I’m pretty convinced Fagen has been digging out his old jazz records in preparation for this record, and in producer/multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart he has found someone to smoothly press these sounds and integrate them with his already-jazzed up music. Slinky Thing, with its shimmering vibraphone is oozing with style and finesse, while Memorabillia weaves some very Dixieland, improvisatory flugelhorn through the otherwise rigid (but sumptuous) horn arrangements. Meanwhile, echoes of the old Steely Dan appear on tracks like I’m Not The Same Without You (lyrically for sure: “Since you’ve been gone, an awesome change has come about/My life is different now/I’m not the same without you/I’m evolving at a really astounding rate of speed/ Into something way cooler than what I was before”) and especially, with its guitar-driven structure, Weather In My Head. In fact Weather In My Head would not sound out of place one bit on 1976’s The Royal Scam. Also, I’m Not The Same Without You could easily be mistaken for some of their old material if not for the addition of a very clean harmonica solo, a surprising and welcome addition.
|Donald Fagen: surprise and gratification.|
That’s actually a lot of what characterises this album: surprise and gratification. Fagen and messr. Becker were notorious perfectionists with Steely Dan and in their solo careers, and it’s true that Sunken Condos still shimmers with that precision and sheen that we’re so accustomed to. However, Fagen doesn’t so much slacken his tight control over the music on this album as get occasionally lost in the groove: it’s not loose per se, but it’s more relaxed, more laid back, musically. He’s content to let the beat ride for a few minutes on the end of Slinky Thing and Out Of The Ghetto (the sole cover: original by Isaac Hayes. He doesn’t quite get the voice right, but bless him for trying, and the music is so funky I can easily forgive him) and I think that his voice sounds a bit more at ease too: sure he’s older than in the Steely Dan heyday, and I guess his range is much more limited, but on Sunken Condos he sounds more relaxed, more conversational. Take for example the brilliant Miss Marlene, a tale of a supposedly true story of a 17 year old bowling whiz who died in an accident, but “we’re still bowling/every Saturday night.” A tragic tale, and Fagen isn’t demeaning her legacy by any means, but the song is delivered in a relatively uplifting manner, as if to implore us to preserve her memory through a celebration of her achievements and not through grief. Even this morose topic of conversation Fagen can turn into something positive, smooth and jazzy.
It’s nice to hear Fagen revisiting old sounds: I’ve never found another sound comparable to his, and in Steely Dan it’s safe to say they never made a bad album. The more I listen to Sunken Condos I’m more than entirely convinced that it makes yet another worthy addition to the Steely Dan/Donald Fagen catalogue. Sure, it’s not exactly anything different from what I’ve heard from him before, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? And why would I want to when the music is this good?
Words – Adam.