Steely Dan is the most improbable hit-singles band to emerge in ages. On its three albums, the group has developed an impressionistic approach to rock & roll that all but abandons many musical conventions and literal lyrics for an unpredictable, free-roving style. While the group considered the first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, a compromise for the sake of accessibility, and the second, Countdown To Ecstasy, to emphasize extended instrumental work, the new Pretzel Logic is an attempt to make complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format.
Like the earlier LPs, Pretzel Logic makes its own kind of sense: On a typical track, rhythmic patterns that might have worked for Astrud Gilberto, elegant pop piano, double lead guitars, and nasal harmony voices singing obscure phrases converge into a coherent expression. When the band doesn’t undulate to samba rhythms (as it did on “Do It Again,” its first Top Ten single), it pushes itself to a full gallop (as it did on “Reelin’ in the Years,” its second). These two rhythmic preferences persist and sometimes intermingle, as on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which jumps in mid-chorus from “Hernando’s Hideaway” into “Honky Tonk Women.” Great transition.
Steely Dan’s five musicians seem to play single-mindedly, like freelancers, but each is actually contributing to a wonderfully fluid ensemble sound that has no obvious antecedent in pop. These five are so imaginative that their mistakes generally result from too much clever detail. This band is never conventional, never bland.
And neither is its material. Despite the almost arrogant impenetrability of the lyrics (co-written by the group’s songwriting team, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker), the words create an emotionally charged atmosphere, and the best are quite affecting. While it’s disconcerting to be stirred by language that resists comprehension, it’s still difficult not to admire the open-ended ambiguity of the lyrics.
But along with Pretzel Logic‘s private-joke obscurities (like the made-up jargon on “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Through With Buzz”), there are concessions to the literal: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” makes sense as a conventional lover’s plea, while “Barrytown” takes a satirical look at class prejudice. But each has an emotional cutting edge that can’t be attributed directly to its viewpoint or story. As writers, Fagen and Becker may be calculating, but they aren’t cold.
As the group’s two foremost members, Fagen sings, plays keyboards and leads the band; Jeff Baxter, a brilliant musician on guitar, pedal steel and hand drums, powers it.
As a vocalist, Fagen (who looks like a rock & roll version of Montgomery Clift) is as effective as he is unusual. With a peculiar nasal voice that seems richer at the top of its range than in the middle, Fagen stresses meter as well as sense, so much so that his singing becomes another of the group’s interlocked rhythmic elements. At the same time, there’s a plaintive aspect to his singing that expands the impact of even his most opaque lines.
Baxter, an expert electric guitarist with a broad background in rock & roll and jazz, draws on these influences with pragmatic shrewdness. Even on these short tracks he’s impressive. On one of the band’s more conventional songs, “Pretzel Logic” (a modified blues), he improvises on the standard patterns without referring to a single ready-made blues. And he does things with pedal steel that have nothing to do with country music. At one point — in the vintage “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” — he duplicates note-for-note a ragtime mute-trombone solo. His command of technique is impressive, but it’s his use of technique to heighten the dynamic and emotional range of the group’s songs that makes him Steely Dan’s central instrumental force.
When Fagen, Baxter and the rest can’t give a track the right touch, they send out for it. The exotic percussion, violin sections, bells and horns that augment certain cuts are woven tightly into the arrangements, each with a clear function. Producer Gary Katz provides a sound that’s vibrant without seeming artificial. The band uses additional instrumentation in its live sets as well as on record, traveling with a different array each time they tour. For the current one, they’ve added a second drummer, a second pianist (who also sings) and a vocalist, so that now there are four singers and every instrument but bass is doubled. I don’t think any of their records can equal this band on a good night.
While Steely Dan for the most part succeeds in its efforts to force its character into the strict limitations of the short pop song, the music would benefit from more elaboration. Here they can only begin to convey the moods and textures that made Countdown To Ecstasy their most impressive album. But at the very least, “Rikki …,” “Any Major Dude …,” “Barrytown” and “Through With Buzz” are fine oddball pop songs, any of which would make a terrific single.
In a short time, Steely Dan has turned into one of the best American bands, and surely one of the most original. Their only problem is the lack of a visual identity to go with their musical one — as pop personalities, they’re practically anonymous. But with music as accessible and sophisticated as Steely Dan’s, no one should care.