Thursday, June 5, 2008

Steely Dan In Review

Review: Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic
Released 1974
ABC Records / MCA Records

Any comprehensive review of Steely Dan’s career should probably start with their first two albums – Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) and Countdown to Ecstasy (1973). Both of these albums contained several hits including classics such as “Do it Again”, “Reelin’ in the Years”, and “My Old School”. Yet, during this period the Dan was turning out what was basically pretty generic early-70’s rock. There were definitely shades of funk and jazz on both of these early albums but the genesis of the fusion of rock, funk, and jazz that Steely Dan would come to master only started to appear in all of its brilliance on their third album “Pretzel Logic” (1974).

It was around this time that Donald Fagan and Walter Becker (the two core and most recognizable members of the group) started to take control, slowing pushing out the rest of the band, replacing them with world-class session musicians. Many of these session players were funk and jazz masters (such as Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, and Bernard “Pretty” Purdy) leading the sound of the Dan into what most people familiar with their music would now recognize. This change in sound from straight-ahead rock isn’t that noticeable on the opening cut – “Ricki Don’t Lose That Number”. Obviously, this is a well-known hit followed by a much lesser known track.

It is this second track though that really starts to drive the new sound of the Dan home. "Night by Night" is totally unexpected – the listener is expecting to hear another rock track and is hit right between the eyes with rock-funk fusion. The Dan locks into a groove on this cut that is hard to ignore. This song was not a Top 40 hit but is definitely one of the strongest grooves on the album. Listen to this one at full blast with the windows open!

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You" follows with a much more mellow groove than "Night by Night". It’s easy to hear why this tune is a fan favourite, but it definitely sounds dated 34 years after its release. There are some memorable guitar hooks but the ample use of an old Fender Rhodes that carriers the melody of the track sounds really out of place today.

The only instrumental and only cover tune produced by the Dan is found on Pretzel Logic – Duke Ellington’s "East St. Louise Toodle-oo". This track, more than any other released by the group at this time revealed the new direction being taken. This is as far away from straight-ahead rock as they could get! This tune combines a myriad of different musical styles from jazz, to ragtime, to the blues. A major risk was taken recording this and strangely it fits in. I’m not sure that I would be playing this track at a yuppie house party though. Definitely do not play this one full blast while cruising the streets…

Continuing on in the direction of incorporating jazz into their sound and paying tribute to jazz greats, "Parker’s Band" is truly a standout track. It is an homage to jazz great Charlie Parker and incorporates two drummers (session aces Jeff Porcaro and Jim Gordon). The different drumming styles can distinctly be heard by adjusting the speaker balance from left to right.

The album is rounded out by five more tracks, two of which are standouts. "Through With Buzz" is a completely unexpected short song that sounds more like early ELO than Steely Dan. It’s as if Jeff Lynne showed up during the recording sessions – his sound is all over this track including the liberal use of a string quartet. Finally, the song "Pretzel Logic" drives home a bluesy sound that completed the Dan’s move from rock into the fusion that they would explore so successfully on subsequent albums.

A landmark album in rock, Pretzel Logic demonstrated the promise of a completely new sound for this period of the 1970’s. Sadly, Steely Dan as a band that toured came to an end with this album. Only Walter Becker and Donald Fagen would remain to compose and record future work. The influence of other band members would be felt throughout the rest of the ‘70’s though – in particular that of guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Michael McDonald who would go on to join The Doobie Brothers and transform that group from a hard rock sound to a blue-eyed soul hit machine.

By Schwinkle

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