Posts Tagged ‘Michael McDonald’

Albumism_SteelyDan_Aja_MainImage.jpg

Steely Dan’s records were pristine to the point where you could eat off their glistening surfaces. They were never as sharp or as focused as they are on ‘Aja,’ their 1977 hit that balances cool jazz with timeless pop appeal. Band leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been criticized for their coldness. But on ‘Aja,’ they reveal a warm, beating heart beneath that steely exterior.

One of the many signature qualities of this album is that it is impeccably produced, a fact that has garnered both praise and condemnation. Admittedly, I’ve always found it silly to criticize a band for being too proficient at their job. Becker, Fagen and crew ease you into Aja with “Black Cow,” a song about a man who grows fed up with his lover’s pill addiction and continuous infidelity. You have to appreciate that the beauty of Steely Dan’s music is found in  its sonic flawlessness enveloping sharp and intelligent lyrics.

Ian Dury once said of this album, “Well, Aja’s got a sound that lifts your heart up… and it’s the most consistent up-full, heart-warming…even though, it is a classic L.A. kinda sound. You wouldn’t think it was recorded anywhere else in the world.

The title track is the antithesis of what should be on a rock album. Then again, is this a rock album? The nearly eight-minute opus has been described by Donald Fagen as being about “tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.”

These people are too fancy, they’re too sophisticated,” William S. Burroughs said of Steely Dan in 1977. “They’re doing too many things at once in a song.” Burroughs, who had no personal connection to the band, had been asked to comment on Aja, Steely Dan’s new record, because co-founder Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had named themselves after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” the surreal dildo featured in Burroughs’ most notorious novel Naked Lunch. His comment embodied a common-man criticism made about Steely Dan by their detractors: The unit, who stated their claim in the pop sphere with clean, blues-steeped singles like 1972’s “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” had gradually but consistently ceased to resemble a meat-and-potatoes rock band, instead spiraling off into groovier, jazz-inspired pop experimentalism.

‘Aja’ (1977): “Aja”

The eight-minute title song to Steely Dan’s best-selling album brilliantly combines jazz and rock. But even the fiery interplay between drummer Steve Gadd and saxophonist Wayne Shorter was more the product of studio wizardry than in-studio camaraderie. Gadd recorded his titanic drum fills live — and, he’s said, in one surprising take no less — with the rest of the legendarily picky members of Steely Dan. Shorter was brought in later and taped his answering solo over their already completed parts. At this point, that had become the norm, rather than the exception. Aja ended up taking a year and half to record, with studio expenses piling up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “We overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over,” Becker joked with Cameron Crowe in 1977, and he wasn’t really kidding. Still, the extended sessions allowed Fagen and Becker to explore entirely new corners of the their self-taught musical minds. The result is a moment like “I run to you” on “Aja,” where the song seems to come totally unmoored.

The effect heightened as Fagen and Becker systematically fired all of their band’s other members, and replaced them with industry-standard jazz, soul, and blues musicians. They stopped touring; the songs’ narratives and jokes became more acidic and obscure. Rolling Stone’s review of 1976’s sprawling, sinister The Royal Scam summarized the feelings of the band’s skeptics and newfound admirers alike, that they would “eventually produce the Finnegan’s Wake of rock.” On the day Aja came out, Walter Becker told Cameron Crowe that he was empathetic toward the concerns, but also uninterested in compromise: “These days most pop critics, you know, are mainly interested in the amount of energy that is…obvious on the record. People who are mainly Rolling Stones fans and people who like punk rock, stuff like that… a lot of them aren’t interested at all in what we have to do.”

Instead of the Rolling Stones or punk rock, Aja was deliberately intellectualist pop music that appealed easily to music-school types and jazz fans–chops-y rock music that helped “legitimize” the genre. Becker and Fagen’s songs, charted out across six or seven sheets normally, prized and necessitated technical musicianship. They used horns as expressive, exalted instruments in rock songs, not just padding or blunt, skronking deus ex machinas. But the record’s appeal extended well beyond the ranks of any subgenre of snobs. Standard-issue rock listeners, after all, indulged in elaborate, preciously-conceived, and strange things in the 1970s, a decade which yielded four Top 10 albums for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Years later, Aja is still Steely Dan’s commercial triumph. It was their only record to sell over a million copies, spawned three Top 40 singles—”Peg” hit No. 11—and stayed on the charts for well over a year, peaking at No. 3. In 1977, the music industry was at the apex of LP sales and mammoth recording budgets. In the year-and-a-half Fagen and Becker spent making Aja, the Dan would push their studio expenses into the hundreds of thousands, all while not playing live. On its 20th anniversary, Becker would chalk Aja’s success over past Steely Dan ventures up to the right-place-right-time factor: “That was a particular time when people were just selling lots of records.” They assumed, he said, that “‘we’re gonna sell three times as many records as we would have two years before.’”

To just chalk it up to a general market uptick, though, would be to sell the unique, subversive appeal of the re-minted Dan of Aja way short. Today, Aja still stands as the crucial microcosm of Becker and Fagen’s artistry, and as one of the most inventive blockbuster rock albums of its decade.

‘Peg’

“Peg,” which is the most well-known track on the album, is in a class by itself. It’s also the song that took forever to complete. The band went through seven studio guitarists to find the right sound on the guitar solo before settling on Jay Graydon’s version. Detractors will point to this fact as not letting a moment happen organically, but I would argue that it made a good song great. Having Fagen’s lead vocal mix with Michael McDonald singing background made it even better. “Peg” is the middle point of Aja and ensures that the album has already exceeded expectations before you even listen to the latter half. The interesting thing about this song is that Becker did not play bass on it. Those duties were handed to veteran session player Chuck Rainey.

‘Home at Last’

From: ‘Aja’ (1977)Donald Fagen once called this Steely Dan drinking song a “blues for Odysseus.” As such, it’s only appropriate that the hero in ‘Home at Last’ would be served “smooth retsina,” a Greek resinated wine, during his stay in paradise. Contrary to the track’s title, he can’t stay – “it’s just the calm before the storm.” Maybe he can take a bottle to go.

‘Black Cow’

From: ‘Aja’ (1977)Could it be that there’s a drink referenced in a Steely Dan song that doesn’t contain alcohol? Nothing’s for certain, but ‘Black Cow’’s titular beverage could be a simple coke float or a more adult version of the beverage. I guess it depends on what one finds most comforting during a break-up: “It’s over now / drink your big black cow / and get out of here.”

‘Deacon Blues’

This ‘Aja’ classic romances the idea of being a jazz musician toiling in obscurity – something that might have seemed appealing as Becker and Fagen became more famous throughout the ’70s. ‘Deacon Blues’ concocts the appropriate cocktail for this: get a cool name, learn to play an instrument, refuse to compromise, “Drink Scotch whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” Wow. Sounds great, doesn’t it? (Kids, really, don’t try this at home.)“They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues.” There are song lyrics that make you scream, “Damn, I wish I wrote that.” A prime example are the lyrics to “Deacon Blues,” one of those songs that’s easily quotable and just stays with you forever. The name “Deacon” was influenced by Hall of Fame football player Deacon Jones. Fagen and Becker’s ode to underdogs clocks in at 7:36, but feels like a four-minute song that you wished lasted longer. Fagen’s inspiration came from his thought that “if a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the ‘Crimson Tide,’ the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.” It may the coolest nod to geeks that I know of.

During the making of Aja, the Dan were well-settled into retirement from live performance. Fans had gotten used to the band’s new, faceless new image. Over the months they spent fashioning the album, a suite of 7 songs about lust, wanderlust, delusions, and the destructive effects of American Dream, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker methodically reimagined the sound of their studio-assembled ensemble. It was not a dramatic repositioning. Steely Dan had been mostly made up of session musicians since 1974’s Katy Lied, and their songs had already featured plenty of weird chords and prodigious horn solos. But there was nothing like a big, rollicking rock’n’roll single on Ajano “Kid Charlemagne,” no “My Old School,” and certainly no fucking “Reelin’ in the Years.” Guitars provided auxiliary punctuation and effects-less solos rather than the brunt of the song; a stew of acoustic piano and electric keyboards, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, were at the warm center of the mix. Aja’s sound was a direct offshoot from jazz and fusion, steeped in its harmonic language, as well as that of turn-of-the-century modernist classical music (Debussy and Stravinsky, especially).

The particular musical syntax on Aja was in many ways uniquely Dan’s, however, the misbegotten result of Becker and Fagen’s own self-taught musical education. Their chordal sense was central to the issue: The complex changes left the average rock listeners’ ear out in the cold, pointing toward whole new keys for choruses and away from easy resolution. Moments like “I run to you” on Aja’s title track leave one totally adrift for clues as to where the song will move; elsewhere, there are deceptive instrumental flourishes, like the mystical Rhodes-and-guitar fanfare that introduces “Deacon Blues.” Fagen and Becker voiced chords so unusually that theory-heads refer to a specific “Steely Dan chord” (or “mu major chord”): a substitution for the typical primary (or tonic) chord featuring an added 9th rubbing up against the major 3rd. Harmonies like these pop up everywhere on Aja, imbuing its songs with sophisticated, decidedly un-rock’n’roll atmosphere.

Steely Dan’s <i>Aja</i>: Remembering the Band’s Trailblazing Moment 40 Years Later

But Becker and Fagen also borrowed plenty from contemporary pop music, despite their general dismissiveness of it. Plenty of why Aja was so successful–and spawned actual hit singles–came from its emulation of the backbone of American R&B and soul of the time. They hired players that had defined the sound of records by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Quincy Jones, as well as virtuoso jazz soloists (Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, saxophone luminary and Miles/Weather Report alum Wayne Shorter). The most time-consuming sessions would be devoted to the lock-groove-based tunes, the ones that wouldn’t be too out-of-place next to disco on a playlist: “Peg,” the warped blues of “Josie,” the lascivious “I Got the News.” Fagen and Becker’s obsession with precision backbeats would become a more empirically insane compulsion during the more troubled sessions for 1980’s Gaucho, with some interference from a custom-designed drum machine called “Wendel.”

Decades later, Becker admitted just how much of this had to do with disco. “They had all these records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn’t see why we couldn’t have that too, except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, you know?” he told GQ UK in 2014. “It seemed like a good idea.”

Much gets made of how obsessively Fagen and Becker would plot parts for musicians, but many of Aja’s best and most famous were defined by their players’ independent innovations. As bass player Chuck Rainey recalled in the Steely Dan biography Reelin’ in the Years, Fagen and Becker had specifically told him not to slap his bass during the sessions for “Peg.” Rainey responded by turning his back to the control room and slapping away. Fagen and Becker liked the sound, despite their prejudices, and Rainey went on to slap again on “Josie.”

Then there was Bernard Purdie, one of soul music’s most inimitable drum stylists, whotold the story of taking control of the direction of the recording of “Home at Last” himself in the Classic Albums episode on Aja. “They already told me that they didn’t want a shuffle. They didn’t want the Motown, they didn’t want the Chicago,” Purdie explained. “But they weren’t sure how and what they wanted, but they did want halftime. And I said ‘Fine, let me do the Purdie Shuffle.’” It was precisely what Fagen and Becker hadn’t asked for, until they heard it. Purdie would go on to use the same beat on one of the Dan’s greatest singles, Gaucho’s “Babylon Sisters.”

Meanwhile, drum prodigy Steve Gadd foiled the duo’s plans for the day by running down the intricate title track of Aja in just one take. For the most muso-focused listener, his epic, virtuosic solo in the instrumental middle of the song is the beating heart of the album, layered over with chunky horn charts from arranger Tom Scott and alien synthesizer atmosphere (an anomaly for a Becker/Fagen recording at the time.)

Like their hero Duke Ellington, Fagen and Becker needed the identity of individual soloists to create their finished canvas, but within quite specific and refined structural limits. The duo was not as good with people as Ellington, but they didn’t have to be. From the safety of the studio booth, they could just say “try it again” as much as they needed, and scrap the solos they didn’t like after the fact. According to Reelin’ in the Years, the band’s career-long producer Gary Katz would break the disappointment to the players by talking to them about baseball, before dropping the news that their solo—which the person had spent hours trying to hammer out—would not make the record. When it came to the prospect planning a live tour behind Aja, they got as far as rehearsals, but ultimately backed down.

“We had 4,000 dollars worth of musicians in the room, guys who wouldn’t go out on the road for Miles Davis, literally, and they were committed to doing this,” Fagen explained. “And we both left the room together and said, ‘What do you say, you wanna can it?’ And we both said ‘Yeah’ without thinking twice.”

Once you get to “Home at Last” and “Josie,” you realize that something truly special happened during the recording of Aja. A rock band named Steely Dan made a jazz album that masqueraded as a rock album, and the results are glorious. A smartly crafted, well-produced album does not equate to selling out or being soft. Their sound may not be for everybody, but it works for me.

Aja, despite its detractors, is one hell of an album that demands not just one play, but multiple spins. Aja makes you think. It compels you to listen again and again, as you continually uncover new elements and flourishes you hadn’t heard before. Great albums make you want to come back for more. And Aja is a great album.

Aja was one of the only records Becker and Fagen ever made that they would speak about with real pride. (Less than a year after Gaucho’s release, they would characterize it as a “sideways” move; Fagen admitted, “It’s possible that we took a few steps backward with this album.”) Today, Aja remains the extreme of their modernistic progress, a place they could not effectively move forward from or visit again, except when running down its songs on reunion tours two decades later.

Image may contain: 1 person

NPR continued their at-home version of their Tiny Desk Concerts series this week with a special performance by Michael McDonald.

After five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald finished “Matters Of The Heart,” the opening song in his Tiny Desk (home) concert, there was a brief pause. The bewilderment on his face was unmistakable. It’s a look I believe we all can relate to in this moment of uncertainty. He sat in his home studio, complete with an illustration of the Tiny Desk drawn by Mr. McDonald himself. That pause, usually reserved for the anticipated applause, was replaced by complete silence.

After offering his solo cut “Matters of the Heart,” McDonald dives into two Doobie Brothers classics, “Minute By Minute” and “What A Fool Believes.”

After 25 years, McDonald reunited with the Doobies in November 2019, announcing a full summer tour to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary.

It’s been almost 40 years since Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Steely Dan “the perfect musical antiheroes of the Seventies” in assessing the band’s sixth album Aja. But while the Walter Becker and Donald Fagen-led band named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch may seem more establishment than anti-establishment these days, it’s amazing how fresh the music remains, even after decades of repeated plays on classic-rock and adult-contemporary radio stations. Even now, their albums still have plenty of riches left to uncover in their inventive mix of jazz and rock, complex chord progressions, intricate arrangements, and endlessly enigmatic, bitingly cynical lyrics.

Steely Dan announced that the band will return to The Beacon Theatre, New York stage for a nine-night residency of themed performances starting October 17th, 2018. Included among the highlights of this year’s extraordinary concerts are: performances of Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977), Gaucho (1980), plus Donald Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly (1982), plus “By Popular Demand” and “Greatest Hits” nights. Each and every night, Steely Dan will also treat audiences with selections from The Dan’s extraordinary catalog, packed with infectious tunes, bodacious harmonies, irresistible grooves, blazing solo work, rich ensembles and sleek, subversive lyrics.

Becker died from complications of esophageal cancer on September 3rd, 2017. In a note released to the media, Fagen remembered his longtime friend and bandmate, and promised to “keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band

Fagen group is mostly a touring band these days, and their latest tour, which they dub “The Dan Who Knew Too Much” on their website, has now brought them to New York’s Beacon Theatre for a series of concerts, some of them devoted to live performances of particular albums. With this in mind, it’s as good a time as any to revisit and reassess their nine-album discography. Steely Dan has explored so many different musical styles and moods over the course of their more-than-four-decade-long. Whether you gravitate more toward Pretzel Logic or Aja or even Two Against Nature may all depend on how you’re feeling at a given moment.

Everything Must Go

This is Steely Dan’s last album to date, released in 2003. It feels like a final statement and a world-weary one at that. Its opening cut, “The Last Mall,” sets the tone: the music set in an ironically innocuous C major even as Fagen sings of an apocalyptic “cancellation sale” at seemingly the only mall left in the world. Much of the album progresses in a similar deceptively laid-back fashion until the concluding minute of the final title track ruefully fades out with what else? a wailing saxophone solo. In Everything Must Go, it’s as if Steely Dan, discovering they have nothing much left to say, decided to make that sense of resignation the subject of the album. The result lacks the lyrical and musical complexity of their best work, but there’s something strangely affecting about it nevertheless. Plus, it’s the only album that features Walter Becker singing lead (on “Slang of Ages”).

Gaucho

Speaking of world-weary, a similar air of ennui blows throughout this, their last album of Steely Dan’s ’70s heyday. “She thinks I’m crazy / but I’m just growing old,” Fagen sings in the album’s biggest hit, “Hey Nineteen.” That sense of being out of time extends to the record as a whole, with Fagen and Becker doubling down on the coolly relaxed vibe of their preceding Aja, while dispensing with anything resembling seductive emotional warmth. Instead, a kind of slick disillusionment peeks through Gaucho, most evident in the album’s longest track, “Glamour Profession,” which chronicles a day in the life of a drug dealer in Los Angeles with electronic keyboard lines that chill to the touch and brass lines that blare with ironic joie de vivre.

Naturally, the near-funereal “Third World Man” sees Steely Dan riding off to the distance in a fatigued daze. It may be a difficult album to warm to, but it’s nothing if not committed to its dispirited languor.

Two Against Nature

For millennials, this much-belated Becker/Fagen reunion album may well be known more as the album that beat out, among other nominees, Radiohead’s more progressive-sounding Kid A for the Album of the Year Grammy in 2000. As much of a confirmation as that may be as to the Recording Academy’s backward-leaning taste, that shouldn’t detract from the genuine pleasures of Two Against Nature, which allies the easy-listening jazz of Aja with some of the hard-rocking spirit of their earlier albums. Their dark-humored perversity remains intact here, too; among the album’s nine songs are various tales of, well, aging men basically trying to get some. But unlike in Gaucho’s “Hey Nineteen,” at least they approach this potentially unsavory subject matter with more youthful vitality this time.

Katy Lied

If 1974’s Pretzel Logic laid the groundwork for a jazzier sound than Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy did, its follow-up, Katy Lied, ran with it while still keeping to its predecessor’s concision. To some degree, that makes this very fine album feel a bit like more of the same after Pretzel Logic. That, however, is not to deny the gleaming brilliance of the many of the songs here, especially the mid-album one-two punch of the strangely dreamy “Doctor Wu” (which the 1980s punk band Minutemen covered in their masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime) and the calypso-infused “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (a song about a child molester, in case you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics). This is also the first album to feature Michael McDonald  who Steely Dan’s former co-lead guitarist Jeff Baxter would later tap to front the Doobie Brothers as a backing singer.

The Royal Scam

Whatever warmth there was in the jazz-rock fusion of Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied was basically obliterated by 1976’s The Royal Scam, in which bitterness and sarcasm run rampant through blasting horn lines and driving rhythms. From the struggles of a drug dealer in “Kid Charlemagne” to the sneaky plea for abstinence in “The Fez” to Dean Parks’ brutal voice-box-amplified guitar solo of “Haitian Divorce,”

it all culminates in the epic title track, with its repetitive, near-Sisyphean structure and cynical chronicle of folks “[wandering] in from the city of St. John” into a glittery wasteland. Perhaps, in hindsight, the sophistication of Aja and subsequent Steely Dan albums was simply natural after this atom bomb of cynicism, with Fagen’s snarl sounding more potent than ever.

Can’t Buy a Thrill

In some ways, Steely Dan’s debut LP is an anomaly in its discography, featuring an expanded line-up that included the more conventionally pretty-sounding David Palmer singing lead vocals on two of the songs (“Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”) and drummer Jim Hodder singing on another (“Midnite Cruiser”). But even if the more overtly soft-rock style of Can’t Buy a Thrill is different from what the band’s more concentrated line-up in subsequent albums would explore, it’s remarkable to hear how much of the band’s sound was already fully formed here.

Right off the bat, “Do It Again” features a Latin beat that marked as it strikingly different from just about anything else at the time, and assorted jazz flourishes pop up here and there in later cuts. Becker and Fagen would refine their style further in their subsequent albums, but Can’t Buy a Thrill is still a striking beginning for the band.

Aja

This, still the band’s most commercially successful record, represented Steely Dan’s first full-on venture into the kind of sophisticated jazz-rock that would characterize their music from then on. In many ways, it remains Steely Dan’s finest in that realm. Like its sophomore album, Countdown to Ecstasy,

Aja is rife with songs that have lengthy instrumental solos, akin to a jazz jam session. But while the Steely Dan of Countdown was mostly still rooted in a rock idiom, there’s no rock at all to be found in Aja, just some of the lushest textures and most relaxed music of their career. The album has some of the most openly empathetic lyrics, most notably in “Deacon Blues,” which is still one of the most touching songs about the yearning that arises out of a midlife crisis.

Pretzel Logic

After the extended jams of Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s follow-up, Pretzel Logic, saw the band reverting back to the mainstream concision of Can’t Buy a Thrill. The longest songs on this album (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and the title track) are roughly four-and-a-half minutes. But there’s nothing conventional at all about these tunes, which pushed the jazz flourishes in their first two albums further both musically and even lyrically. After all, how many rock albums would feature, of all things, a note-for-note cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo?” Or a joyous tune about basking in the music of “Mister Parker’s band,” with “Mister Parker” no doubt referring to the legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker? Ranging from bluesy vamps (the title track) to lyrical ballads (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”) to hard rockers (“Night by Night”), Pretzel Logic supersedes Steely Dan’s most commercial album with this fascinatingly unpredictable 33 minutes of music.

Countdown to Ecstasy

Countdown to Ecstasy is, in its deliberate sprawl, arguably the exhilarating Steely Dan experience. Becker and Fagen may have hemmed in their jazzy tendencies for the sake of wider accessibility in Can’t Buy a Thrill, but they let it all go for their sophomore effort. No major hits on the level of “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” emerged from Countdown to Ecstasy, but there’s a stylistic variety to this set of eight songs—from the “Rock Around the Clock”-like beat of the opening cut “Bodhisattva” and the ragtime of “The Boston Rag” to the balladry of “Pearl of the Quarter” and the apocalypse of “King of the World”—that remains unparalleled among the band’s studio albums. At the very least, this album has the ever-irresistible “My Old School,” in which its raucous horn arrangements and up-tempo beat mask a deep cynicism toward college life. In other words, it’s quintessential Steely Dan.

thanks to Paste Magazine for the words