Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sunken Condos

The output from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the maestros behind Steely Dan, since 1993 usually take me a few listens before I can really get into the groove. The old Dan albums instantly tickled my ears but after Fagen's glorious debut solo The Nightfly in 1982, it would be 11 years before we heard another full album. 1993's Kamikiriad was immediately pleasant but not as immediately enticing. When the Dan returned with Two Against Nature in 2000, their first effort in 20 years, my initial audition was not enthralling. A few months later, it was indispensable.

Fagen's latest, Sunken Condos, comes six years since his Morph the Cat (not a long gap by his standards), and is a real treat; a wildly entertaining ride through oh-so-familiar territory. The music in fact sounds as if the composer cribbed every instrumental voicing from the last 30 years (even some from the 70s) and concocted 9 mostly wonderful tunes. Almost like a career summary. Detractors might call it a rehash. Some write that Fagen has been recording the same tune over and over for the last 30 odd years, since the dramatic stylistic shift of SD's Aja. As expected, there is nothing on Sunken Condos that breaks new ground, but rather is more "good stuff" (to borrow one of the song titles) for devotees.  Like myself.

Fagen has often written songs from the point of view of the lecherous older man eying nubile young coeds, and right out of the box we are treated to "Slinky Thing", a funky lounge number, and then later with "The New Breed" and "Planet D'Rhonda". But as the composer's mortality and relevance continue to come front and center, the lyrics follow.

We went to a party
Everybody stood around
Thinkin'; Hey what's she doin'
With a burned-out hippie clown
Young dudes were grinnin'
I can't say it didn't sting
Some punk says: Pops you better
Hold on to that slinky thing...

Today we were strollin'
By the reptile cage
I'm thinkin': Does she need somebody 
Who's closer to her own age

From "The New Breed":

You the new breed alright
I guess you're what she wants now
You're young and strong
And you won the night
Good luck to you both
I'll get along somehow  

The first two songs are tinged with pathos. The narrator resigns himself to obsolescence in an increasingly world.  He sees the circumstance through his conquest's eyes: you're so nice, you liked my "flatline humour"...but knows he'll lose them.  Is Fagen also talking to some of his (younger) fans? 

But as reflective as things tend to get, that maybe our inappropriate troller has repented, consider the album's closer, "Planet D'Rhonda":

She's from a small town somewhere upstate
I guess she's somewhere between nineteen and

She's always frantic now
She's never calm
She's not the type of girl 
You wanna bring home to mom
But when you need big lovin'
She never stops
Yes it's Monkey Time - twenty-four seven
The name of the planet:
Planet d'Rhonda 

The personnel behind Condos will be familiar to any Dan buff. Michael Leonhart (who also co-produced) again lends his trumpet, clavinet, and Minimoog to each track. His sister, Carolyn, continues her sultry background vocals. Both siblings have been fixtures in the Dan camp since the 90s, when Fagen and Becker reformed and began touring again. Jon Herington's guitar licks are almost Grant Greenish at times.  Just like Becker's guitar tended to be in his own emulation of the old great. Walt Weiskopf, who provided such a memorable opening to the title track of SD's Everything Must Go in 2003, again provides evocative alto and tenor saxophone.

Fagen's tunes of late have been less and less enigmatic. Morph the Cat even included interpretations in the liner notes! At first listen, Sunken Condos seems pretty straightforward, but as the songs sink into your cortices and stew awhile, you might begin to examine broader contexts. Is "Not the Same without You" a victory song for a  brokenhearted who sings to his old girlfriend, or is he singing to drugs? Walter Becker? Does "Good Stuff" tell a tale of hijacking and drugs, or is it a summary of Fagen and Steely Dan's perfectionism: "there's a special satisfaction, when a job comes off so right"?

The most curious track: "Memorabilia", a rummage through the aftermath of the U.S.'s H-bomb testing on the Bikini Atoll (island in the Pacific Ocean) back in the 1950s. Fagen directly references the Castle Bravo (nuclear device) detonation. The mysteries of the lyrics, not as common for the writer these days, harken back to Royal Scam type offerings, though perhaps this song might've worked on The Nightfly as well.  

My two favorites: the straight out blues of "Weather in My Head", which allows the artist to draw upon his influences like Howlin' Wolf (if not as growly), and "Miss Marleen", a somber reflection on the narrator's recently deceased girlfriend, someone with whom he went bowling every Saturday night. Yes, that sounds like Steely Dan humor, but the song is just the right melancholia, with all the familiar Fender Rhodes and saxes you've heard many times. Some of Fagen's tunes manage to almost make me misty ("Great Pagoda of Funn"), and "Miss Marleen" follows suit.

P.S. "Weather in My Head" was performed on The Late Show with David Letterman last week.....

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