ideas were new; because, one record after the other, their goals had become clearer and their means surer; because their increasingly meticulous compositions, arrangements, performances and recording work (Steely Dan being a group that mostly sweated in their minds) made their songs appear as miniatures rich with secrets ready to be (quite pleasantly) investigated. And if it's true that each one of their records has a lot to offer, one has to single out their later albums - those recorded when the group was a group only on paper, having become a variable mixture of the best players available in the US - as being their best: The Royal Scam, easily the best of their "guitar period"; Aja, with its use of wind instruments; Gaucho, with its almost-but-not-quite mechanical nature of its grooves.

There were many and complex reasons why Becker & Fagen decided to put the Steely Dan name to rest for a while. It could be said that for some time Fagen found going on to be easier than stopping. Hence, The Nightfly (1982), a solo album - a bit like Gaucho, pt. 2 - which retained a lot of the main characteristics of Steely Dan, from the typical "hidden complexity" to those classic harmonies that looked at the "golden era of jazz", from Count Basie to Duke Ellington; it was the theme of the album - easy to understand, and quite personal - that proved to be the element that most differed from what the duo had previously recorded. Then, Fagen stopped, too.

Fagen came back with Kamakiriad (1993), produced by Becker. The grooves were now drier than ever, while harmonies and melodies resembled a lot those from the old days - maybe a bit too much? If Kamakiriad was lauded, if not acclaimed as a masterpiece, 11 Tracks Of Whack (1994) - the first solo album by Becker, who sang solo for the first time - had most people not terribly convinced (this writer bought the album "like new" not too long after its release). It's a work of many charms (and it's a topic that I'll have to discuss as soon as Becker's new album is released) whose general under-valuation - it's quite well-known that the only new song sung by Becker was used as a "beverage and bathroom" intermission by most of those who caught Steely Dan live during the 90s - made me question many things.

Two Against Nature was hailed as "the great comeback". This writer was not too crazy about its excessively cold digital sound - a factor that later greatly improved - and those mechanical-sounding grooves: a feature that for the most part has stayed the same. Preferring those r&b grooves of the "elastic but still" type (more in the vein, say, of Al Jackson from Stax than Roger Hawkins from Muscle Shoals), the duo found assembling grooves upon which to build the tracks more to their liking - or maybe just a lot more practical. (Sure, we also have to remember the "mechanical catastrophe" which decimated the number of flesh-and-blood musicians.) Compared to its predecessor, Everything Must Go went almost unnoticed ("events" being unique by definition, and this is the stuff that most of the press are interested in today), even if in some ways it could be considered as being the better album. But doubts remained: could an idiom so "classic" stay fresh?

Against all contrary expectations (this writer's included), after one long week of listening sessions my answer is a big "Yes": with Morph The Cat Fagen has managed to make a musical language that had started to ossify sound young again. But how? The answer is without a doubt quite complex, my guess being: those on Morph The Cat are tracks of different vintage that were quite dear to Fagen; the fact of being able to do them on his own, without having to collaborate with a peer, appears to have given the material a freshness that has greatly benefited the record. We have also to consider the number and quality of the musicians appearing: if the excellent wind section - from flute to saxophone, from trumpet (sometimes played with the mute) to bass clarinet - often reminds one of Aja, it's the number of featured guitarists, and the variety of their approach, the element responsible for the increase of the palette of colours at Fagen's disposal; true, Becker's favourite guitar timbre (Sadowsky plus Bogner?) is beautiful, personal and easy to recognize; but here we have many, and here "many is better".

Fagen has talked of an album that brings a trilogy to its close - and of a trilogy of albums that should be sold in a box - referring to the three "ages" of his three solo albums: youth in The Nightfly, maturity in Kamakiriad, confronting one's mortality in Morph The Cat. He has also declared that scenarios post 9/11 - both personal and political - have a part in the tone and stories of this album. The album is quite varied, and not too easy to get: check the ambiguous nature of Morph The Cat (there's also a brief reprise at the end of the CD), the opaque nature of the beings appearing in Mary Shut The Garden Door, the open-ended story of the girl in The Night Belongs To Mona, the vague story narrated in H Gang. There are also light moments (the love between a passenger and a security guard at the LaGuardia airport in Security Joan: "search me now"), intimate moments (trying to have love as one's refuge in The Great Pagoda Of Funn), phonetic moments (the scatting in Brite Nightgown, a song that comes out sounding breezy despite its dark subject matter) and moments that are quite bizarre even for one half of Steely Dan: check the dialogue between a young Fagen and the ghost of Ray Charles in What I Do.

But how does it sound? Well, I'm perfectly aware that an album like this can be regarded as being an anachronism. And I know that those who are perennially in a hurry will say of a "tiny pop record" - maybe adding "with class". I'd say that - with its dry rhythm section, with a nice bass - Morph The Cat is to be listened to on a warm amplifier and at a "more than a whispering" level in order to have the nice colours by the winds appear. Fagen is in a fine voice, with some excellent peaks (check What I Do). Let's mention some of the high points of the album. The "B" section, with its vocal melody surrounded by the winds, in Morph The Cat, whose sing-along air reveals a melody that's not linear at all, with nice muted trumpet and nice guitar (by Jon Herington) and tenor sax (Walt Waiskpopf) solos. The guitar at the beginning of the track, and also the solo (Herington again) on H Gang. The excellent harmonica solo (by Howard Levy) in What I Do, where the nice electric piano is played by Ted Baker. Wayne Krantz's guitar solo (which also makes use of a plug-in?) in Brite Nitegown, with nice winds around the solo. The chorus on The Great Pagoda Of Funn, a track that in its use of winds and percussion reminded me of Aja (the track), with a nice guitar solo (Krantz again) and a beautiful trumpet solo (by Marvin Stamm, whose trumpet work with the mute on the whole album is really good). A nice organ (by Fagen) and an aggressive guitar solo (by Ken Wessel) on Security Joan. Winds and harmonica on The Night Belongs To Mona, one of the peaks of the album. The anxious groove on Mary Shut The Garden Door. It's enough, right?

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006 | March 24, 2006