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Steely Dan - Pretzel Logic CD (album) cover

PRETZEL LOGIC

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.63 | 99 ratings

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rogerthat
4 stars The chorus of the title track of this album goes, "Those days are gone forever/Over a long time ago". These words could well be applied to this album as such. Steely Dan made a clean break with the concept of a 'real band'. Touring on the back of Countdown to Ecstasy ostensibly destroyed their enthusiasm for it and they placed their trust firmly in the hands of sessions musicians.

It is a decision that may have appeared bizarre at the time and perhaps bold circa 2013. In 1974, rock was very much about filling large arenas. The box office stars were bands that were renowned for their live act, like Led Zeppelin, The Who or Emerson Lake & Palmer. In such an environment, bucking the trend and sticking to 'boring' studio musicians would have been a strange choice to make. It was something R&B artists like Stevie Wonder did, not a RAWK band!

But time has made Donald Fagen and Walter Becker look very much the sly cats they have always been. Metal gradually unseated rock as the music of the arena in the 80s. With the gradual fading away or slowing down of the big metal bands like Iron Maiden or Metallica, the earlier fascination for the arena has probably ebbed, notwithstanding bands like Muse.

Thus, Steely Dan didn't do so badly for emulating the example of The Beatles and focusing their energy on utilising the magic of the studio. For that reason, Pretzel Logic is perhaps the most influential Steely Dan album. It was the model they would follow all the way to Gaucho, when they hung up their boots. The basic formula - heavily jazz leaning rock - was also laid down in Pretzel Logic. While I personally enjoyed the more hard rocking/'proggy' moments in Countdown to Ecstasy, the duo seemed to desire more focus to create a more cohesive musical experience.

Not surprisingly, many compositional trademarks of Steely Dan can also be traced back to Pretzel Logic. I do not have the wherewithal to pin it down in this review but my gut feeling tells me that three songs - Rikki Don't Lose That Number/Night By Night/Pretzel Logic - lay down the magic formula for much of Steely Dan's work. Compare Night by Night with Home At Last for instance or the chords of Rikki with the title track of Aja. Of course, Steely Dan were far too inventive to simply plagiarise themselves and recycle ideas from this album for subsequent ones. But the approach to constructing a good Steely Dan number was laid down at least as early as Pretzel Logic.

So why does Pretzel Logic still sound so different from Aja? The answer probably lies in their mastery of arrangements. To return to Night by Night, it is one hell of a rocking number with a bias towards rock and funk. Whereas Home At Last leans much more towards smooth jazz and is restrained and subtle in its treatment. Another difference is Donald Fagen's singing is also much more 'open' and full throatedt, again more like rock, on this album. The trademark wryness and irony that we identify with in Fagen's singing is very much intact, both on Pretzel Logic and Aja and also everything else in between.

With roughly the same basic approach, Steely Dan are able to cover a wide variety of moods and that, combined with their quirky chords, is what makes them a compelling experience for a jazz loving prog rocker. The band do require one to be a little tolerant of pop structure and in fact a good amount of pop flavour. They don't resemble pop outright but they do have a slightly commercial element somewhere that you may not enjoy if you are fussy about classic rock aesthetics and such.

Another point more specific to this album is some of the tracks are REALLY short. Just two and half a minutes or so. It may have made for brevity but it also stops the band from developing the tracks a little more which they could have and did on subsequent albums. That is perhaps the main distinction between Pretzel Logic and Aja. The songs on the latter are drawn out and better etched to fully realise their potential what with Fagen telling (ostensibly) the critics that they can sue him if he plays too long.

Pretzel Logic lives up a bit too much to Robert Fripp's vision of the band as small, smart, self sustaining, mobile unit. It could have done with a little more heart. Still, even the really short tracks are heaps of fun to listen to, so four stars for a solid album and a jazz rock classic.

rogerthat | 4/5 |

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