Recent listening, current

Thursday, December 26, 2013

162. Steely Dan / Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

The followup to Can't Buy a Thrill is like the great early Steely Dan album that no one talks about. It's understandable for a band with things like Aja or Pretzel Logic lurking in the back catalog. Much like Scam, the band's second LP seems destined live in the shadow of its discographical neighbors. But the songcraft is wise and clever, a subtly sophisticated mix of pop, blues, rock, soul and jazz. And like Royal Scam and Katy Lied, it helps set up the stylistic direction that reached its pinnacle with Aja. I find it amazing that this is only their second record. It's an instructional antithesis to the sophomore slump. Appreciating its heights and evenness compared to the debut does much to illustrate the talents of the creators. To say the least, Becker and Fagen are really hitting their stride by this time. The pieces for each future masterwork are in place: First thing to gel is Fagen doing all the lead vocals, killing the herky-jerky transitions heard on Thrill. Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter split the guitar duties, Baxter contributing pedal steel and six string. But there are notable session players, too, like Ray Brown on "Razor Boy," Rick Derringer on "Showbiz Kids," Ernie Watts on "My Old School," and Victor Feldman playing several instruments through both sides. The lyrics come into their own, filled with wry references, quotable one-liners, and unforgettable character studies that are simultaneously explicit and oblique. Some of the music is visionary, too. "Pearl of the Quarter" has been described as "country," but to my ear it is something closer to the further amalgamation of American musical idioms, presaging that which in later decades we would come to call Americana. I love all the SD albums and go through phases where one will sit on my stereo for longer than the others. Right now, Ecstasy is "the one." So excuse me as I put on my headphones and turn on to the curt, sardonic strains of "Bodhisattva" once again....

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