Sunday, 4 November 2012

Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos reviewed

Blue Notes: Sunken Condos by Donald Fagen

Robert Lynam
Sunday 28 October 2012

Judged by Donald Fagen's post-Steely Dan standards to date, six years between albums is a positively prolific rate of output.

His last solo album was 2006's Morph the Cat, which came out 13 years after 1993's Kamakiriad, which in turn was a long-awaited follow-up 11 years on from 1982's The Nightfly.

True, there have been a couple of 21st-century Steely Dan productions. In 2000, Fagen and long-time musical partner Walter Becker finally followed 1980's Gaucho with a new studio album, Two Against Nature, and then in 2003, another, Everything Must Go.

Since then, however, although Steely Dan have toured regularly, no new album under the band moniker has been forthcoming. So it might be a relief to their fans that although Becker's fingerprints are nowhere on Sunken Condos, just released by Reprise, it still sounds very much like a Steely Dan album.

Standing in for Becker is multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart, who plays assorted keyboards, vibraphone and brass parts on the tracks, as well as co-producing, and co-arranging horns and vocals.

Leonhart has been working with Becker and Fagen since the mid-1990s, and appears on the previous two Steely Dan albums, as does the other instrumentalist featured most prominently here, guitarist Jon Herrington.

Herrington has provided a deeper contribution to Becker and Fagen's music than any other guitarist since Larry Carlton and curiously enough was brought into the fold in exactly the same way.

Carlton and Herrington were both invited to provide rhythm guitar parts in the latter stages of recording projects and accorded far more prominent roles on the next one - in Carlton's case, the memorable leads on The Royal Scam in 1976, including the spectacular solo on Kid Charlemagne, often cited as the best of his wide-ranging career.

Herrington's contributions to the Steely Dan albums, and to Morph the Cat and Becker's 2008 Circus Money, don't jump out of the speakers in quite the same way, but he has really hit his stride here, particularly on Weather in My Head.

With the Aja and Gaucho albums, Becker and Fagen moved away from the rockier approach of their early records, and further into the jazz chords, structures and solos that were already present in their music.

This time Fagen has let himself go a bit with the horns. Nobody gets jaded melancholia across with a horn chart better than Fagen, and the arrangements - which feature saxophones, trombone, clarinet, bass flute and Leonhart's trumpet, flugelhorn, mellophonium and trombonium - establish the mood of the album.

Lyrically this time there seems to be no overarching theme, but we are in familiar territory. The opener, Slinky Thing, is a close relation to Hey Nineteen on Gaucho, and finds Fagen once again singing about the sense of discomfort felt by an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman. When he sang Hey Nineteen, Fagen was only about 30. Now he's 64.

I'm Not the Same Without You turns a love song cliché on its head by having the singer list the ways in which his life has improved since his lover left him.

On Weather in My Head, the protagonist weighs up the chances of sorting out global warming against those of fixing his own inner turmoil, and Herrington provides a spiky Albert King-derived guitar obligato and solo, offsetting perhaps Fagen's best lyric of the album.

That is the single strongest track, but all of the eight new original tunes here, plus what Fagen calls an "Ashkenazi" interpretation of Isaac Hayes' Out of the Ghetto which mixes Klezmer with funk, are worth hearing. As on the best Steely Dan records, there's smoothly executed jazz-soul with strong pop hooks, and a subversive sting in the tail.

Take Three
Donald Fagen's three previous solo albums.
The Nightfly
(Warner Bros, 1982): the first album in what Fagen now describes as a trilogy, although the differences between the three albums are much more striking than the similarities, and there is no clear thematic continuity. An all-star cast of mostly jazz musicians includes Carlton, the Brecker Brothers, Ronnie Cuber, Marcus Miller and Chuck Rainey.

(Reprise, 1993): moving from beatnik nostalgia to science fiction fantasy, Kamakiriad reunited Fagen with Becker, who produced the album and covered both bass and lead guitar. It prompted the first Steely Dan reunion tour, on which tracks from the album were performed.

Morph the Cat 
(Reprise, 2006): having made it to his late 50s, Fagen's lyrics begin to explore a growing preoccupation with age and mortality. The musicians are a mixture of long-established session pros including long-time associate guitarist Hugh McCracken and members of the recent Steely Dan touring bands.

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