Friday, November 3, 2023

Steely Dan


Steely Dan was called “Insufferably perfectionist” in a headline from a recent Atlantic essay discussing the renewed interest in the band's work.  It would be an apt description for the session musicians who worked for Fagin and Becker while recording the duo's fine string of studio releases. But listening to the records was anything by “insufferable” for listeners: at their best, Steely Dan's music was an elegant and generally seamless composition of beguiling hooks, mysterious melodic transitions, pitch perfect solos. Rock, jazz, funk, and even hits of 20th century classical make up their sound, dreamy and menacing. They are what others deny, an art band, a genuinely American equivalent of what British and European prog-rockers attempted, bringing together pop-music foundations with more sophisticated composition and arranging. Their models were doo-wop bands, rhythm, and blues dance jams, but also the orchestral magnificence of Ellington's notations for his band;s prime soloists. The chilly cool of Miles Davis lurks around in there as well, blended with some earnest, mellow toned soul-jazz of Oliver Lake, but where eventually where the latter artists' arrangements gave themselves over to extended improvisations from skilled ad libbers, with Steely Dan a listener to weight for the virtuosity. Fagin and Becker's recombination of their jazz influences became dense, elongated further, became more lush and impressionistic, almost tone-poem like , as the years progressed, and the solos were certainly the last thing album buyers were looking for with this pair's releases. At their best they were brilliant and enthralling, and even their lyrics-as-poetry couldn't deflate the sum of their achievement. Principal lyricist Fagin read his Eliot, his Williams, his O'Hara, his Schwartz, and his Corman , all grand modernist who didn't clog their stanzas with poetic affectation. Fagin's narratives, his evocations, are spare but mysterious, indirect but tacitly felt. Not a wasted word, which means the lyrics were odd and elegant, a sublime compliment to their music.

Discussing Little Feat, music critic Robert Christgau ventured to say that the dedicated group wasn't just another jam band from Los Angeles but were, in disguise, Euro progressive-rockers at heart. Little Feat had slide guitar, soulful vocals, and boogie well enough to satisfy anyway speedway inclination to get in the T Bird and gun your engine. Still, Bill Payne's slippery keyboard work's modernist jazzy and sly sound and the sneaky switching of time signatures amid the funk-riffing improvisation, an odd and provocative convergence of jazz, blues, rock and soul influences,  made them difficult to classify.  Christgau pegged them as a brighter version of the Continental art-rockers. Plainly, Little Feat wanted their music to be something that reflected the best use of their musicianship. Their sound was skilled, never busy, lyrically evasive, and evocative at the same time, never far the American mythos of Robert Johnson country-blues or Bukowski/Selby/Algren take on seeking transcendence as well as survival in a post-war American city. To Christgau's point, I would add Steely Dan,  perhaps the most inscrutable band to achieve a long line of radio hits, platinum albums, and sold-out tours. More so than Little Feat, Steely Dan was incredibly sharp at composing great hooks for their songs, those brief introductions at the start of tunes or coming midway during the chorus, or appearing else, unanticipated, that lures you into the story and the musical moods that underscore the emotional journey. Beyond hooks, though, Steely Dan was eclectic in the styles they drew from inputting their albums together--great bouts of guitar boogie for the stadium crowd, a mid-tempo bottom of jamming funk keeping matters on a constant low boil, Ellington like tone poems where the horn players managed brass and reed orchestrations only to give way to alone, searching cry and lilt of sax improvisation. 

All this and the hooks, and the lyrics, managed by keyboardist and lead vocalist Don Fagin, an opaquely and vaguely presented universe of people, places, things, and situations that rarely come into sharp focus; surreal, witty, allusive, cruel, and kind in different turns of mood, Fagin didn't have a large world he wrote about, or instead, wrote around. But his word craft was generally superb, like the music, artful but not crowded, bright but chatty. 
The late Walter Becker, a Steely Dan co-founder with Fagin, a writing partner in a beautifully realized team effort, made this work all the pieces. He arranged  the music, turning mere hooks and stray ideas into whole pieces.

 As often as not, centering an arrangement around Fagin's keyboard, with its affection for minor-key flirtations at the end of chord progressions that just as often seemed like an awakening and eventual arousal from the dream you wish you could return to. Becker's work on the arrangements showed that he knew how to extend and compress sections of a song under construction. His was the ability to have their best material to be immediate clarity of riff, flourish and hook. He had a discerning ear for things more diffuse, abstract, opaque informal response to emotional states under an artist's scrutiny, made Steely Dan unique even in a time when there was scarcely a shortage of quality musicians and experimenters advancing their way to their respective versions of true and only heaven. Add to this surrealistically pleasurable slurring of motifs, literary conceits, and hard-bop resolve. We have Becker's signature guitar work, stinging, serpentine solos, short fills, and spatially sublime solos with phrasing that seemed to move in a coiling, sideways motion. Becker was never rushing with his fretwork; his note choices investigated the chords and space between them, popped, stung, and soothed as motif and mood required. Becker co-created something priceless, alluring, daunting, yet readily approachable in pop music. It's a pity there is no real equivalent prize such as the Nobel for rock and roll. 

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