The Steely Dan 64 Project, Songs 24-17

[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. Songs 40 through 33, HERE. And songs 32 through 25, HERE.]

SteelyDan_logo

We’ve reached the Top 24. Onward and upward, my Steely friends.

24. Time Out of Mind (Gaucho)
Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold

“Time Out of Mind” is perhaps as glorious a missed opportunity as exists in the Dan catalog. Becker and Fagen brought in Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, fresh off the radio-ubiquitous “Sultans of Swing,” to play lead guitar on this track. They recorded endless takes of Knopfler’s six-string stylings. And then, in the final release, they buried the lead so far down in the mix that you can barely hear him play. Seriously. There are only a handful of guitarists in the rock universe whose technique is as distinctive and immediately recognizable as Knopfler’s, and yet I’ll bet there are some of you who’ve heard this track dozens of times and didn’t realize he played on it.

That this tune remains a magnificent little slice of pop-jazz heaven despite the above is phenomenal. (For what it’s worth, Michael McDonald — who makes everything better — is criminally underused here, too.)

23. Midnite Cruiser (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Felonius, my old friend
Step on in and let me shake your hand
So glad that you’re here again

This one stands out in the canon in part due to the lead vocal by Jim Hodder, Steely Dan’s founding drummer. It’s not clear why Fagen handed the singing chores to Hodder rather than to David Palmer, who was ostensibly in the band at the time specifically as a vocalist. For that matter, it’s unclear why Fagen didn’t just sing the song himself, given that Hodder’s voice is not all that distinct from Fagen’s own. But Hodder’s bitter nasal delivery fills the bill, and the song itself percolates right along.

This was actually my favorite number on the entire debut album when I first bought it on vinyl way back when. Four-plus decades later, on any given day, it might flip-flop places with…

22. Do It Again (Can’t Buy a Thrill)
Your black cards can make you money
So you hide them when you’re able
In the land of milk and honey
You must put them on the table

The first Steely Dan tune most of the world heard, “Do It Again” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in 1972. Interestingly, it doesn’t sound all that much like anything else on a Steely Dan album, apart from Donald Fagen’s now-unmistakable vocals. There’s that weird sitar solo by Denny Dias, the even weirder organ solo by Fagen, the Latin-flavored percussion that’s atypical for the Dan’s style — it’s a strange brew that somehow comes together in delicious fashion.

On top of the music itself, we get a bizarre Western gunslinger-slash-gambler narrative that hints at the lyrical oddities to come throughout the succeeding years.

21. Home At Last (Aja)
Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast

Ah, the Purdie Shuffle. Legendary drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie gets to showcase his trademark licks on this bluesy track that’s as cool and smooth as a malted milkshake on a summer day. Although Larry Carlton’s stinging guitar winds its way all through the song, it’s Steely Dan co-mastermind Walter Becker who steps forward to take a rare solo. And yes, that’s the familiar tenor of Timothy B. Schmit harmonizing behind Fagen on the chorus. I guess Randy Meisner was sick that day. (Some of you will get that.)

The Pirate Queen and I saw a modern theatrical interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey a couple of summers ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This song buzzed in my skull the entire evening afterward.

20. Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)
She takes the taxi to the good hotel
Bon marché as far as she can tell
She drinks the zombie from the coco shell
She feels alright, she get it on tonight

I’ll confess: I’m a sucker for talk box guitar. (Thank you, Joe Walsh, for getting me hooked.) “Haitian Divorce” is built around what might be the most unusual talk box guitar riff ever recorded: according to the album credits, the actual lead guitar part was played conventionally by Dean Parks, then Walter Becker performed the electronic effect using Parks’s guitar track.

The Dan often gets dragged for obscure lyrical content, but the story line is crystal clear here: Babs, in splitsville mode with soon-to-be-ex Clean Willie, heads to Haiti for a quickie divorce, only to get pregnant during a drunken romp with a local dance machine named Charlie. Word to the wise, Babs: Put. The zombie. Down.

19. The Fez (The Royal Scam)
That’s what I am
Please understand
I wanna be your holy man

Sometimes the simple things in life are best. “The Fez” is as simple a song as one can find in the Dan canon, but man, it’s a wicked cool tune, isn’t it?

This irresistably funky ode to prophylactics (well, what did you think “No, I’m never gonna do it without the fez on” meant?) marks the sole occasion where Becker and Fagen shared composing credit without the impetus of a lawsuit (I’m looking at you, “Gaucho”); pianist extraordinaire Paul Griffin gets the complementary byline here.

True confession: To my admittedly inexpert ear, the intros to “The Fez” and “FM” sound remarkably similar. Despite the fact that I’ve listened to each song literally hundreds of times, I still mistake one for the other.

18. Bad Sneakers (Katy Lied)
Do you take me for a fool?
Do you think that I don’t see
That ditch out in the valley
That they’re digging just for me?

When I say — and you’ll notice that I say it quite a bit when discussing Steely Dan — “Michael McDonald makes everything better,” “Bad Sneakers” proves me correct. This is the song that unleashed the golden vocal tones of the Bearded One on an unsuspecting world, and popular music would never be the same again.

Try to think of another backup singer who can completely launch a song into the stratosphere just by slipping in a well-placed line or two. I’m not talking about a stunt guest appearance by a recognizable existing superstar — Sting’s “I want my MTV” on Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” say, or Michael Jackson’s sneaky chorus on Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” to cite a pair of famous examples. I mean background vocals by someone no one ever heard of before, but that made people’s ears prick up and say, “What the heck was THAT?” Then-unknown Michael McDonald did that on “Bad Sneakers.”

Oh, yeah… the rest of the song is cracking good, too.

17. Aja (Aja)
Chinese music always sets me free
Angular banjos
Sound good to me

Audiophiles have long known Steely Dan’s Aja as an ideal recording for testing — and showing off — the quality of one’s home sound system. The album’s title track is a prime reason why. Most Dan tracks grab your ear and pull you in to listen and try to comprehend what’s going on, musically and lyrically. With “Aja,” you can simply sit back and allow the magic spun by world-class players to wash over you for the next eight minutes.

“Beautiful” and “spectacular” might seem like odd words to attach to a Steely Dan track, but “Aja” certainly merits both. In many ways, it’s the apotheosis of the Dan’s music; the place where all of the elements come together in perfect harmony, from Denny Dias’s sublime guitar solo (the last appearance by an original Steely Dan member other than Becker or Fagen on a Dan album) to the brilliant saxophone-drum duel between Miles Davis veteran Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd (Gadd, making his first Steely Dan appearance here, contributes the first drum solo on any Dan recording) to the celestial vibraphone playing of Victor Feldman and sweet piano stylings of Michael Omartian (on the acoustic instrument) and Joe Sample of the Crusaders (on the electric).

So, now that I’ve lavished all of that praise, why doesn’t “Aja” rank higher? Well, first off, 17th is mighty doggoned high, when you consider everything that’s still to come. And second, as amazing as “Aja” is musically, it’s not quite that memorable a song (it’s actually a kind of patchwork of three brief song segments, interspersed with extended solos). When it comes to assessing the collective works of Becker and Fagen, lyrics and earworminess (it’s a word; look it up) matter a great deal to me.

Stellar stuff, all. But, oh my goodness, that Top Sixteen. More to come.

Explore posts in the same categories: Listology, Reminiscing, Soundtrack of My Life, Steely Dan 64 Project, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: