A friend of mine is a completist Steely Dan fan; I get the impression that there’s not really any other kind, you’re either indifferent to or ignorant of them, as I was, or you’ve got all their records, and the Donald Fagen solo stuff and the live album. They’ve got a dedicated following over on ILM (where I’ve stopped hanging out, lately, because the signal-to-noise ratio got too low and sniff no-one was answering my questions) who give me the same impression: people either write them off as slick AOR or become complete fanatics.
I’ve been listening to them a lot this year. I have my reservations.
- The sarcastic-jaded-lyrics-wrapped-in-smooth-jazz-pop thing: the fans on ILM talk as if this were a virtue in itself, and it’s not. Elvis Costello is another songwriter who does this, and is the only other lyricist I can think of who much resembles Fagen and Becker. In both cases, the highly mannered writing is good up to a point, after which it becomes unbearable. (Costello in Spike; the Dan with every other song.) Costello can express anger musically as well as lyrically, though – see for instance Blood and Chocolate. Fagen and Becker seem unwilling or incapable of doing this, which, to me, makes them somewhat unpleasant to listen to at length. It’s all a bit too passive-aggressive.
- Donald Fagen’s voice. There’s no getting around this: the guy sounds like Kermit the Frog, only goofier. Very occasionally, this suits the material – on “Deacon Blue”, say, which is about goofy, mid-life despair – but mostly I just find myself wishing they’d hired a singer to go with their brilliant session players. When your sax solos are played by Wayne Shorter, singing like a Muppet is almost insulting.
When they hit their straps, though, they are pretty hard to match. AJA is a really great album to drive to. Without them, Ween would have never recorded this parody.
They also introduced me to Wayne Shorter.