Donald Fagen has just released his fourth solo album,
Sunken Condos. Along with Walter Becker, Fagen was one of
the masterminds of Steely Dan.
Named after a sex toy in a William Burroughs novel,
Steely Dan recorded seven albums of seminal Jazz-Pop from 1972
to 1980. The polar opposite of sloppy 70s Rock, the two members
of Steely Dan strove for studio perfection by using the best session
musicians in the business. ( In fact, respected side men like Larry Carlton
and David Sanborn became Smooth Jazz superstars after multiple
appearances on Steely Dan records).
While the arrangements and musicianship was labyrinthine and
intricate, their gritty songs were populated with dubious Doctor Feelgoods,
drug runners, Fez-wearers, Gauchos and paranoid lotharios. The lyrics
were often cryptic and the mood subterranean. The band captured the
prevailing feeling of ennui in 70s Los Angeles.
Two years after Steely Dan broke up, Fagen returned with
his solo debut, The Nightfly. The new sound was bright and poppy.
Fagen seemed to jettison the dour lethargy of the 70s to celebrate
the New Frontier optimism of the early 60s. The melodies and instrumentation
reflected the shiny synthesized sheen of the early 80s. Naturally, it
was a big hit.
Fagen spent the rest of the 80s battling writer’s block.
His sophomore effort, Kamakiriad was co-produced by Walter Becker
in 1993. The album coincided with Steely Dan’s reunion and their
first tour in almost 20 years. Their resurrection proved successful.
So they followed up with two albums. Two Against Nature in
2000 won them a Grammy for Best Album and Everything Must Go
received critical acclaim in 2003.
Between intermittent Dan commitments, Fagen released
Morph The Cat in 2006 and quickly (for him) returned with
Sunken Condos.
The album opens with “Slinky Thing.” The title is completely
apropos for a tune that’s sly, slick and nimble. Funky bass lines and
reptilian guitar riffs collide with a fluid vibes solo. The lyrics tread
the same territory as Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen.” Fagen ponders the
generational disconnect in a May-December romance. Sadly, there’s
no Cuervo Gold or fine Columbian to bridge the gap!
Both “I’m Not The Same Without You” and “New Breed”
deal with marital dischord. The former weds a bright, propulsive
rhythm to a muscular horn section. Expectations for a sad-sack
sob story detailing divorce and mid-life crises are dashed.
Fagen flips the script, portraying an invigorated, newly single
Don Juan, happy for a second chance: “Without you I now have eyes
to see some other destiny/ A futurescape of bright arcades in which
I bring off heroic escapades.” Best of all, salted in the mix is a
sparkling harmonica solo from William Galison that echoes the style
of Jazz harmonica giant Toots Thielmans.
Galison is also featured on the latter cut, his wistful
solo sails over a resigned tale of infidelity. Here Fagen is
cuckolded by a youthful tech-support guy. “I guess I’ll make
my exit now before you twist the knife/ It’s best if I just leave you
here to your new slash life.” This song gives new meaning
to the term “out-sourcing.”
The best song on Sunken Condos is “Miss Marlene.”
The track is a fluid homage to an old flame…who was some sort of
bowling savant! The instrumentation and arrangement here are
tight and in the pocket. Fagen leads on Fender-Rhodes, supplanted
by a punchy horn section and supple backing vocals.
Other highlights include “Memorabilia.” Doleful lyrics
about missed opportunities are couched in a jaunty melody, lush
harmonies and a fleet Flugelhorn solo from co-producer, Michael
On “Weather In My Head,” the metaphor couldn’t be
more explicit…”Here comes my own Katrina, the levee comes apart/
There’s an ocean of misery flooding my heart.” A strutting horn section
and a coruscated guitar solo from Larry Campbell distract somewhat
from the overly simple lyrics,
Finally, “Good Stuff” offers up a tense Prohibition era tale
complete with gangsters, molls and speakeasies.
Unfortunately, the one mis-step of the album is glaring,
a clunky cover of Isaac Hayes’ late 70s track, “Out Of The Ghetto.”
The melody and instrumentation are so much a product of their
time, a four-on-the-floor disco beat, bleating guitars and throbbing
bass. The lyrics portray a louche Pygmalion , condescending and
something of a misogynist…”I took you out of the ghetto, but I could
not get the ghetto out of you.” Yuck!
The album closes with “Planet D’Rhonda, a playful
portrait of a femme fatale. A chunky backbeat locks into a solid
groove. The tune takes flight when Jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel
steps in, executing a skittering solo.
Fagen has crafted a painstaking and precise record.
As Steely Dan documented the decadent decay of 70s Los Angeles,
Sunken Condos presents a clean and pristine slice of New York
sophistication, circa 2012.


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