CD review: Donald Fagen

Sunken Condos
(Reprise Records)

This review comes with a health warning. In nearly everything else I write on this blog, I write as a critic. That means I am looking for development from the artist, I am possibly comparing the music with previous releases, and with the music of others. In the end I am, no matter how kind or otherwise, attempting to pass, if not some kind of judgment, at least some some kind of recommendation, or otherwise, on to my fellow listeners. But when it comes to Don, or Walt, together as Steely Dan, or separately as Don and Walt, I write as a fan. So do not expect some judgment put together in the head; expect a lot of sheer delight erupting from the heart. All I am looking for is a nice time.

Having missed most pre-publicity, I’ve only had a couple of heightened expectation weeks before this latest Fagen disc, so it has come of something of an unexpected surprise, and maybe my expectations are lower as a result. But they are certainly met.

Is there anything new or ground-breaking here? Nah, not really. But who cares? Who wants the second coming when the first was just fine. (There’s a problem with those high expectations, anyway, as recent experience of the new Bob Dylan album, Tempest, has shown. Many critics reached once more for their purplest prose, but it was a bit over the top, in my opinion, for another perfectly adequate Bobby D album. And not nearly as satisfying as Modern Times is the view in this house.)

But back to Don! The first three discs from the Steely Dan composer, singer and keyboard  player – The Nightfly, Kamakiriad and Morph The Cat – were considered a kind of trilogy. Sunken Condos is therefore freed from thematic continuation and can stand as a lonely and lovely thing in its own right. It might sound like the others – it’s Don after all – but it also sounds lighter and looser. A bit like the last Steely Dan album, Everything Must Go, compared to its predecessor, Two Against Nature.

The songs are lovely, the singing is lovely (Don might now struggle with the pitch of those old Dan songs in concert, but in the studio he sounds just peachy), and the band, masterminded by Don and close assistant on this session, Michael Leonhart, is lovely too. It has all the usual suspects – Jon Herington, the Dan horns, the Dan singers – plus some new names. There are horn charts but no featured saxophone solos. The guitar solos are short and tight. There is some tasty harmonica. Most of the album is just great arranging and ensemble playing.

If you like a well-written lyric Don is your man. Try the bowling metaphor of Miss Marlene (they are always metaphors, aren’t they?):

“Back in double-oh-seven
Miss M was queen
She could roll the pro rolls
When she was seventeen

Whether straight or hammered
She was the best in town
When she release the red ball
All the pins fall down.”

In the literary world – or rather the world of books that read well – Elmore Leonard takes as few words to paint as complete a picture.

Donald Fagen

And when it comes to tunes and the chords behind them, Don’s your man too. Mention Don or The Dan to many a modern jazzer and they will wax lyrical on the Dan chord. What is it? Well, apparently, most simply put it is a major chord with an added second. But if you want to know more, I can reveal that it’s called The Mu Major Chord, and it’s all in a special web page right here! (Don’t you just love that internet!). I’m not an expert, but I suspect Sunken Condos contains your fair share.

The tune from the album that was released as a preview on the Rolling Stone site, I’m Not The Same Without You, is pleasant enough blueprint Don, but it’s by no means the most interesting track on this disc of nine which stretches to the perfect album length of just shy of 45 minutes.

Among the highlights:

  • The mystifying interlude on Slinky Thing which comprises the repeated words “More light…” over a few perfect Don chords.
  • The same song’s cool coda and one which will be greeted by all coda aficionados with the same smiles they exhibit while singing along to “the Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian” from Hey Nineteen.
  • The groove of Memorabilia which echoes in its chorus Brite Nitegown from Morph. Nice growly trumpet solo from Michael Leonhart.
  • The combination of baritone-heavy horn lines and Herington guitar solo at the end of Weather In My Head.
  • The plucky guitar and organ intro to The New Breed.
  • The strong three-part structure of the same song, as well as the little bits of double bass from Michael and Carolyn’s dad, Jay, that emerge from time to time, and the incredibly close harmonies on the chorus.
  • The (moderate) surprise of finding an Isaac Hayes song – Out Of The Ghetto – in the middle of a Donald Fagen album. Actually, fun as it is, it shows the superior quality of the songwriting around it.
  • That lovely rolling, so familiar, groove of Miss Marlene and the way those high notes on the chorus take us round and down and back into that groove again.
  • The funky, wah-wah guitar dance beat of Good Stuff, which remind me of The Fez from Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam album, and the way the vocal length lengthens so luxuriously on the chorus, especially as the girls give it the full treatment on “right” and “night”. Great talking drums on the fade, too.
  • The last song, Planet D’Rhonda, feels the flimsiest, but then even the flimsiest on a Don album is pretty hefty by everyone else’s standards.

Overall the whole album has a beautiful roundness to it. It just sounds so easy-going and relaxed and yet, even a casual listen shows how meticulously it’s all put together, and how exacting the art and craft of this kind of music-making must be to get that oh-so-cool effect.

Don, in an interview with Billboard magazine, said he might do the Sunken Condos material live in a few gigs in the US, as he did with Morph, with this qualification: “if it’s a total turkey, I don’t want to be associated with it at all.”

Doesn’t sound like a turkey to me – but, to remind you of that initial caveat – I’m no critic. Here is the link to that Billboard interview and here is Don’s website.

Categories: CD review

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