By David Browne
Both nothing and everything sounds out of place on Kamakiriad (Reprise), the long-delayed return to the record bins of former Steely Dan singer, keyboardist, and jaundiced wit Donald Fagen. Steely Dan was the first slacker pop band, mixing in bits of hipster jazz rhythms and lingo into sardonic pop that was practically dragged kicking and smirking into the Top 40. Kamakiriad, which reunites Fagen with Dan cohort Walter Becker (who produced and played bass and guitar), picks up almost where both men left off when Steely Dan unofficially disbanded around 1981. (However, their cult following has remained intact.)
The music has the clean, metronomic precision of Dan albums like Aja, from bubbling piano chords and ultra-precise drumming to horns that zip in and out of the songs at just the right moment. Fagen has been working on this album for several years, and each carefully placed guitar flutter and trombone solo reflects that attention to detail. No, they rarely make albums like this anymore — which is exactly what seems amiss. A good chunk of what is called pop these days — from sloppy grunge to jumping rap — sounds as if it were swiftly pieced together in someone’s basement.
By contrast, Kamakiriad recalls a time when musicians and producers would spend months or years in the studio in search of the perfect pop record — and when melody, not crackling, jubilant noise, came first. In that way, Kamakiriad is significant as more than just Fagen’s first album since his only solo release, The Nightfly, in 1982. The new record’s sparkling surfaces speak volumes about how pop-record making, even pop itself, has radically changed in a few short years.
To prove just how old-world it is, Kamakiriad is one of those antiquities known as a concept album. Set around the millennium, it revolves around a wide-eyed narrator tooling around the country in a steam-powered, environmentally correct car called a Kamakiri (Japanese for praying mantis). A cross between Blade Runner and Lost in America, the story includes visits to a virtual-reality nostalgia theme park (”Springtime”) and, in ”Tomorrow’s Girls,” a sighting of some sexy extraterrestrials. On paper, that sounds as pretentious as a Pete Townshend concept record, but it really isn’t: Fagen’s lyrics are obtuse enough — in typical Steely Dan style — that unless you’re staring at the lyric sheet as you listen, you won’t even notice there is a plot. And Fagen’s voice itself is anything but ponderous: It has aged to a fine pop-nasal drip.
The songs themselves are more problematic. Averaging more than six minutes each, they’re not nearly as hooky as Steely Dan’s were. The low-energy melodies amble along in a pleasant but noodling way, with an exception being the jaunty ”Hey Nineteen”-like swing of ”Tomorrow’s Girls.” That’s where Fagen’s perfectionism gets in the way. You have to admire him for taking his work so seriously, but those diligent arrangements only tend to zap whatever spontaneity existed to begin with. And spontaneity — or, at least, implied spontaneity — is the trademark sound of ’90s pop.
To anyone other than the baby-boomer Dan fans who have been eagerly awaiting this album (and who will undoubtedly flock to this summer’s unexpected Dan reunion tour — the first since 1974), Kamakiriad will probably be perceived as a quaint theme park all its own: a pop world that has itself gone the way of the carnival calliope.