Archive for February 2020

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 40-33

February 25, 2020

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE. Songs 48 through 41, you’ll find HERE.]

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40. Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (Katy Lied)
I’ll be ready when my feet touch ground
Wherever I come down
And if the folks will have me
Then they’ll have me

Proof that Becker and Fagen were capable of writing a straightforward pop song when they were of a mind to do so. Of course, it stops being straightforward when you realize that the tasteful backbeat is being supplied by perhaps the greatest session drummer in the history of recorded music, the one and only Hal Blaine. If you have to find a last-minute fill-in for Jeff Porcaro, who handles the drumming duties on the rest of Katy Lied, you could do worse than Hal Blaine. In fact, pretty much anyone else you asked would have been worse than Hal Blaine.

I’ve always identified with the sense of wistful alienation embodied here, that feeling of not quite belonging and longing for a place where one truly could. I keep hoping that I’ll find that world where I’m welcome.

39. Bodhisattva (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Can you show me
The shine of your Japan?
The sparkle of your China?

I know that a lot of you will have “Bodhisattva” much higher in your personal rankings, and that’s fine. But I come to Steely Dan in large part for the lyrical creativity, and there’s not much of that in this song. That said, for what it is — basically, a riff-off between the band’s (they were still an actual band at the time of this second album) two guitarists, Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter — “Bodhisattva” is still pretty darned good. I would just enjoy it a little bit more had Becker and Fagen squeezed just a couple more verses in between the jams.

38. Change of the Guard (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
If you wanna get thru the years
It’s high time you played your card
If you live in this world
You’re feelin’ the change of the guard

As we’ve discussed in earlier installments, at the time of the band’s debut album, Donald and Walter were still figuring out exactly what they wanted Steely Dan to be — and no doubt, their record label had some ideas about that as well. So we get a lot more compact, potentially radio-friendly rock numbers on Can’t Buy a Thrill than the Dan would serve up later in their career. But when you can turn Skunk Baxter loose to rip a couple of guitar solos to shreds, there’s nothing wrong with just letting it rock. Skunk serves up a taste here of the licks he’d later make famous as the Doobie Brothers’ lead guitar slinger.

37. The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Any news was good news
And the feeling was bad at home
I was out of my mind and you were on the phone

It ain’t no drag, that’s for certain. I appreciate the songs from the Dan’s early albums that open a window into the musical direction that Becker and Fagen would ultimately pursue. There’s just enough smooth jazz floating through this mishmash of a track to hint at what lay ahead. And by mishmash, I mean there’s a lot going on here, and not all of the pieces seem as though they were intended from the start to fit together. (Where does that weird guitar — at least, I think it’s a guitar — bridge come from? Certainly not Boston.) In retrospect, however, you can listen to this tune and say, “Okay, now I see where this is going.”

36. Sign In Stranger (The Royal Scam)
And who are you?
Just another scurvy brother…

A round of applause, please, for the piano man. Paul Griffin, probably best known for his contributions to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, Revisited and Don McLean’s American Pie, takes a seat at the keyboard and lets his fingers dance all over this bouncy little number. Griffin’s piano solo alone merits the price of admission, but his easygoing background propels the verses just as nicely. This is not the last time we’ll hear from Mr. Griffin on The Royal Scam — we’ll hear him rock the clavinet on “Kid Charlemagne,” and man the electric piano (and earn a rare co-writing credit alongside Becker and Fagen) on “The Fez.”

35. Your Gold Teeth (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Even Cathy Berberian knows
There’s one roulade she can’t sing

Back in my college days, when a Steely Dan album was spinning on my turntable practically all the time, I expended a fair bit of pre-Internet effort trying to track down the various references that pop up in Dan lyrics. I still recall trekking to the library to listen to a recording by Cathy Berberian, out of curiosity born from endless listening to “Your Gold Teeth.” It was an exercise I did not feel compelled to repeat. But I was happy that the song now made sense.

34. Dirty Work (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Like the castle in its corner
In a medieval game
I foresee terrible trouble
And I stay here just the same

“Dirty Work” serves as a prime example of how musical perspective evolves over time. When I was first developing an affinity for Steely Dan, “Dirty Work” was one of my least favorite tracks, mostly because I despised David Palmer’s simpering, quavery lead vocal. As a more mature listener, however, I gained the ability to get past my distaste for the specific performance and appreciate the underlying song on its own merits. In particular, hearing “Dirty Work” as Fagen’s current version of the band now performs it live on tour, with the group’s trio of female backing vocalists taking over the leads, gave me renewed affection for it.

I’m still not a David Palmer fan — his label-enforced presence remains for me the weakest element of Can’t Buy a Thrill — but I’ve grown to like this charming, subtly subversive little ditty quite a bit.

33. The Royal Scam (The Royal Scam)
And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime

For me, The Royal Scam — the album, not just its titular song — represents the moment when Steely Dan first achieved its full potential, when Becker and Fagen’s mad vision completely coalesced. Every album prior to this one moved a step forward, away from the quirky, eclectic pop-rock band of Can’t Buy a Thrill and toward the jazz-rock, session-legends-melange powerhouse that peaked with Aja. On The Royal Scam, the Dan arrived.

This track, which closes the album, is Walter and Donald saying — like the Caribbean immigrants whose tale the lyrics tell — “We’re here.” See the glory, indeed.

And with that, we’ve reached the halfway mark of this project. 32 songs down, 32 to go. It just keeps getting better from here on up.

The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 48-41

February 21, 2020

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as notes on the songs I’ve numbered 64 through 57, HERE. Songs 56 through 49 are discussed HERE.]

Here’s where it begins to get tough.

I feel pretty strongly about the songs in the bottom one-fourth of the ranking — that is, the sixteen (or, if you’d rather, the two groups of eight) that we’ve already covered — being correctly positioned (at least, for me — your mileage may vary). I don’t believe that any amount of listening and reconsideration would move any of those songs out of my virtual basement. I feel similarly strongly about my top ten or twelve. Those will be my favorites all day, every day.

In between, however, there’s so much excellent music (and so little to nitpick about it) that it’s really difficult to differentiate what makes one song appeal to me more or less than the several others around it. There’s a league of space between songs #12 and #48, to be sure. But between, say, #48 and #24…? Not quite so much.

Let’s just do our best, shall we?

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48. “Glamour Profession” (Gaucho)
Brut and charisma
Poured from the shadow where he stood
Looking good
He’s a crowd-pleasing man

Speaking as a lifelong basketball fan, this song that’s partly about a basketball superstar has always sounded to me as though it was written by people who weren’t really interested in professional sports, or even knew very much about them. I suspect that’s probably true — Becker and Fagen never seemed much like hardcore spectators. On the other hand, “Glamour Profession” is also all about that drug life, and that I do believe Walter and Donald knew something about.

As a song, it’s just alright — as close to slick late-disco-era sheen as the Dan ever got. My main memory of it is that my original vinyl LP of Gaucho had a tiny scratch in one of the long instrumental breaks that caused the record to skip and repeat. Even now, when I listen, I hear that spot replaying over and over again in my head.

47. “I Got the News” (Aja)
Broadway Duchess
Darling, if you only knew
Half as much as
Everybody thinks you do

Proof that Michael McDonald really does make everything better. The slightest song on arguably the Dan’s finest album (we’re not going to hit another Aja track on this list for a good long while, friends), “I Got the News” bounces along just cool and innocuously catchy enough, until the bridge kicks in with those soaring McDonald vocals. All of a sudden, a merely decent tune becomes magical for just a few seconds. I spend the rest of the song waiting for McDonald to come back. He never does.

46. “Everything You Did” (The Royal Scam)
Turn up the Eagles — the neighbors are listening

I’ve never been certain whether the reference to the Eagles here was supposed to be affectionate or derisive. I suspect that when Henley, Frey & Co. returned the favor the following year, in their hit “Hotel California” (the line “they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast”), they probably weren’t entirely sure, either. But that’s always been part of the Steely Dan mystique — the lyrics can often mean whatever you want them to mean.

45. “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied)
Kids, if you want some fun
See what you never have seen
Take off your cheaters and sit right down
Start the projection machine

Becker and Fagen never shied away from the seedier elements of modern urban life. That’s nowhere more evident than in this sordid little vignette about a man who screens pornographic films in his home for innocent youth to watch. Hopefully Mr. LaPage either got busted or cleaned up his act somewhere along the line.

The musical highlight here comes from the sparkling vibraphone of Steely Dan stalwart Victor Feldman. (Seriously, when’s the last time you heard a vibraphone on a pop-rock record?)

44. “Monkey In Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic)
Won’t you turn that bebop down
I can’t hear my heart beat
Where’s that fatback chord I found?

The Dan’s unique twist on mid-’70s funk, “Monkey” features some down-and-dirty riffs by an all-star horn section led by saxophone legend Plas Johnson, who’s best known for his solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”

As the final track on Pretzel Logic, this song marks the end of the ride for the original “band” version of Steely Dan (although Jim Hodder was still officially the group’s drummer, he doesn’t play a single lick on this album; he does, however, contribute backing vocals to “Parker’s Band”). Skunk Baxter would head off to the Doobie Brothers; the Dan’s other regular guitarist, Denny Dias, would continue as a session player all the way through Aja.

43. “Green Earrings” (The Royal Scam)
Greek medallion
Sparkles when you smile
Sorry, angel
I get hungry like a child

If the white-hot drumming of Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on this track doesn’t get your attention, check your pulse. Elliott Randall spikes some searing guitar work throughout, and Denny Dias slides in for a sweet solo midway through. This is another song I feel as though I’m ranking much too low, but only because so much greatness has to get crammed in ahead of it.

42. “Razor Boy” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Will you still have a song to sing
When the razor boy comes
And takes your fancy things away?

“Razor Boy” is noteworthy in the Steely Dan catalog mostly for the presence of veteran jazz player Ray Brown on string bass. By the early 1970s, one didn’t hear a lot of upright bass on rock records outside of what remained of rockabilly. But Brown’s the perfect fit on this jazzy number that hinted at the musical direction Becker and Fagen would fully embrace by the time of Aja. Things would only get jazzier from here.

I still wish the razor boy would keep his grubby mitts off my stuff.

41. “Your Gold Teeth II” (Katy Lied)
Who are these children
Who scheme and run wild
Who speak with their wings
And the way that they smile

Speaking of jazzy, Donald and Walter’s predilection for the genre is writ large all over this one. I’ve never quite understood why this song is labeled as a “sequel” to “Your Gold Teeth” from the band’s second album; aside from the lone repeated lyrical hook, the two tracks could hardly be more different. Denny Dias, who just might be the real unsung hero of the Dan’s classic period, delivers yet again with a simmering, shimmering guitar solo.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Songs 56-49

February 17, 2020

[NOTE: The Steely Dan 64 Project represents my ranking, in order of my personal preference, of the 64 songs released by Steely Dan during their “classic” period (1972-80). You’ll find a detailed introduction to the project, as well as the beginning of the ranking, HERE.

As stated elsewhere, your own perspective on how these songs compare to one another may — and most likely will — be different. That’s absolutely okay. There’s no right or wrong, just individual taste. What matters is celebrating the legacy of Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and their host of collaborators, and the incredible music they created.]

56. “Throw Back the Little Ones” (Katy Lied)
Hot licks and rhetoric
Don’t count much for nothing

A jazzy little (no pun intended) number featuring another of the many spectacular guitar solos that Elliott Randall contributed to Steely Dan records over the years, starting with “Reelin’ In the Years.” Not one of my favorite Fagen vocals, but a decent tune overall.

55. “Fire In the Hole” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
A woman’s voice reminds me
To serve and not to speak
Am I myself, or just another freak?

Fagen doesn’t often get enough credit for the brilliance of his piano playing. He’s razor-sharp on this track. Nothing in popular music sounded quite like this in the early ’70s, except maybe Marvin Hamlisch’s Scott Joplin-tribute soundtrack to The Sting.

54. “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” (Pretzel Logic)

In compiling this ranking, I despaired of where to place “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” At one point, I considered omitting it altogether. It’s an unusual item: the only instrumental number in the Steely Dan catalog, and the only track not written or co-written by Becker and Fagen. Composed by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley in the 1920s, it exists only to showcase the boys’ affection for jazz — an affection that would morph into an obsession, starting with their next album — and, I suppose, to fill a bit of space on Pretzel Logic, which contains a number of short songs.

The unusual guitar work is fun — Becker’s talk-box and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s pedal steel make for interesting twists on the original arrangement’s muted trumpet and trombone, respectively — but I don’t know that it really adds much to the Dan legacy outside of a footnote. Well played, gents, but I can’t slot it any higher than this.

53. “My Rival” (Gaucho)
I was the whining stranger
A fool in love
With time to kill

I actually remember listening to “My Rival” for the first time and thinking, “That’s kind of a creepy song.” I didn’t know until decades later that Becker and Fagen had created this weird little number for the soundtrack of a horror film: Phobia, directed by the legendary John Huston. Knowing its origins explains the song’s gooseflesh-raising vibe, but doesn’t make me love it any better.

52. “Pearl of the Quarter” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
She loved the million dollar words I say
She loved the candy and the flowers that I bought her
She said she loved me and was on her way
Singing “Voulez-vous”

I’m already on record [see “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” at #62] as not being enamored with the Dan’s occasional dabbling in the countrified end of the musical pool. Still, there’s something ineffably sweet about hearing Fagen sing a more-or-less straightforward love song… okay, he’s in love with a streetwalker here, but in love nevertheless. Skunk Baxter and his pedal steel guitar get an opportunity to shine.

51. “Only a Fool Would Say That” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Unhand that gun, begone
There’s no one to fire upon

One of the brighter, bouncier tracks on the Dan’s debut album, “Fire” showcases some deft-fingered guitar by The Skunk, and a vocal by Fagen that actually sounds as though Donald was in a good mood that day. The fact that a song this cool checks in this far down in the rankings is testimony to just how much excellent stuff lies ahead.

50. “Third World Man” (Gaucho)
Smoky Sunday
He’s been mobilized since dawn —
Now he’s crouching on the lawn…

The final song of the Dan’s classic period is something of a ringer: an emergency fill-in for another, allegedly better number entitled “The Second Arrangement,” most of which was accidentally erased by a studio assistant. Becker and Fagen made several attempts to rerecord the lost track, but couldn’t recreate the magic to their satisfaction. Instead, they dusted off a piece they’d written for (but not used on) an earlier album, swapped out most of the lyrics, and gave it a new title. There’s some awesomely gritty, snarling guitar by Larry Carlton here, but “Third World Man” remains an odd fit against the ultra-smooth pop-jazz that makes up the rest of Gaucho.

49. “King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Show me where you are
You and I will spend this day
Driving in my car through the ruins of Santa Fe

Most of Steely Dan’s music has a timeless feel to it; songs that were recorded more than 40 years ago still sound fresh today. “King of the World” is an unfortunate exception to this rule. The electronic keyboards that feature so prominently here have “cheesy 1970s exploitation flick” stamped all over them. Which is too bad, because the post-apocalyptic storyline of the lyric is intriguing, and the rest of the band contributes some super-tight playing, drummer Jim Hodder in particular.

The Steely Dan 64 Project: Introduction and Songs 64-57

February 14, 2020

After months of listening, pondering, arranging and rearranging, my Steely Dan 64 Project is ready for prime time.

What is the Steely Dan 64 Project? So glad you asked. I will explain. Or at least, I will sum up.

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As many longtime readers know, the musical partnership Steely Dan — it’s not quite accurate to say “band,” at least not for most of the Dan’s history — holds a unique place in my consciousness. I’ve often remarked that Steely Dan got me through college, and that’s true. No other recording act spent as much time in my speakers during those critical years as did Donald Fagen, the late Walter Becker, and the ever-changing cast of superlative musicians they assembled to make a series of uniformly splendid albums.

There are many, many groups, bands, and solo artists whose work I adore. But the seven studio albums released by Steely Dan from 1972 through 1980 stand out for me in a special way. I wouldn’t claim that those seven records are the greatest ever. Music, like all art forms, is subjective — it’s a fool’s errand to make objective comparisons about anything so dependent on the individual tastes of the observer. And there are plenty of specific songs and performances that I treasure as much, if not in some cases more than, anything in the Dan’s catalog. Suffice it to say that these seven albums form a body of work that has resonated with me deeply for decades. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a fair amount of hours revisiting these records, and considering each component in a way that I never had in my 40-plus years of Dan fandom.

Which is where the Steely Dan 64 Project comes in.

The seven studio albums of Steely Dan’s prime period — beginning with 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and ending with 1980’s Gaucho — comprise a total of 62 songs. During this same timeframe, the Dan released two additional tracks: one, a film soundtrack theme; the other a bonus track on a “Greatest Hits” package. These two songs bring the total to 64.

It’s my contention that none of those 64 songs sucks.

That’s a statement that I don’t believe can be made about many other popular music acts with discographies of similar size.

The Beatles were arguably the most important band of the rock era — without question I consider them so, and in my mind, there isn’t a close second. But you and I both can name some undeniably terrible songs the Fab Four released for public consumption. (Including at least a third of the White Album.) When I think of all of the other bands I particularly enjoy, every single one of them put out at least one truly embarrassing clunker. In most cases, several such clunkers.

It’s a credit to the notoriously anal-retentive Becker and Fagen that they never let a single stinker clutter up their published repertoire during their prime years. This is not to say that they weren’t capable of making a stinker; the first single released under the Steely Dan name, “Dallas,” is unabashed dreck. (Its B-side, “Sail the Waterway,” is marginally better… but only marginally.) But Walter and Donald were savvy enough never to allow that horror to deface one of their albums. (“Dallas” does appear on an early Japanese compilation, the content of which I suspect the boys never personally authorized.)

However, the fact that I find all 64 songs in the core Steely Dan repertoire worthwhile doesn’t mean that I love all of them equally. The Steely Dan 64 Project is my attempt to rank these songs in order of my personal preference, and to talk a bit about the reasons why each song lands where it does on my list.

I want to emphasize that this ranking is purely a subjective, individualized analysis. Your mileage will, and should, vary. I also want to note that my ordering makes no real attempt to be qualitative; the fact that one track occupies a higher slot on my list than another does not mean that the musicianship, songwriting, arranging, or production on either track is better or worse. It just means that I like the higher-ranked song better. Or at least, I did at the exact moment when I pronounced this list closed. If I rewrote the list again, no doubt things would move up or down. That’s how music works. It’s about how it connects with you in the moment.

Note also that this ranking does not include any of the songs from the Dan’s two later albums, Two Against Nature (released in 2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). Both albums are worthy additions to the Dan discography (the former being somewhat more worthy than the latter, in my opinion). I don’t, however, have the same long-term relationship with that material that I have with the classic-period recordings, so it’s tough for me to judge it on the same level. Therefore I didn’t try. (You should absolutely check out these two albums, though.)

Enough introduction. Over the next several posts, I’ll present my ranking of the Steely Dan 64. Think about where each song would rank on your personal chart. Again, we’ll disagree on the numbers — that’s totally cool. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just me sharing what I think and feel about this music that has meant so much to me. What you think and feel is just as valid. Where I hope we agree is that it’s fun to revisit these legendary tracks, relive some memories, and reflect on the unparalled, uncompromising genius of Becker and Fagen.

So let’s begin with the bottom eight. (Since 64 is the square of eight, I’ve decided to break the ratings into eight-song groups. As we get closer to the top, the groups may get smaller.)

64. “Through With Buzz” (Pretzel Logic)
You know I’m cool, yes, I feel alright
‘Cept when I’m in my room and it’s late at night

Well, something had to be at the bottom of the list. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to be through with “Buzz” — at a hair over a minute and a half, it’s by far the shortest song in the Steely Dan catalog. It’s a bit of a throwaway; I wonder whether there was, at some point, more to the song than this, but maybe Becker and Fagen decided to strip it down to bare essentials. Still, it’s a great vocal by Fagen, and a rare use of strings on a Steely Dan record. (I think “FM” is the only other Dan track with violins.) One cultural note: Fagen’s tossed-off homophobic slur hasn’t aged well.

63. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” (Katy Lied)
Lucy still loves her Coke and rum
But she sits alone ’cause her daddy can’t come

The mystery of Daddy’s departure from the Big Apple remains unsolved. I suspect he’s doing hard time upstate.

62. “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
The whole of time we gain or lose
And power enough to choose

My antipathy for country music (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) is well documented, and the instrumentation on “Brooklyn” veers ever so slightly too far in a country direction for my taste. There’s something weirdly dissonant about this Nashville-lite arrangement butted against the smooth, soulful vocal trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King, and Sherlie Matthews. (That said, the pedal steel work by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is choice.) Like most Dan fans, I don’t really dig David Palmer on lead vocals, but I think he’s fine here. And no, I have no idea why Brooklyn owes anyone anything.

61. “Charlie Freak” (Pretzel Logic)
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise, I bought his prize
For chicken feed

A solid song, tightly written and performed. Donald Fagen’s pulsing piano riff alone makes it worth the price of admission. For me, “Charlie Freak” ranks this low mostly because it’s dark, angsty, and depressing — the sordid tale of a youthful drug addict, who’s dead by the final verse. Granted, the Dan did a lot of material that’s not exactly cheerful or uplifting, but most of their more morose numbers are redeemed by an arch joke or a witty turn of phrase here or there. “Charlie Freak” is just sad.

Also, the title reminds me of “Charlie X,” one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek — which is, coincidentally, also about a kid named Charlie who could be accurately described as a freak, and who also comes to a rather unfortunate (albeit not fatal) end. That mental connection probably doesn’t help me love this song any better. Sorry, Charlie.

60. “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
My poison’s named, you know my brand
So please make mine a double, Sam

Mentions my name and Jesus in the same phrase repeatedly, so it can’t be all bad.

59. “Rose Darling” (Katy Lied)
With only you and what I’ve found
We’ll wear the weary hours down

Steely Dan didn’t perform many unapologetic love songs. “Rose Darling” is about as close as they got. I hope Snake Mary enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

58. “With a Gun” (Pretzel Logic)
Did you pay the other man with the piece in your hand
And leave him lying in the rain?

High Noon, Becker/Fagen style. Side 2 of Pretzel Logic (for those of you who remember when albums had sides) includes several shorter selections that represent the Dan’s last genuine attempt at being an actual band that recorded radio-sized (that is, three minutes or less) pop-rock tunes. “With a Gun” is one such tune.

57. “Chain Lightning” (Katy Lied)
Don’t bother to understand
Don’t question the little man
Be part of the brotherhood
Yes, it’s chain lightning
It feels so good

The groove on this track is so laid-back that I’m surprised the record didn’t slide off the turntable. Rick Derringer contributes a tasty guitar solo.