We're reviewing the solo albums released just before Steely Dan reformed. Donald - and for the first time - Walter both released albums and also produced each other's records. They're kind of like different perspectives into the Steely Dan whole, so I decided to review them together instead of separately. This was the result.
Let's sleep in today
Wake me up
When the wolves come out to play
These white nights
We're gonna turn this town
Into a city of lights
Welcome neighbor - buckle in! As I ease my new Kamakiri into traffic, let's spin some tunes. Here - enjoy some fresh veggies from the hydroponic garden in the back. While we're munching, let's listen to the new discs from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
Up first - Kamakiriad. This is Donald's return from the writer's block wasteland. Superficially - it's a story about a futuristic journey in some sort of possibly post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's also a metaphor for the trials and travails of middle age.
I must admit - I'm more in love with the concept of the album than the album itself. When I read what Donald has to say about the album - it sounds amazing. But there's a sameness to the tracks. Donald mentions it in his interviews - he perfected the groove in the demos then kept it in the finished tracks. To me - that gives the album a demo feel - even though there's a lot of overdubs.
Also switching from Gary Katz to Walter Becker as a producer seems to have taken some of the air out of the arrangements. Now it's hard to say if Donald would have returned to music without Walter - it seemed like they both helped each other escape the long shadow of Gaucho. But - for me - when Donald started producing himself, he started backing off the sterile feel.
The album starts off strong with Trans-Island Skyway. Lyrically it sets up the whole Kamakiriad concept - musically it just swings. Countermoon is next - more catchy than it appears on first listen. But - already - the album concept seems almost discarded at this point. Springtime is next - I don't mind the track - but I'll be darned if I can remember the chorus. (Looks it up) Oh yeah. Right.
Snowbound - the long awaited return of Steely Dan. Except that it's not. Still - definitely one of the high points of the album. And Donald's right - the lyrics that he and Walter worked on about the icecats are a blast.
Tomorrow's Girls should be more memorable - the video certainly is! The lyrics are a blast - but again - the sameness of the melody makes it hard to remember without looking at the lyric sheet. Same with Florida Room.
The album finishes with On The Dunes. That's an album closing track worthy of the Trans-Island Skyway opener. Except that it isn't. Weird. The actual last track is Teahouse On The Tracks which is pretty catchy.
The album is definitely a slow grower. I like it more now that I did when I first heard it. However - it does seem like the weakest of Donald's solo albums to me. Not that it's a bad album - just - maybe a product of its time.
Anyway, neighbor - relax and enjoy the ride. As the last notes of Teahouse fade away - the Kamakiri autodisc loader queues up 11 Tracks Of Whack. Walter Becker's first solo album.
Now - this is interesting. Where Donald's solo albums tend to have overarching literary concepts, Walter's doesn't. Right off the bat, we're back in Steely Dan territory - specifically the low-lifes and bottom dwelling denizens we all know and love. Kicking off with Down In The Bottom - I feel right at home. Sure - it kind of sounds like a demo - but who cares? With lines like:
In case you're wondering it's alive and well
That little habit that you left with me
Here in the suburbs where it's hard to tell
If I got the bear or if the bear got me
I love it. Super catchy too! But - that's just the introduction to Walter's world. Up next? Junkie Girl! Just as catchy - and somehow even more darker. So far, Walter is two for two. But - the centerpiece of the album is up next.
Possibly one of my favorite tracks in their whole catalog - Surf and/or Die.
The lyrics - a poem Walter wrote about a friend who died suddenly - set to prayers from Tibetan monks. Blows my mind every time I hear it. And - ever since Walter's passing - these lines just hit me like a ton of bricks:
And I know that some day you'll be showing me those blankets
All covered in glory on the hereafter side, saying
There was never any question, it was always all or nothing
Surf and/or die
Damn it Walter.
Book Of Liars is next. This track continues the string of great songs on the first side. I will note that the Steely Dan arrangement on Alive In America is more sympathetic to Walter's voice. In fact, that's the one complaint I have about this album. For some reason, Walter believed he couldn't double his vocal like Donald did. I remember reading this: Interview with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker (2008)
When we first started to do this kind of stuff, and when Donald and I were writing songs and showing them to people, I sang a lot of the songs because I sang much louder. I liked to sing. Donald was sort of playing the piano and hunched over the piano and didn’t sing as loud. It was only when we actually really got in the studio and I heard his voice and heard my voice that I realized what a great singer he was and what a ****ty, out-of-tune singer I was. Now, at that time I was smoking two or three packs of Camels a day. Not to say that I still don’t have problems with that, but I just didn’t have that pitch thing down. And when you get to the point of recording, that really counts. And I saw that Donald had a really cool style, and that he could do all kinds of fancy intervallic things, and as we later discovered a little further down the line, he could create these stacks of harmonies that really added a lot to what we were doing. And not everybody can do that; he can do it partially because of the precision and repeatability of what he does. He can double his own voice because he basically sings the song the same way every time: He has a perfect picture in his mind of what the song is going to be.What I notice especially on this album is they put Walter's voice front and center - almost by itself. It's too far forward in the mix - with no background singers most of the time. I think that with a more sympathetic producer, this "in your face" aspect of Walter's vocals would have been better managed. Certainly Larry Klein's production in Circus Money was a step in the right direction. I'm going to hold off on further discLook - it's a two-ferussion of Walter's vocals until we get to Everything Must Go. Just noting this and moving on to Lucky Henry.
Lucky Henry - what an odd melody and time signature. Took a bit - but yeah - I find this song catchy as heck! Moving on to a triple punch of Hard Up Case, Cringemaker, and Girlfriend. All great songs - but now the demo-like qualities of the recording are starting to show. Each track is sort of a lesser return on a common theme. This is an album that seems to be best taken in small doses - not as an aggregate whole.
I'm still digging into My Waterloo, This Moody Bastard and Hat Too Flat. For some reason, I'm still unlocking the final part of this album. It's almost like album burnout.
But - Little Kawai - wakes me back up and ends the album on a great note. Leave it to the most cynical member of Steely Dan to write the most heartfelt lyric - to his real-life son. At the end of the day, Walter was the biggest softie of all:
In the morning in spite of everything
We'll go driving in our car
Straight to IHOP where it's well-known
The world's junkest pancakes are
Maple syrup on those french fries
They say it's no good for you
But you're still growing
What do they know
Do they love you
Not the way that I do
Not the way that I do
Truer words from a father to a son were never written. My daughter and I have made almost the identical IHOP trip.
So - two different albums from the masterminds of Steely Dan. Almost the perfect division between the two: Donald's the more professional, tuneful, polished - Walter's the darker, deeper, oddball. Put them together - you get Steely Dan. At this point - greater as a whole than the sum of its parts. But - that would change in a number of years.
Anyway - it's probably time to get off the Trans-Island Skyway for a while, and pull in for the night. It's been great travelling with you, Friend. We'll meet again at the signpost on the frozen river - just over there at the "Steely Dan":
We sail our icecats on the frozen river
Some loser fires off a flare, amen
For seven seconds it's like Christmas day
And then it's dark again
And then it's dark again