Against Consensus: Underrated Albums That Outshine the Critical Favourite
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Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic
IN this second part of this feature...
IN THIS PHOTO: Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in 1972/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
I look at a band (or a ‘phenomenon’…as I should explain) who have produced some sensational albums - and there is that one that stands out to the critics. I shall come to that in a bit but it is hard really to label Steely Dan and describe what they are. One of their founders, Walter Becker, died last year and its remaining founder, Donald Fagen, is still touring the Steely Dan name. It started life as Becker and Fagen and they assembled musicians around them. I guess Steely Dan is a collective that has the core element of Becker and Fagen. I am not sure if there is a name for that – perhaps there should be one! However you want to class Steely Dan, you can definitely feel the moment they transitioned from a loose collective looking for an identity to a solid unit where Becker and Fagen called the shots. I guess there is a bit of a three-way between the albums considered their very best. I am torn between Can’t Buy a Thrill (their 1972 debut) and Pretzel Logic (their third album of 1974) but, as you can see from the title of this piece, have put Pretzel Logic ahead. Their debut has a stunning mixture of sounds and, although there are simple moments like Reelin’ in the Years, there is richness and complexity through the album.
I love the variety of sounds and the sophistication of the songwriting. Although one can see genius right from the off, a reason why many critics prefer other Steely Dan efforts is the lack of leadership and focus. David Palmer, an English singer, did not fit in with the Steely Dan sound: a sarcastic, caustic and witty sound that was more real and edgy than the soulful and oversung tones of Palmer. I like his performance on Dirty Work but can see the difference a Fagen vocal would have made. Steely Dan dispensed with Palmer by the second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, and they were starting to find their momentum. What remained was the experimentation, perfectionism and incredible songwriting. Their 1973 sophomore effort is a leaner record with fewer tracks (eight compared to their debut’s ten) and there are fewer loose ends. Although Countdown to Ecstasy is an improvement on the debut in many ways – much truer to the Steely Dan that would remain – they were still finding their feet. The record contains two genuine standouts, Show Biz Kids and My Old School, the rest of the record is not quite up to the same standard. Things would even out and solidify a year after Countdown to Ecstasy. It is amazing to think a band as perfectionist and fastidious as Steely Dan could release a record every year (at this stage) – few modern, less-fine bands cannot manage that now!
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With Gary Katz on production duties; Steely Dan would create their masterpiece with Pretzel Logic. I will mention the album that gains the biggest critical weight: Aja. It is a close call between the two but there is that leaning to Aja when it comes to impact and quality. The reason why I feel Pretzel Logic is a better record is because it announced the completed and fully formed Steely Dan. The debut was promising and the second album corrected some kinks. Pretzel Logic saw all the pieces slot together and, seeing as they only released their debut album two years earlier, it makes Pretzel Logic all the more impressive. There was a bit of disappointment regarding Countdown to Ecstasy and how it performed. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was a return to form for Steely Dan and showed what was missing from their previous album: a radio hit that could get them chart attention. Pretzel Logic has shorter songs and greater memorability. There are more Jazz elements in Pretzel Logic and greater use of harmonies. Whilst there are still one or two less-than-genius moments on the record – Through with Buzz and With a Gun are inessential – there is more than enough wonder to satisfy the senses. Whereas their first couple of albums are a little uneven regarding pacing and where the best songs lie – either top or bottom-heavy – Pretzel Logic is more balanced.
Most of the best moments are in the first half of the album but there is a lot of quality further down. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number is a perfect opener. It has a lot of mystery but Donald Fagen has stated in interviews that the ‘Number’ in the title is a reference to marijuana; the woman mentioned in the song is someone he had a crush on in college. The track is full of brilliance: from the rousing and catchy chorus to the unique, image-provoking verses...it is a masterful and perfect work. Night by Night follows the track and is one of the most underrated songs in the Steely Dan cannon. The rushing horns and the insatiable groove gets your body moving and remains long in the mind. Any Major Dude Will Tell You is a rare moment of reflection and sensitivity from the band. It talks of worlds dividing and cracks forming. Fagen is talking to a friend going through hard times and lending a shoulder. It does not minimise sorry or give any sort of cheap shots the way of the affected – showing Steely Dan could do heart and tenderness alongside the acidic and funny. East St. Louis Toodle-Oo is an unusual inclusion but shows Steely Dan’s passion for Jazz. It was originally written by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley but given a cool and groovy spin by Steely Dan. It provides a great balance and contrast to the rest of the material on Pretzel Logic’s first side and end things perfectly.
The second side features the remarkable title cut that sees Fagen travelling through time and imagining Napoleon and minstrel shows. It is one of the more conventional tracks on the album but, in terms of its lyrics, it is anything but. The variety of emotions and themes explored through Pretzel Logic is amazing. The musicianship and compositions would become fuller-fat and more complex on later albums but Pretzel Logic was the moment when the problems and hesitations were rectified. Even late tracks on Pretzel Logic, such as Charlie Freak and Monkey in Your Soul, shine and have their own charming personalities. Maybe Can’t Buy a Thrill has more commercial appeal and range; Countdown to Ecstasy is a fascinating passage – Pretzel Logic is the moment when the true Steely Dan comes to shine. When it came to reviews for Pretzel Logic, there was plenty of praise. AllMusic, in 2013, had this to say:
“Instead of relying on easy hooks, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen assembled their most complex and cynical set of songs to date. Dense with harmonics, countermelodies, and bop phrasing, Pretzel Logic is vibrant with unpredictable musical juxtapositions and snide, but very funny, wordplay. Listen to how the album's hit single, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," opens with a syncopated piano line that evolves into a graceful pop melody, or how the title track winds from a blues to a jazzy chorus -- Becker and Fagen's craft has become seamless while remaining idiosyncratic and thrillingly accessible. Since the songs are now paramount, it makes sense that Pretzel Logic is less of a band-oriented album than Countdown to Ecstasy, yet it is the richest album in their catalog, one where the backhanded Dylan tribute "Barrytown" can sit comfortably next to the gorgeous "Any Major Dude Will Tell You." Steely Dan made more accomplished albums than Pretzel Logic, but they never made a better one”.
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If we think about the Steely Dan that gets most critical praise then you have to go to Aja. Released in 1977, it was the second-to-last album they would release before a hiatus. The album is regarded so highly because its musicianship and detail is impeccable. The perfectionist Becker and Fagen reach the peak during Aja. Numerous musicians were drilled and auditions were held so that they could get the right sound for each song. Although Deacon Blues is my favourite song ever (and the diamond from the album), I find myself drawn more to Pretzel Logic. Aja’s title offering gets highlighted but I find it a bit long and never really bond with it. Lesser-mentioned songs like Home at Last intrigue me more and I can take or leave Black Cow. Peg is a fantastic song heightened by a Michael McDonald vocal; Josie is a great way to end and displays the lyrics wit and intelligence Steely Dan displayed throughout their career. I like the fact there are only seven tracks but I cannot get past Deacon Blues. It carries such weight and genius I find myself listening to nothing else. I am not suggesting the remainder of Aja is inferior but Deacon Blues is such a huge statement. I think the title-track goes on a bit and never really pops. I wonder if there were another couple of songs in the locker that could have been included.
The last album Becker and Fagen would release before a break, 1980’s Gaucho, has some breezier moments that would have lent Aja greater flexibility. I do love Aja and adore the musicianship that runs throughout. The fact that so much effort was put in and the musicians used were honed to the ground shows how much the album meant to Steely Dan. You can see the attention to detail and the perfectionism drip from every note. There are more reviews – and more five-star reviews – available for Aja compared to Pretzel Logic. Rolling Stone, in 1977, talked about Aja in these terms:
“The last album, The Royal Scam. was the closest thing to a “concept” album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with both a raunchier production quality and a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and “Josie,” which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic “Black Cow” is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung out on downers and messing around with other men. “Deacon Blues” (a thematic continuation of “Fire in the Hole” and “Any World”) exemplifies this album’s mood: resignation to the L.A. musician’s lifestyle, in which one must “crawl like a viper through these suburban streets” yet “make it my home sweet home.”
The title and first lines of “Home at Last” (presumably a clever interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey — I don’t get it) put it right up front: “I know this superhighway This bright familiar sun I guess that I’m the lucky one.”
More than any of Steely Dan’s previous albums (with the possible exception of Katy Lied), Aja exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience, with no pretense of embracing it. What underlies Steely Dan’s music — and may, with this album, be showing its limitations — is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies”.
I guess it depends what version of Steely Dan you prefer and whether you prefer the looser and punchier Pretzel Logic or the more expansive and rich Aja. I love both albums but find myself gravitating towards Pretzel Logic. It is the album that saw the promising unit become this more focused and assured prospect. Gone were the guest singers (for the most part) and there was greater concern regarding a more streamlined and accessible sound. Many might say Steely Dan are at their best when overloading songs with texture but I think songs like Rikki Don’t Lose That Number are timeless because they sound effortless and can connect with everyone – even if the actual music and recording process was quite intense. Many critics love the Steely Dan who created Aja in 1977 but to me, when it comes to their defining moment, you cannot get better...
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THAN the peerless Pretzel Logic.