Justin Smallbridge: Donald Fagen – Brand New Record – Same Old Greatness

“Don’t worry, boys. We’ll weather this storm of approval and come out on the other side as hated as ever.”

–Saul Alinsky

It is entirely possible, what with the Rolling Stones cranking up their We Really Ought To Know Better Leisurely Shuffle Tour and the hype for whichever the pop-tart of the moment we can’t escape on the radio and are supposed to be downloading (and whose name we’ll all be struggling to remember in six months) that you may have missed that Donald Fagen has a new record. It’s called “Sunken Condos.” It “dropped” (as nobody says with a straight face) on October 16. Nine songs, 44 minutes. Two years in the making.

All those things are enough ammunition for the expected critical response: it’s too slick, it took too long to record, and how come it doesn’t sound like (a) hip-hop-inflected auto-tuned assaultively over-compressed sequencing, (b) miserable inarticulate lo-fi self-pity and/or (c) Mumford & Sons / Arcade Fire / Muse / Lady Gaga?

None of that caviling is exactly surprising; you could anticipate every objection, given how familiar they’ve become through ritualistic repetition every time music with Fagen’s name on it appears (including under the Steely Dan rubric, natch.)

It’s so expected that it’s an Onion joke.

I’ve been hearing it since 1977, when Steely Dan released “Aja” in the midst of punk’s buzz, clang and yelp. At the time, it seemed very important to choose a side. It wasn’t enough to just declare your enjoyment of three-distored-chords-and-sloppy-drumming; you were suspect unless you could prove your fealty to punkoid snarl with scorn and derision for anything that didn’t sound like the Stooges. (The link below will take you to the full “Aja” album audio)

Despite that, I enjoyed “Aja,” just as I’d gotten a bang out of the five years of records that preceded it, back to “Can’t Buy A Thrill” 40 years ago now. (The link below will take you to the full “Can’t Buy a Thrill” album audio)

Steely Dan, Becker and Fagen get derided because they’re not recognizable rock stars, even though that’s completely the wrong criterion. Every phase of their career has been kind of an accidental accommodation or adaptation. They started out unable to decide whether they wanted to be jazz or blues musicians or be songwriters. They couldn’t play well enough to be jazz or blues musicians. So they opted to be songwriters, peddling their songs office to office in the Brill Building in the late 1960s. By that point, of course, the Brill Building hadn’t been “the Brill Building” for a good five years — ever since the Beatles, in fact — so Becker and Fagen were more baffling curiosity than anything publishers or A&R people could exploit as useful. And their compositions were too idiosyncratic and deeply weird. For a sense of what they sounded like, consult the unauthorized compilations of early demos that were released as “The Early Years” and “Sun Mountain.” (Those used to be available as flat black plastic discs in “record stores,” and are probably available as digital files through unauthorized extra-legal means now. (If you’re really stuck, I still have vinyl copies.)

During this period, however, they also got hired as sidemen in Jay & The Americans’ road band on the oldies circuit, where they played as “Tristan Fabriani” and “Gus Mahler.” Jay Black nicknamed them “Manson and Starkweather,” apparently unaware they took that as a compliment. They also alienated the band’s musical director, Marty Kupersmith, whom they enjoyed mocking as a guitar owner, and whom they enjoyed confounding by conspiring with their fellow bandmates to have everyone transpose whatever they were playing down a half-tone just as Kupersmith went into a solo.

They landed in Los Angeles (well, Encino, really) hired as staff songwriters for ABC/Dunhill as a means for the company to get “hep,” which also did not work out as expected. Nobody would record anything they wrote, so they became performers by default, at least having developed greater instrumental facility with the Americans’ touring outfit, using their songwriters’ advance to buy instruments, amplification hardware and hire musicians, whose chops they quickly outran — their own included.

Throughout their career, Donald Fagen & his co-conspirator have showed up late, after each scene he was most ardently determined to be a part of what was gone, over, done, finished — New York jazz in the 1950s, Brill Building pop in the 1960s, California post-’67 psychedelia curdled into post-Altamont downer/depression by the time Don & Walt land in L.A. in 1972. And those disappointments are being run into by a pair of tri-state area weisenheimers who read a lot of science fiction and enjoyed the work of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and William Burroughs. That kind of sardonic cynicism is not the usual source material for three-minute slices of feel-good teen-pop soundtrack (although it worked just fine for me as an ornery, confused post-boomer adolescent misanthrope).

So, comes now “Sunken Condos.” Among its charms are numbers entertainingly and unflinchingly — unsentimentally — considering age and decay and desirable but unpossessable women (“Slinky Thing”).

(“The New Breed”).

A story of unrequited love by way of “The Big Lebowski”, (“Miss Marlene”).

A fine inside-out twist on the idea of pathetic fallacy (“Weather In My Head”).

The way time turns even the most fearsome machinery of death into  fetishized collectibles (“Memorabilia”).

A “Boardwalk Empire” soldier’s story in less than five minutes with a single-chord verse (“Good Stuff”).

A dynamite bait-and-switch breakup song (“I’m Not The Same Without You”) which could also be an anthem of self-delusion (and works either way).

and a swell cover with a typically smart-ass twist: Isaac Hayes’s “Out Of The Ghetto,” with Ashkenazi klezmer elements laid over the funk-o-tronic source material with a wry smirk.

The whole thing is impeccably played and recorded, of course. In the past that would’ve been an indictable liability. But the current ease of digitally scuzzing up anything to make it sound like the work of The Kingsmen, the Trashmen, or Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter To Three”, means that this has suddenly passed through some kind of portal where it’s transmuted from being a relic from the past into a handcrafted artisanal one-of-a-kind artwork that’s a rare prize in this brave new world. Instead of the last gasp of a dying business model, it’s the avatar of a new way forward.

I guess if you stay outside certain precincts long enough, eventually the establishment you’ve resisted will embrace you whether you like it or not. That happened to Becker, Fagen and Steely Dan when the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame inducted them and they won a Grammy for “Two Against Nature,” the record they made in 2000 after taking 20 years off following “Gaucho,” a heartbreaking ordeal which could’ve — should’ve — been a double LP, including “The Second Arrangement,” “I Can’t Write Home About You,” “Kind Spirit,” “The Bear,” “Were You Blind That Day?” and “Kulee Baba.”
Steely Dan: The Lost Gaucho and Outtakes 

Maybe you’re finally old enough to get it.

Justin’s column will appear here every 4th Friday

Justin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

3 Responses to “Justin Smallbridge: Donald Fagen – Brand New Record – Same Old Greatness”

  1. A lovely trip down memory lane. Aja was the Dan’s summit to me but I love the rest too.

  2. Beauty! I have a strong visual memory of asking my dad and Mr. Moore from across the street in Winnipeg, as “Reelin’ in the Years” played on the car radio, when they thought it would be considered enough of a “classic” to be played on the classical station. (And since that was the era when ‘classic rock’ was being produced, that format did not yet exist.) Still proud to be a guitar owner…

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