Back on Track

By Mike Weatherford
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Steely Dan’s album “Everything Must Go” was recorded in the post-Sept. 11 climate, but apocalyptic visions are nothing new to the dark-humored musical team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

“We were born just as the nuclear age started,” notes the 55-year-old Fagen. “We grew up with very low survival expectations, which I think is the major metaphor of our time and something that still resonates with us.”

“When we were kids, we had the Cuban missile crisis and endless Civil Defense drills,” he adds. Then there were the doomsday movies, such as “Panic in the Year Zero” and “On the Beach.”

Steely Dan, which returns to Las Vegas on Saturday for a concert at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, made its own contribution to end-of-the-word pop culture this summer with the new album.

It opens with “The Last Mall” — “Attention all shoppers, it’s Cancellation Day/Yes the Big Adios is just a few hours away” — and ends with the title track, which could be about either the failure of one dot.com, or society as a whole.

Along the way, the album visits “GodWhacker,” a narrator who’s had it with the Almighty, and “Pixeleen,” a look at the fantasy life of almost any video-gaming teen.

The topical themes are all handled in the group’s patented glossy style of jazz-textured pop, where slinky melodies and impeccable musicianship can disguise the lyrical bite.

It’s a sound that hasn’t changed much since songwriters Becker and Fagen started the original Steely Dan in 1972. More surprising was how the Dan took a 13-year break in 1980, then flowed back into the musical mainstream of touring that led to a Grammy-winning 2000 album, “Two Against Nature.”

“It wasn’t that we were reclusive, we just didn’t have any friends,” Fagen quips.

“Nobody liked us,” Becker adds in a tandem phone interview.

The original early-’70s quintet had given way to Becker and Fagen drafting a host of session players for their later albums. They carried that approach into their ’90s revival, touring with large bands that changed each go-round.

“Duke Ellington had a band and it wasn’t always the same people,” Fagen says.

But consistency fed the new album, which came on a relatively fast turnaround after the last tour that visited Mandalay Bay in June 2000.

“It took us a while for “Two Against Nature” to tool up,” says guitarist Becker. “Then, once we were rolling, we had band members, we had songs, we had studios.”

“We finally got a drummer (Keith Carlock) who could nail a track in any style we’d give him, and we just got a stable band situation,” adds Fagen, the lead singer and keyboardist. “We pretty much reverted to the way we recorded in the bulk of the ’70s, live playing in the studio.”

The album also was recorded on vintage analog equipment at Sear Sound studio in New York. It’s almost a reverse from the last two albums of the original era, “Aja” and “Gaucho,” which were noteworthy in their day for their emphasis on sound quality and engineering.

“When we started recording in the ’70s, you had to work very hard to make things sound good,” Becker notes. “Just the fact of trying to put things on vinyl was a real challenge. We’ve come a long way since then.

“It’s a different context, I think now,” he adds. “What it means to sound good and what is worth paying attention to has changed quite a bit” with digital recording techniques.

The two recent albums also boast a more straightforward lyrical approach than previous classics such as “Pretzel Logic” or “The Royal Scam.”

The new song “Things I Miss the Most,” like “What a Shame About Me” on the last one, looks at middle-aged regret with embarrassing honesty. The narrator gives equal weight to the material and emotional losses of his breakup: “The talk, the sex, somebody to trust, the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the house on the Gulf Coast …”

“We got better at telling a story with a very limited number of syllables, without leaving as much out as we used to,” Fagen says. “Which I think is the reason some of the early stuff is so cryptic. It’s just we were leaving more parts of the story out.”

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