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Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill CD (album) cover

CAN'T BUY A THRILL

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.53 | 190 ratings

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cfergmusic1
4 stars For my first reviews on ProgArchives, I thought I might do well to start off with my favorite band of all time, Steely Dan. People tend to think of them as a jazzy "cool pop" group (especially the later material), but to my ears, they had just as much prog credentials as anyone else back then, even if they weren't designated as such (although it took me a while to agree with that sentiment, and even Fagen and Becker would probably still cringe at the idea). Whatever the case, Steely Dan is a band that is very special to me, and as long as they're on the site, I may as well commit myself to saying a few words about them.

The first incarnation of the band (exhibited here) was, well, an actual band rather than the collection of studio musicians it would become (although there are hints of that even on this album). The group consisted of main songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker on keyboards/lead vocals and bass guitar, respectively; Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on guitars; Jim Hodder on drums and occasional lead vocals; and David Palmer on occasional lead and background vocals. The reason for the "occasional" lead singers is that Fagen was very apprehensive at first about being a front-man and singer, and only did so out of necessity later on (so he says). The album is also graced by the appearances of percussionist Victor Feldman (who played piano with jazz saxophonist "Cannonball" Adderley's group) and guitarist Elliot Randall, among others.

We start off with "Do It Again," the first (although not the only) big hit for the band. Lyrically, it's something of an Old West "murder, failed hanging, get cheated on by your lover and find another one who also screws you over, and go to Vegas to gamble what little you have left" kind of story. (Not your typical "single" material, but hey, things were different in 1972.) The track rides a groovy carpet of Latin percussion throughout, bolstered by solos from Dias on electric sitar (the one and only time he ever played the instrument) and Fagen on Yamaha electone organ. (The glisses on that solo come from a felt strip on the keyboard and not from a pitch-bend wheel.) One of the defining moments of the band for sure.

"Dirty Work" is more on the softer side of things, being somewhat reminiscent of Three Dog Night who were Steely Dan's stablemates on the ABC Dunhill label at the time. David Palmer makes one of two recorded appearances on the record and for the band in general (although he handled all the lead vocals in concert). A gentle tune with somewhat dark lyrics and cool extensions just before every chorus. The track is helped out by two LA studio horn players, Jerome Richardson on sax (who has the solo) and flugelhornist Snooky Young.

"Kings" is claimed to have "no political significance" by the composers, although it seems to be about medieval royalty (good kings "Richard" and "John"). If it is based on an actual historical event, I don't know which one. No matter, as the real highlight of the track is a scorching, overdubbed guitar solo from Elliot Randall, to my ears maybe his best with SD (which is saying something considering he also soloed on "Reelin' In the Years"). The bright production/mixing on this track seems to give it a sunnier vibe than the lyrics would suggest (which is the case with the album in general).

"Midnite Cruiser" features one of only two Jim Hodder lead vocals with the Dan (the other was on "Dallas," a country-flavored non-album single). Prior to joining this group, Hodder drummed and sang lead for a Boston-based prog band called Bead Game (which I hope to review sometime in the future). Interestingly, he sounds somewhat like a cross between Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel (both of Genesis at the time). Not one of SD's better-regarded tracks (although I love it dearly), but it is helped out by Baxter's rockin' guitar solo, as well as the vague reference to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk in the very first line ("Felonius, my old friend...").

"Only a Fool Would Say That" is another Latin jazz-flavored portrait to close out side one. One of the remarkable things about Steely Dan is how the dark, somewhat pessimistic lyrics contrast with the sunny-side-up nature of the music, exemplified brilliantly by this song ("a world where all is free... only a fool would say that"). Dias' guitar solo is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery here, and Baxter gets in some spoken-word Spanish at the tail end (which apparently came from a beer commercial the band was working on at the time).

"Reelin' in the Years" kicks off side two and is probably the most well-known of the earlier material (excepting maybe "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"). I'm not sure I agree with the "classic" status of the song, maybe due to overexposure, but it's still great fun to listen to and those vocal harmonies in the chorus are amazing. Randall gets off another solo here, this time spread out over pretty much the entire song (except for the verses). If you can track down the Quadraphonic mix of this album, you have the benefit of hearing more guitar fills behind the choruses if you're into that sort of thing.

"Fire in the Hole" is probably the strangest one yet, built on a slow, somewhat slick half-time groove with lumbering piano. (Not sure what the lyrics are supposed to refer to: Vietnam maybe?) Fagen has the only actual piano solo on the record, a gem of understated brilliance. Baxter rides a pedal-steel solo over the fade-out, not the last time we'd hear him on that particular axe. I was always more into the "deep cuts" from the band's early days, and if I had any inclination to make a "top 5 SD songs" list, this would have been on it for sure (of course the order would have changed from day to day).

"Brooklyn" is a holdout from the Becker and Fagen demo tapes, retooled significantly for this album (the demo is at a slower tempo and sounds a lot like a Bob Dylan track from that time). Palmer sings lead on this tale about a blue- collar worker and his wife who live out their existence in some hole-in-the-wall apartment in the titular borough of New York City and feel that they are entitled to a better way of living. Baxter is featured on steel guitar throughout, lending the track a country-rock flavor (although with just a bit more sophistication than the contemporaneous Eagles).

"Change of the Guard" shows how much Becker and Fagen wanted to find an audience for their material when they came to LA from New York (this was one of their first demos on the left coast). The lyrics are about as cheerful and optimistic as the band would ever get (right down to the "la-la-la"s in the chorus), and Baxter has another solo on the six-stringed axe, a flash that points to later solos like on "My Old School" (uncharacteristically for the band, the solo ends with a pick scrape on the lower strings that takes full advantage of the stereo mix).

"Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" is undoubtedly the album's most complex track (although not overly so) and probably the one I would point to when describing the band's "prog" status. The track is peppered with strong chord changes and transitions throughout, most notably in the verses and the instrumental section. The latter is possibly the highlight of the record, featuring a beautiful melody doubled by Baxter's guitar and Fagen's organ from "Do It Again" (identified as a "plastic organ" in the album credits). The song closes with a jolt of harmony vocals by Fagen, Becker and Palmer followed by wind chimes (?) over the last chord, and so ends "Can't Buy a Thrill".

I think this is a solid record and if it's not the best debut album ever, it comes very close. I still get a great deal of satisfaction and nostalgia when listening to any Steely Dan record, and even if "Do It Again" and "Reelin'" are a bit overplayed, they're still objectively great songs. The discerning listener will find much to enjoy in the other tracks as well, and if you're looking for jazz-infused rock with a sarcastic, biting lyrical bent (or if you're already into these guys and you just want more of the same), I recommend this album highly. 4 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 4/5 |

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