Jaded, Meticulous, Quirky

By Jon Pareles
New York Times

WANTAGH, NY — “It’s a strange night,” Donald Fagen said in the middle of Steely Dan’s concert tonight (7/3/2000) at the Jones Beach Theater here. “I’m not kidding.”

He seemed about to explain further when his partner, Walter Becker, drily cut him off. “Another strange night,” Mr. Becker deadpanned, returning the show to routine and not revealing a thing.

Actually, it was a night out of a Steely Dan song: gray, rainy, mildly uncomfortable, thoroughly unglamorous and redeemed by music. Meticulous as always, Mr. Becker on guitar and Mr. Fagen on keyboards led a band that lavished attention on the peculiar and ingenious details that define Steely Dan songs: the telegraphic lyrics, the aberrant structures, the harmonies that won’t stay in one key, the gradations of swinging and rocking rhythm, the voicings of lines for the horn section, the shifts between basic blues vamps and Steely Dan’s gnarled variations. Steely Dan songs thrive on a convoluted perversity that few other songwriters have tried to emulate.

Since 1972, when Steely Dan released its debut album, Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen have been writing about marginal, disreputable characters: some smug, some running out of luck. Tonight Mr. Fagen sang about drug dealers, drug addicts, a Wall Street opportunist, small-time hoods, a self-destructive jazz musician, a cornered psychotic bomber and three aging lechers.

Yet Steely Dan can be cynical about everything except music. Its vignettes of sleaze and human shortcomings are eased into songs that pose and solve musical conundrums under a smooth pop veneer.

At times Steely Dan can be the middle-aged version of Eminem, the rapper who has been widely denounced for the sick-minded characters he creates. Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen are not mellowing with maturity. On the Gaucho album in 1980, and tonight, Steely Dan sang “Hey Nineteen,” about a baby boomer (then pushing 40) longing to seduce a 19-year-old he’ll never understand. “She thinks I’m crazy/ But I’m just growing old,” Mr. Fagen sang, with some poignancy, in his thick, straining voice. In two songs from Two Against Nature (Giant), Steely Dan’s first album of new songs since 1980, similar premises became more grotesque. “Cousin Dupree” tries to make a pass at his cousin, while “Janie Runaway” is an underage waif who’s turned into a rich man’s plaything: “Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain?/Possibly you.”

The pop is 1970’s pop, with no updates. Although early Steely Dan tried to sound unobtrusive, its music ended up becoming one of the defining styles of the decade, as Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen collaborated on seven Steely Dan albums before they separated in 1980. They began touring again as Steely Dan in 1993 but took their time before releasing Two Against Nature this year.

The group pays no attention to hip-hop, hard rock, electronica or anything else that’s affected popular music in the last 20 years. Nor do Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen seem to care that many of their musical quirks have been learned, and shaped into a new version of blandness, by a generation of “lite jazz” musicians. Steely Dan insists on refining what it already had.

And what it had is a thoroughly selective backward glance into American pop. At Jones Beach, Steely Dan revealed some of its roots when, after an intermission, its band played “Hank’s Pad” by Henry Mancini. Like many Steely Dan songs, the tune shifts between a bluesy riff and elaborate bebop harmonies.

Steely Dan looks back to a 50’s hipness that prized bebop and big-band jazz as well as the example of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting team that slipped storytelling and social commentary into wry rock ‘n’ roll songs. But they add the jaded perspective of the 70’s.

Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen prize the craftsmanship that rock and free jazz challenged; they savor forms and limitations in order to stretch them. Their songs here were extended to show off clever new introductions and solos by Mr. Becker on guitar — with taunting lines against the beat or phrases that breezed above it — and first-rate band members, including Jon Herington on guitar, the saxophonists Bob Sheppard and Cornelius Bumpus, Michael Leonhart on trumpet and Ted Baker on keyboard. The songs were slick and luxurious, and still disquieting.


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