By J. D. Considine
Packaging, they say, is everything, and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad (Reprise 45230) is a case in point.
Mention to most pop fans that Kamakiriad marks Fagen’s reunion with Walter Becker, and the reaction is likely to be mostly yawns. Explain, however, that Becker and Fagen’s last project was a little thing called Steely Dan, and odds are that listener interest will increase considerably.
But it’s the music that ultimately makes the case, for Kamakiriad sounds like nothing so much as a Steely Dan album. Where Fagen’s other solo album, 1982’s The Nightfly, tried to mask the singer/songwriter’s past in a mishmash of jazz mannerisms and contrived cool, Kamakiriad seems to pick up where Steely Dan left off. Its eight songs are full of the same tart vocal lines, lush keyboard harmonies and carefully-polished funk rhythms that animated the likes of Aja and Gaucho.
It’s not a throwback, exactly, since Fagen relies on synth technology that didn’t even exist when the Dan broke up in 1981, but neither is it much of an update. It’s almost as if the duo’s sensibilities exist outside of conventional notions of modernity, preferring instead to capture the sound of some forgotten future.
That’s certainly the case with Kamakiriad. Intended as a concept album, its eight songs chart the course of a driver and his Kamakiri, a custom-built, steam-driven car whose amenities include everything from satellite uplink to an onboard organic garden.
Fagen’s liner notes describe the narrative as taking place “a few years in the future,” but to tell the truth, it sounds less like the real future than the sort of sci-fi speculation that flourished in the middle part of this century.
Factor in the “plot,” a rambling travel saga that’s meant as a metaphor for life, and what we’re left with is something along the lines of a futuristic “Route 66” — although with decidedly fewer kicks. In fact, most of the lyrics present our hero as a victim of time, a man who finds that he didn’t enjoy the past as much as he should have, and who hates the present for not having turned out as promised.
Oddly, little of this despair is reflected in the music, meaning that “Kamakiriad” presents a deceptively cheery surface.
Cue up “Florida Room,” for example, and there’s hardly any sense of the lyric’s emotional tension in the laid-back, languid groove; if anything, the song sounds a bit like a promotional travelogue, emphasizing the creature comforts of winter in Florida over the romantic chill Fagen’s protagonist experiences in the Sunshine State. Maybe it’s meant as irony, but it almost suggests that the words shouldn’t be taken as seriously as the lyric sheet makes them seem.
Likewise, although the liner notes cast “Teahouse on the Tracks” as the album’s thematic climax, the point at which our hero must choose between surrender and forbearance, the music comes on like it ain’t nuthin’ but a party — and a jazz party at that. In fact, between the low-key swing of rhythm section, the sly punctuation of the horn arrangement and the rollicking trombone solo that closes out the track, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a crisis at all.
As a dramatic resolution, it fails miserably, offering neither drama nor resolution. Basically, all it does is sound good.
But then, sounding good was always what Steely Dan did best. Pretty much from Pretzel Logic on, the group presented itself less as a rock and roll band than as a sleek, sophisticated sound machine. Granted, some of that had to do with Becker and Fagen’s notoriously painstaking production process, which found the duo fretting over even the tiniest details in each of their recordings.
And certainly, there’s a good bit of aural obsessiveness to “Kamakiriad.” Sometimes it’s as simple as a single instrumental device, like the way the skittering B-3 figure in “Snowbound” suggests an icy winter breeze, or how the bent-note synth pattern at the start of “Trans-Island Skyway” evokes the steady roll of highway traffic.
At other times, Becker and Fagen use their production smarts to generate a rich array of sounds, as on “Countermoon,” where a crisply snapping snare and hi-hat push along over a deep-rumbling synth-bass, and the greasy jangle of funk rhythm guitar contrasts against the jazzy cool of the sax-led horn section.
Pleasant as it is, though, there’s something essentially empty about that sound. It’s too cooled-out, too passionless, as if in their quest for aural perfection these two tweaked the life out of the music. True, much the same could be said of later Steely Dan albums — particularly Gaucho, which at this point comes across like a stereo demonstration album posing as art.
But by advertising its conceptual ambition, Kamakiriad makes its lack of emotional content all the more obvious. And while it would be unfair to say that this makes Kamakiriad not worth hearing, it does mean the album really isn’t worth listening to. And that makes all the difference in the world.