Can’t Buy a Thrill
Countdown To Ecstasy
The Royal Scam
You know ’em, you love ’em, now it’s time to buy ’em all over again. Is it worth it? You bet.
Reissued gradually over the past 18 months, with the final album, Gaucho, just released in October, the Steely Dan catalog has been completely remastered (by its original engineer, Roger Nichols), graphically overhauled to restore lyrics and other pictures lost in the first shoddy CD editions, and generally upgraded to the 2000 standard. Most importantly the project was overseen by the Donald Fagen/Walter Becker axis who were the auteurs for all of this great music. The duo has written witty and hysterically funny new liner notes to every disc, filled with tongue-in-cheek reminiscences both humorous and perplexing, qualities similar to their music.
1993’s four disc Citizen Steely Dan box previously collected the short (all are between 35-40 minutes) remastered discs under one bulky cover, but these individual albums with their self-contained track orders (although lacking the few B-sides included in the box) and custom graphics are the way to go for the Steely Dan fan or novice.
With their biting, wry, occasionally obtuse lyrics, and offbeat jazzy pop/rock approach, Steely Dan sounded, even still sounds, like nobody else. And listening to this music now, the earliest of which dates back to 1972, there is a timeless quality that seems as fresh and unaffected by the era in which it was conceived, as the enduring recordings of the jazz musicians the duo loved. The Dan hit their peak on the Countdown/Pretzel/Katy trilogy, but even Gaucho, the spotty final disc (although perfected to the point of sterility), has moments that are transcendent. The best Steely Dan wrapped an immaculate, precise attention to studio detail around terrific, often unusually complex melodies, and playing by established pros that burned in short, concise bursts. While Don Fagen wasn’t the world’s best vocalist, he made the most of his limited range, and like Randy Newman, coaxed a dry, smarmy humor from lyrics that were sometimes seemingly nonsense and intermittently touchingly poetic, often in the same song.
The liner notes to the first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, explain that the duo never wanted to tour, and when they finally quit the road for good after 1974’s Pretzel Logic gigs, the band as such, ceased to exist. Steely Dan officially became Becker/Fagen and whomever else they felt was talented enough to play the parts they wrote. That resulted in an inordinate amount of time spent re-recording every chorus, every verse, and sometimes literally every note of each guitar solo until it was perfect. When it worked, as on much of Aja, the concept made sense. But philosophically there seemed to be little comparison to the wildly experimental jazz the duo loved, and the squeaky tight, completely scripted, non-improvisational music they produced. Yet when the theory clicked, as on the soulful “Deacon Blues,” it all seemed to make sense. Indeed, the best tracks from the band, regardless of how many hours were spent on their creation, seem to have been recorded in one take.
Now available at a discounted price, the Steely Dan oeuvre, spit-shined and repackaged into discs as classy as the music, is one of the more perfect catalogues in pop history. Even if you available own some Dan on compilations or older discs, it’s worth springing for new copies of the original albums to experience them as the artists intended. It’s music that will never go out of style, and it will never sound better than this.