By Stephen Holden
New York Times
Nearly three years in the making, Steely Dan’s Gaucho (MCA-6102) is as refined as pop music can get without becoming too esoteric for a mass audience. Though it consists of only two men, Steely Dan must be counted one of the most influential rock “groups” of the past decade.
Founded by the songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen eight years ago, they started out as a touring sextet. With Mr. Becker, the bassist, and Mr. Fagen, lead vocalist and keyboards, the group had a string of hits including “Do It Again,” “Reeling in the Years,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
After 1974, they stopped performing and made the recording studio their artistic base, using a shifting array of session musicians instead of fixed personnel. Over the course of seven albums, they’ve evolved an unusually subtle and literate brand of pop-rock that blends modal jazz harmonies, fusion instrumentation and funk-tinged polyrhythms within extended pop structures.
Though other rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago have enjoyed commercial success blending jazz and pop, none has come close to matching Steely Dan in sophistication and taste. They helped inspire rock singers like Joni Mitchell to explore jazz and paved the way for the Doobie Brothers’ brand of pop-funk. Even stylistically unrelated groups like the Eagles were influenced by Steely Dan’s carefully blocked arranging style.
But more than their studio craftsmanship, what distinguishes Steely Dan is their songwriting. Mr. Becker’s and Mr. Fagen’s specialty is the cryptically sardonic vignette. Gaucho’s seven extended studio set pieces are also interrelated short stories. The main characters are would-be hipsters who define themselves in terms of style rather than feelings or ideas.
Steely Dan’s sour-sweet pop-jazz style, with its modal harmonics and dips into polytonality, illustrates both the comedy and the pathos of trying to keep your cool in even the most dire circumstances. Though the melodies are always heading toward sentimental resolutions, somewhere along the way they get short-circuited. And the painstaking construction of the arrangements mirrors the characters’ desperate maintenance of appearances.
Gaucho is a word for Latin-American cowboy, but Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker also use it as a pun on the French word gauche. All seven songs on the new album puncture cultivated mystiques.
The “bodacious cowboy” of the title song wears a spangled leather poncho and is a social embarrassment to the friend who brings him to a party at the mysterious “Custerdome.” The narrator of “Glamour Profession” is a cocaine dealer who wears Brut cologne and boasts about the telephone in his Chrysler. In “Hey, Nineteen,” a thirtyish man dating a teen-ager realizes that they have nothing in common beyond the booze and dope that will make the evening “wonderful.” “Babylon Sisters,” “Time Out of Mind,” “My Rival,” and “Third World Man,” look askance at swingers, gurus and sexual and political paranoia.
Gaucho’s satire is so oblique that the songs avoid sounding snidely hip in the manner of Frank Zappa, one of Steely Dan’s obvious influences. Their humor is compassionate, for they see the struggle to stay cool as noble in addition to farcical. Instead of delivering broadsides, they sidle up to the scenes they describe and pick out oddly telling details.
Their perspective is at once far-sighted and clinically fascinated. It’s also emotionally double-edged, for despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, Gaucho contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.