A new Steely Dan album? Here’s one that would be dandy...
12 October 2014
It’s now been twelve years since Steely Dan released their last album, with isn’t quite as long as the nearly twenty-year layover between Gaucho and Two Against Nature but — to quote a song from that most recent record — it’s getting pretty damned close. We know that they’ve hardly let any rust settle since making Everything Must go; since then, we’ve seen Walter Becker make a nice album (Circus Money), Donald Fagen make two (Morph The Cat, Sunken Condos), and both have kept Steely Dan a going concern as a live act, conducting eight tours from 2003 to the present.
Last year during the run-up to their Mood Swings tour, Becker and Fagen seemed to crack open the door for making a new Steely Dan album, however. During an interview with Billboard, Fagen allowed that it could happen, noting that they have “some songs, these really good ones that we only half-finished back in, like, 1984 that we keep threatening to work on,” while his songwriting partner clarified that “actually we did finish a couple of those. We have a bunch of things.” He explained why these songs hadn’t been completed and released up to now, saying, “Put it this way; any other band in the world would have finished or mixed these old things that were lying around and issued them with a great ta-da fanfare. But we just don’t. We don’t play it like that, necessarily. It’s not the way we roll.”
Nevertheless, Becker struck a positive tone overall: “It’s in the air, it really is. It’s just a smell now. The next thing is then you taste it, then you start to feel it. You know how this goes.”
Since then, the duo went on tour, rested, and went on tour again. Oh and Fagen published a book, too. Were they just teasing us?
Making a new Steely Dan album wouldn’t be that hard for them to do. Yeah, yeah, they do fuss over the recording process a lot in the studio, but we get the notion that they love to do that, anyway. And it’s not as if they even need to finish up those old songs from the mid-eighties, there are enough completed or near-completed tunes that are up to par to make up a complete album. Steely Dan devotees S. Victor Aaron, Preston Frazier and John Lawler humbly offer up a suggested song line-up that they could bring into the studio for a new Steely Dan album, culled from outtakes, live-only songs and one famous erasure.
A shoo-in for making the cut on the hard-to-crack Gaucho and even a probable single from that top ten, platinum-selling album. And then disaster struck when a junior engineer accidently wiped out the finished track. The band tried to recreate the magical take but just couldn’t make lightning strike twice. “Third World Man” to the rescue, but we’d still like to see them give “Arrangement” a second shot.
S. VICTOR AARON: A polished, groove-oriented dancefloor number that would have fit in perfectly with Gaucho‘s vibe. It comes off as an improved “The Glamour Profession.”
JOHN LAWLER: The full demo version that survived used WENDEL and Steve Gadd for the drum samples. The original sounds like Jeff Porcaro on the kit. There’s literally 14 seconds that survived, and it had a lot more organic potential. An erased magnum opus.
2. The Bear
S. VICTOR AARON: Even in rough form, it’s a damned fine song. It’s a soulful blues-based mid-tempo shuffle complemented by a funky combination of rhythm guitar, Rhodes and clavinet. The intro figure recycled for the piano instrumental break is a descending minor chord progression straight out of the Billy Strayhorn playbook, as elegant as anything Steely Dan has done.
3. Kulee Baba
JOHN LAWLER: “Kulee Baba” captures an awakening of live reality TV and news reporting, prescient of decades of voyeurism of the great big world out there. The chord progressions immediately stand out. From Katy Lied through The Nightfly, the chords underneath the melody and harmony were consistently sublime, but Fagen really seems to be peaking here.
4. Gullywater/Funky Driver
JOHN LAWLER: “Gullywater” could have easily have been a catchy theme song to one of those TV buddy programs of the era (1975); a tune simply begging for visuals. Very snappy and upbeat, while featuring chord progressions in the segue between verses and during the “chorus” that have the elegance and sophistication of “Dr. Wu.”
5. The Steely Dan Show
PRESTON FRAZIER: “The Steely Dan Show” is a tongue-in-cheek look at the Steely Dan concert experience. Adding to the humor was the fact that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen didn’t sing or play the tune, leaving the lead vocals to the horn section and the backup vocalists. It has a tight R&B rhythm similar to some of the tracks on Everything Must Go and included tasty tenor sax and guitar solos. With lyrics like “…well don’t you fret/It’s not your fault/Just lay it all on Don and Walt. Just trip out on these hits/the groove that never quits/at The Steely Dan Show…”, you’re put in the mood to groove again.
6. Mr. Sam
JOHN LAWLER: “Mr. Sam” embodies everything one would expect from a song of the mid-Jurassic period of Steely Dan. A very peppy sounding number: upbeat ear candy covering up another story of something gone very, very wrong. It sounds classic, and just may be. After Katy Lied was resuscitated following the DBX disaster, the choice of an initial single may have suffered as well.
7. Talkin’ ‘Bout My Home
JOHN LAWLER: We find an ebullient Donald Fagen on up front vocals in this demo, accompanied by bass (Walter Becker) and piano (Fagen) with a Wurlitzer or synthesizer infused for accents. Though a Gaucho-era outtake, the lyrics and snappy chords underneath the verses could go back to the early 70s, and have a feel like “Mr. Sam.”
8. I Can’t Write Home About You
JOHN LAWLER: While we will probably never hear the full monty, the song melds together some of the best sides of both Donald and Walter, and their dichotomy. Jazz and blues. Acerbic and winsome. Sweet and sour. Yet, part of an emerging vector in adult jazz pop sound that’s classic yet post-modern.
9. Kind Spirit
JOHN LAWLER: It’s an earthy and meaty tune whose corpus suggests that “Kind Spirit,” in some form, might have made for a very lively and full recording. Quite upbeat, even with the minor key inflections. No apparition…”Kind Spirit” had the bones to become the real thing.
10. Stand By The Seawall
JOHN LAWLER: There’s so much here and so much space, “Seawall” is a crystalline peak behind the scenes of SD studio gigs, merging the best of the Katy Lied and Aja sessions. A real treat, but at the same time it’s a bit sad that such a full jam session or something like it never made the final grade.