By Geoffery Himes
Donald Fagen’s first album in 11 years, Kamakiriad, can be judged from two different perspectives. On the one hand, it marries tartly ironic lyrics with lush jazz harmonies in ways well beyond the reach of today’s ambitious pop-rock composers from Sting and Billy Joel to Mark Knopfler and Brenda Russell. On the other hand, Kamakiriad has neither the substance nor the impact of Fagen’s best work with Steely Dan. In other words, anyone who has missed Fagen’s lusciously scored tales of alienation will enjoy his new solo album much as they enjoyed lesser Steely Dan outings like Gaucho or Can’t Buy a Thrill, but won’t get the high-voltage thrills of Aja, The Royal Scam and Katy Lied.
Fagen wrote all eight songs on Kamakiriad (one with Libby Titus and one with Walter Becker) and handled all the lead vocals and most of the keyboards. In many ways, though, it’s a Steely Dan album, for Fagen’s partner in that band, Becker, not only produced but also played the bass and lead guitar parts. It sure sounds like a Steely Dan album with Fagen’s film-noir narrator’s voice singing over the syncopated R&B rhythms, the catchy pop-rock melodies and the expansive jazz harmonies fleshed out by impeccably precise horn and guitar parts.
The lyrics describe a sci-fi near-future much like that of Blade Runner, where dazzling Japanese technology is triumphant but lust, violence and disenfranchisement are as common as ever. Fagen sings of cruising across the “Trans-Island Skyway” in his steam-powered Kamakiri bubble-car and encountering one heartbreak after another. The songs cruise along as smoothly as an anti-gravity car, but they never seem to shift into the higher gear of forceful passion that marked the best Steely Dan tunes.
MCA recently reissued its Steely Dan greatest-hits collection, Gold, with four additional hard-to-find tracks: a ’74 live recording of “Bodhisattva,” featuring a hilarious spoken introduction and a great Denny Dias guitar solo; a ’76 outtake, “Here at the Western World”; and two solo Fagen contributions to movie soundtracks — 1981’s mostly instrumental “True Companion,” featuring guitarist Steve Kahn, and 1988’s “Century’s End,” which foretold the lyrical themes of his new album. The anthology also includes “FM,” which never appeared on a regular Steely Dan album, but omits Top 20 hits like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Do It Again,” “Reeling in the Years,” “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen.”