Walter Becker and Donald Fagen themselves have noticed (check the interview
that's part of the cover story in the June 2003 issue of Down Beat magazine),
"their second album in twenty-two years" doesn't sound quite
as sexy as "their first album in twenty years". Hence, the
decidedly reduced attention given by music media to Everything Must
Go, their recently released CD, when compared to Two Against Nature:
an album which got much (well-deserved) acclaim, conquered four Grammys,
but whose sales - in industry parlance - can be described as "respectable"
but definitely not "earthshaking".
is a pity, given the fact that Everything Must Go is at least equal
to its predecessor, in fact maybe better in a couple of departments,
not the least on the technical side. Steely Dan albums had always sported
an accurate engineering work and an excellent sound, but somehow Two
Against Nature's digital sound had appeared somewhat working against
our enjoyment of the recorded material. Of course, this immediately
rekindled the eternal dispute called "analogue vs digital",
even if some very qualified observers had commented on how the real
culprit seemed to be an ancient version of digital, not digital itself.
Anyway, Everything Must Go has a beautiful round sound that's typically
more important, the rhythmic base of the comeback album offered a mechanical/quantized
aspect that not a few regarded as rigid and inexpressive - a real rarity
for a group that had always employed the best available musicians in
the most intelligent way, i.e. keeping a tight rein but letting them
semi-loose when the moment was appropriate. It's true that, starting
from Gaucho (1980) - the last album recorded by the duo before their
long hiatus - the duo appeared to choose a very dry, "sequenced"
feel - just check Hey Nineteen or Time Out Of Mind - and things had
proceeded in the same way in the albums they had recorded separately:
Fagen's The Nightfly (1982) and Kamakiriad (1993), Becker's 11 Tracks
Of Whack (1994). But if the latter's more guitaristic approach - and
its being less harmonically complex than his former partner's albums
- was a somewhat better match to the "mechanized" approach,
the results on Two Against Nature were not entirely satisfactory, even
when the obvious practical reason for that - to build the record "from
the ground up" - was taken into consideration.
was also apparent that the duo's stylistic co-ordinates had been left
pretty much unchanged - were we expecting otherwise? That "sound"
- those melodic developments that are so natural that they appear to
be simple, those intricate harmonic moves that one could notice - or
not, those cryptic but very musical sounding lyrics - is the fruit of
a deliberate choice.
impartial observer, however, couldn't help but notice that Becker's
solo album had not got that many reviews that were perceptive of its
(considerable) merits - this reviewer bought the CD in question as "used/brand-new"
not too long after its release date. And it has to be noticed that,
as reported, fans chose Becker's unreleased solo song to "refresh
themselves" during that tour.
peculiarly, the duo seemed to me a bit too anxious to explain themselves
during the press sessions for Two Against Nature - sometimes it made
me nostalgic for those "cryptic times". What's more, the new
songs seemed to be quite more lyrically direct than the old ones.
complex harmonies, intricate melodies, excellent musicianship - hey,
what's more à la mode today? (It's difficult not to believe that
when Fagen sings - in Green Book, on the new album - "(...) I love
the music/ Anachronistic but nice" he's also talking about his
Must Go is as rhythmically dry as the previous album - a drum roll here
is "front page news" - but the fact that the core of the group
recorded at the same time (Walter Becker is always on bass) takes away
some of the mechanical aspect. Fagen's voice is obviously not what it
was - and sadly missing is the ironic venom so present in many of the
old songs - but the decision not to use one of those pitch-shifting
software devices so common in nowadays music that we don't even notice
them anymore is to be lauded. Nor melodies have been simplified.
"business as usual" when it comes to those original group
traits as "singing in character" and coupling dark lyrics
with serene music - wonder how many people are equipped today to notice
such things. As usual, female voices are wonderfully used, with a lot
of variety when it comes to timbres and approaches. Again with us are
Walter Becker's bluesy guitar solos, so distant from the be-bop scales
of the Larry Carltons of yesterday, and those tasty reed charts and
solos - a baritone, a tenor. Very nice-sounding keyboards, too: clavinet,
organ, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos, a couple of pungent synth
solos by Fagen.
a lot has already been said about a certain post 9/11 atmosphere that
seems to define this album, which is bookended by two songs with a strong
sense of "closure". But sharing this impression is by no means
necessary to talk about this album, which is defined by a sense of loss
and of bitter events - see (the very communicative) The Last Mall, the
melancholic (and so full of shades) Things I Miss The Most, the contagious
songs that occupy the central part of the album are to me the newest-sounding
and the most stimulating. Godwhacker has a tense and sinister (diabolical?)
air. Slang Of Ages has a good vocal interpretation by Walter Becker
- his first solo performance for the group - and it's nice to hear the
opposition of the verse to the vistas of the chorus. Green Book (virtual
sex?) is deep into a seedy atmosphere.
we are back to Steely Dan as usual: Pixeleen - highly contagious, it's
maybe the most classic-sounding song here, Lunch With Gina, the beautiful
Everything Must Go.
Beppe Colli 2003
| June 24, 2003