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Steely Dan - Countdown to Ecstasy CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.02 | 219 ratings

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4 stars Two things happened after Steely Dan released their previous album, "Can't Buy a Thrill" in 1972: First, upon completion of the record, Becker and Fagen discovered that, to their great displeasure, they actually had to go out on tour to support the record (shock! horror!), which they did, enduring all that went on during these tours with commendable patience (mostly). The second thing was that lead vocalist David Palmer was fired from the band in the midst of these road gigs, after doing certain things that did not exactly endear himself to the rest of the band (some of these actions would qualify as "too much information" and will not be repeated here). As a result, "Countdown to Ecstasy" would be the only Steely Dan album specifically written for a working band, mostly because sessions for the album had to be done in between gigs.

I should mention (in case you don't know) that chief songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen share a love of jazz music and have been incorporating their influences into their songs even from the beginning. The reason I didn't mention it in my review of "Can't Buy a Thrill" is because it really seems more appropriate when discussing this album, one of very few SD albums wherein they just "stretch out" and go on extended jams for most of the album's length. Perhaps because of all this, Donald Fagen himself claims this to be his favorite Steely Dan album ever. I'm not sure I agree with that entirely, but it does represent an artistic growth for the band after their solid, yet slightly inconsistent, debut.

"Bodhisattva" gets things started with a quasi-jump-swing drum beat by Jim Hodder, after which comes the extended multi-tracked guitar intro. Fagen (now the full-time lead singer) claims to want to be in touch with higher planes of religion, although given the tone of the song, one suspects his motives are just a tad misguided. Denny Dias has the first guitar solo, a burnin', jazzy romp through the altered blues changes. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter trades licks with Fagen's synth (an ARP Odyssey which he allegedly destroyed immediately after recording this track) and rides the outro vamp in another guitar solo that comes to a crashing end, proof that the song was built more for live performance than anything else. Because of the pseudo-jazz nature of the tune, it has been covered by Brian Setzer, Toto, and other less reputable individuals. (Also check out the drastic change in tempo at the start of Dias' solo--something that somehow managed to slip by the studio perfectionists Becker and Fagen.)

"Razor Boy" is a breezy, Latin tune that, apparently, was originally written as a reggae(?). This song is probably the most interesting in terms of rhythmic feel and instrumentation: there is Latin percussion and vibraphone, contrasting with countrified steel guitar from Baxter and string bass by jazz great Ray Brown. The lyrics, which seem to be about reflecting on one's last days, somehow don't get in the way of the good feel of the music. A real sleeper track.

"The Boston Rag" is a more direct, although slower, rock tune beginning with another proggy moment in the intro: Denny's guitar line is played in unison and harmonized with Fagen's piano. The real highlight of the track is Baxter's guitar solo played over a start-stop rhythm for the first 12 bars, then with the full band for the second half of the solo. I've always loved this one, even if the lyrics are a bit over my head (although part of it seems to be about one of Fagen's roommates at Bard College).

"Your Gold Teeth" is the longest tune on the record (seven minutes) and also the one that feels the most like a jam session. Between the two bridges, we are treated to a great Wurlitzer solo by Fagen (who needs studio cats when you can play that good?), and Denny Dias is featured on guitar at about twice his regular volume. It's basically only one chord for most of the tune, but Steely Dan makes the most out of that one chord. Check the outro groove, where Fagen has another go at the electric piano and even Hodder gets some good licks in.

Speaking of one chord, "Show Biz Kids" is literally one huge one-chord vamp, fashioned out of a four-bar tape loop, put together in the studio through the use of a special apparatus that extended the tape out of the studio and back in again. Honestly, it's a miracle that this track is able to keep me engaged throughout its length, considering it's just five minutes of the same thing. (Although the slide guitar solo by Rick Derringer probably helps out a lot.) Walter Becker plays a bit of harmonica over a rabble of spoken-word in the outro (which references the band's search for a lead singer, as Fagen was still uncomfortable with the idea). My favorite line and the one that almost got me in trouble when I first heard it at 8 years old: "Show business kids making movies of themselves/You know they don't give a f*** about anybody else."

"My Old School" was the big hit of the album (albeit after the fact). The lyrics, autobiographical or not, touch on the subject of leaving school and not considering going back (something I can relate to very well). Baxter gets off probably his Skunkiest solo ever on a guitar he had only finished making three hours before the session, backed by a sax quartet arranged by Jimmie Haskell. (The first time I heard it, I thought it was a brass section--a testament to how Haskell can make certain instruments sound like nothing else.) Although released as a single, it was ignored at the time but has become something of a fan favorite in the past 30 or so years (certainly one of mine).

"Pearl of the Quarter" shows us (not for the first or last time) that yes, Steely Dan could do full-on country when they wanted to. Remember, their first single (not released on an album) was basically a country tune--"Dallas"--and the steel guitar break here even references the break on that song! (Who says the Dan didn't have conceptual continuity?) Lyrically, the song is about a man who falls in love with a hooker in New Orleans, something that probably wouldn't fly in Nashville (when was the last time you heard a George Strait song about prostitution?). Hardcore prog fans may not like this song too much, but I love it because I grew up on country music (and still like some of it today).

"King of the World" is the finale of this album, and it is fitting that it is about a man who is the last person on Earth after a nuclear attack (Becker and Fagen apparently wrote this song after seeing a movie about that very subject). Baxter contributes a recurring guitar line fed through an Echoplex while Dias fills over those lines in the verses. Another "prog" moment for the Dan comes in the instrumental section with synth lead and more voices with echo (which apparently was just Becker screwing around in the echo chamber). This section repeats for the outro under one of Dias' best solos.

It is rather curious that in the adventurous 70s, this album didn't do that well in spite of positive critical opinion. The two singles ("Show Biz Kids" and "My Old School") didn't make much of a mark, mainly because radio stations didn't know quite what to make of them. Over time, however, the legacy of "Countdown" continues to grow because of the aforementioned covers of "Bodhisattva" and the increasing popularity of "My Old School." This was probably the most diverse album the band ever made; they certainly never did any country stuff after Baxter left (more on that in another review). The spirit of musical freedom permeates every minute of this record, and if that appeals to you as a listener, I definitely recommend this album. 4.5 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 4/5 |


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