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Steely Dan - Pretzel Logic CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.73 | 180 ratings

From, the ultimate progressive rock music website

4 stars Well, after thoroughly immersing themselves in the Countdown to Ecstasy experience, which included recording and touring with the same band for about a year, Becker and Fagen were understandably sick and tired of the whole ordeal of playing on the road and began taking steps to rectify the situation. One thing they did was to record a new album comprised mostly of session musicians from New York and Los Angeles. This was, in fact, a lot closer to what they wanted to do originally, the rationale being that most other studio bands up to and during that time (including the Beatles, allegedly) used session musicians and met with much success in so doing.

That's the idea behind Pretzel Logic, whose personnel notes are listed in such a way that it's impossible to tell who is actually in the band (although Becker, Fagen, Dias, Baxter and Hodder are in the sleeve photo). It literally lists only the musicians' names and not their instruments, although the missing information will be easy to piece together for those who have studied the LA studio scene (like me). The album presents a slew of shorter, slightly poppier songs after the commercial failure of Countdown (only two songs are longer than four minutes). Much of the material was also held over from pre-Steely Dan demo tapes ("Parker's Band," "Barrytown"), which I suppose is one reason why I don't listen to it as much as other Steely Dan albums.

We start off with "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," the band's biggest hit up to that time. Opening with a flapamba (which is like a marimba) introduction by Victor Feldman, the groove is set by a backing rhythm which faintly resembles Horace Silver's "Song For My Father." The lyrics can be taken to be about a woman that the composers fancied who was leaving town, or (according to one interviewer) about a marijuana cigarette. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter turns in one of his best and most recognizable guitar solos, and even if he was on the way out after this album's release, you would never know it from his playing here (and he is all over this record, at least side one). A solid track, even if it does seem tailored for AM radio.

"Night by Night" is one that Becker and Fagen thought was the single (even though it wasn't). The late, great Jeff Porcaro makes his first appearance on drums for Steely Dan and gets funky with the phased clavinet and horn backing. Baxter turns up again on the instrumental verse and outro vamp. Another winner.

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You" goes back to the more optimistic songs that Becker and Fagen wrote in the early days even before forming Steely Dan ("when the demon is at your door/in the morning he won't be there no more"). Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter trade off the guitar line at the end of each verse, and Baxter has another solo (less in-your-face than the previous songs due to the delicate nature of the track). Of interest for prog fans: the reference to "have you ever seen a squonk's tears" would be expounded upon at length by Mike Rutherford on the Genesis song, "Squonk," only two years later. Maybe Rutherford was listening to this track for lyrical inspiration?

"Barrytown" is a straight-ahead yet snarky pop-rocker that feels like it belongs on the next album, Katy Lied. The pedal steel guitar on the first two albums makes another appearance here, although a later country-ish track ("With a Gun") has no steel on it whatsoever. The lyrics point to prejudice against outsiders due to a different way of life ("look at what you wear/and the way you cut your hair"). Dig the harmony vocals on the bridge!

"East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" is the one and only official cover on a Steely Dan record, originally written by Duke Ellington in the mid-1920s. (I usually take exception to bands that play primarily original music doing covers, but I've always had a soft spot for this track.) This version apparently combines three different Duke recordings into one, and significantly, Walter Becker plays guitar for the first time with the band (as he would come to do more of later on). Donald Fagen plays the piano solo as well as alto saxophone (his childhood instrument). The rest of the personnel has been documented and is included here: Jeff Baxter on pedal steel (transcribing what was originally a trombone solo), session guitarist Dean Parks on banjo, Jim Gordon on drums, and engineer Roger Nichols on gong at the very end. Great track.

"Parker's Band" continues Becker and Fagen's jazz tributes, this time about legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. The lyrics are basically about a jam session, referencing Dizzy Gillespie, 52nd Street in NYC, the Parker tune "Relaxin' at Camarillo" and even Horace Silver's "The Preacher," all in Becker and Fagen's own oblique way. The outro features a dazzling dual-sax solo from, I believe, Plas Johnson.

"Through with Buzz" is the band's shortest track (at around 90 seconds) and has never really been one of my favorites. The verses are very short (only one line) and the chorus is little more than "all right, oh yeah," etc. The saving grace in my opinion is the string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell (who I consider to be a writing/arranging genius).

The title track (the first in Steely Dan history) is a bluesy, R&B-flavored number that has since become a concert staple. Becker plays the guitar solo here, which apparently took a while to edit together from different takes (although it flows about as well as any other solo). Gordon rides a slow shuffle groove on drums which would be appropriated (at least stylistically) for "Chain Lightning" on the next album.

"With a Gun" is another short song (about two minutes) and has more of a country feel. Baxter turns up with twangy fills behind the vocals throughout. The lyrics are essentially about an outlaw in the American Old West. Not much to say about this one.

"Charlie Freak" is moodier, built around a loping piano line that repeats throughout the track. The verses are unusually plentiful for a Steely Dan song but don't quite have the panache of Bob Dylan (a hero to Becker and Fagen). The addition of sleigh bells towards the end give the track a chilly, winter-y vibe, but it works.

"Monkey in Your Soul" is the closer here, and unusually features fuzz bass (which I believe is by Becker, who probably also plays the guitar solo). The lyrics could be about a failing relationship or a greedy record executive (one thing I love about Dan lyrics is their ambiguity, which can inspire different interpretations). The song (and the album) ends on a dominant seventh chord, which is unusual.

If it seems like I'm skimming over certain tracks here, it's only because they seem relatively unremarkable to me, even after knowing the music for much of my life. The best stuff here is among the best Dan ever recorded, but the second side is really uneven thanks to "Buzz" and "Gun". Although I like the album, part of my frustration is down to the fact that there really wasn't that much new material written specifically for the album. I'm sure Becker and Fagen could have written 11 new songs in between touring and recording Countdown, but they just re-worked older material possibly due to time constraints. Anyway, if all that doesn't bother you and you just want to hear the progression of the band into a studio unit, this should still be considered an essential part of the journey (this record definitely has more ardent fans than myself). 4 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 4/5 |


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