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Steely Dan - Gaucho CD (album) cover

GAUCHO

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.68 | 162 ratings

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cfergmusic1
4 stars After the release of Aja in 1977, Becker and Fagen took their first real break from recording albums and occupied their time with other projects. In 1978 alone, they wrote and recorded the theme song for the DJ movie "FM" (which starred Michael Brandon and Eileen Brennan and came and went in the theaters), produced a jazz album with hot tenors Pete Christlieb and Warne Marsh called Apogee, and had the honor of having six of their songs covered by Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, one of the last surviving groups from the "big band" era of the 30s-40s. (Five of those arrangements were released on the album Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow in '78; the last was released as a bonus track on CD some years later.) And, oh yes, they packed up and moved back home to New York from Los Angeles to begin work on Gaucho, which would prove to be a major challenge for them, and as such, the last album of new material they would release for quite some time.

Any major Dan fan will tell you that Becker/Fagen always wrote about New York when they were in California, and ironically, started writing about LA on this album (i.e., "Drive west on Sunset to the sea" from "Babylon Sisters"). I suppose I have a different perspective on this; having lived my entire life in Los Angeles and being intimately familiar with the Steely catalog from a young age, every album has an LA feel to me, and especially this one?but this is more of a "relaxing at home at night" kind of feel, rather than the "tooling around Laurel Canyon in the afternoon" vibe of the early material. Given that I always listened to this album at night, it was an easy conclusion to come to, but it also feels like the twilight of Steely Dan's career, since Becker/Fagen broke up after this album and everyone thought the band was done forever (and in a way, they were right).

The leadoff track, "Babylon Sisters," captures this feeling about as well as any other. Opening with a dark, silky groove from Bernard Purdie and sleazy, phased-out Rhodes from the late Don Grolnick, this track contains more overt references to LA than previously heard in the Dan catalog (incidentally, I actually have driven west on Sunset to the sea listening to this track). Fagen collaborated with Rob Mousey on most of the arrangements for this album, and this track introduces some new colors into the ensemble?namely, bass clarinets by George Marge and Wally Kane, and light percussion by Crusher Bennett (for some reason I find it hilarious to think of a delicate instrument like bar chimes being played by someone named "Crusher"). In fact this album, having been recorded mostly in NY, features a lot of new faces to the ever-growing list of Dan session musicians?Purdie and Chuck Rainey (this track's bassist) are among the few returning players. The song itself builds on the slick feeling of Aja, but with a suitably darker tone which applies to the album in general. The muted trumpet solo by Randy Brecker has been a favorite for most of my life.

"Hey Nineteen" introduces another new element, typical of the burgeoning 80s?a drum machine (Wendel, engineer Roger Nichols' invention) based on samples played by Rick Marotta. (This is probably why most people don't like this album, arguing that the Dan's quest for studio perfection reached their limits with this track in particular.) This is essentially a "generation gap" song; a man getting on in years finds himself attracted to a young co-ed but quickly finds that they have nothing in common, not that that matters. This one is more upbeat than "Babylon Sisters" but uses a lot more space to great effect.

"Glamour Profession" is the longest track on the album at 7 1/2 minutes; it also closes out Side One, thereby following the same exact format as Aja?which is appropriate since this is basically "Deacon Blues" part two. The subject this time is high society people?basketball players, business executives?caught up in the drug-fueled lifestyle of the late 70s-early 80s (see also Zappa's "Cocaine Decisions"). The bridge, ostensibly based on Kurt Weill's "Speak Low," is yet another great sequence from the minds of Becker and Fagen, but the ending vamp has always struck me as a bit sleepy (or maybe that's just Steve Khan's guitar solo). Great track nonetheless. By the way, Steve Gadd's drum track is not filtered through a drum machine, although it may sound like it at times. Fun Fact: The name "Hoops McCann" was taken from this song for the name of John Cusack's character in the 1986 movie One Crazy Summer?which shows that there was at least one Dan fan in the writing room.

The title track opens up Side Two and borrows elements from a Keith Jarrett tune called "Long as You Know You're Living Yours" (as admitted by Becker/Fagen themselves; Jarrett sued and got a co-writing credit after the fact). This track arguably has more musical interest than that earlier creation, though; the verses go through a lot of different phases but somehow don't feel as contrived as you might expect. Jeff Porcaro makes a return appearance in the drum chair, and Walter Becker has his only guitar solo on the record here. (I haven't mentioned Becker that much in this review because he was not involved in most of the album's sessions due to being involved in a car accident, as well as other issues.) I'm not sure if this song is really about a homosexual menage trois, but the reference to "bodacious cowboys" cracks me up every time.

"Time Out of Mind" seems to be cut from the same mold as "Hey Nineteen"; sparse rhythmic support anchored by Rick Marotta/Wendel's drum machine backbeats (I'm not actually sure if Wendel was used on this track or not). More oblique references to drugs ("rolling in the snow," "chasing the dragon") that can only be discerned by reading between the lines, as is the usual custom with these guys. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame turns in a guest appearance on guitar, contributing mostly fills between vocal lines but with a nice solo on the end vamp. Another great instrumental bridge can be found here as well, bolstered by a horn arrangement with a full, five-man sax section usually found in big bands.

"My Rival" sounds at first like a futuristic video game (at least the organ does) before reverting to a slow, funky groove with Latin undertones from Nicholas Marrero's timbales. Rick Derringer contributes guitar fills before the verse and was originally in line to play the solo before that honor went to Steve Khan, in one of his best outings with the Dan. Becker/Fagen seemed to like writing instrumental bridges for this album, since this one has nice, crunchy chords under a square-wave synth lead.

"Third World Man" is the closer, one of the moodiest the band ever put together. One interesting fact is that this rhythm track originally came from the Aja sessions (which explains the appearances of Joe Sample and Larry Carlton) for an unreleased song called "Were You Blind That Day?" Having recently heard that song (in two different versions), I can say that that song, not one of their best to begin with, ended up much better in this form, but either way, it could only have worked on this album and not Aja. The song itself is most likely about a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who engages in questionable activity due to his disorder. Carlton has probably the best guitar solo of the album because, well, he's Larry Carlton.

Remember when I said Becker/Fagen had a tough time making this album? Gaucho took them well over a year to record, for various reasons. Becker's aforementioned issues during production, very extensive mixing after the sessions, complicated rhythm charts necessitating all-night recording sessions with the same band, the invention of Wendel to make sure they had nanosecond-perfect drum tracks?not to mention the accidental erasure of one of the best songs Becker/Fagen ever wrote, "The Second Arrangement" (although various "safety copies" of the tune exist and can be found on YouTube). Even after the album was released, the record label (MCA) decided to charge an extra dollar for every copy, which of course led to much consternation between MCA and Dan manager Irving Azoff. Basically, everything that could go wrong with this album, did go wrong, and by the time Gaucho finally came out late in 1980, both Becker and Fagen were thoroughly sick of the whole experience, of themselves and of each other, and decided to break up their partnership shortly thereafter.

For all that, though, the music contained herein passes the "Dan test" with flying colors and, over time, has come to be regarded as the triumph it always was. One can easily understand, though, why these guys needed a break from spending pretty much all their waking hours inside of recording studios for eight years, and in fact, it wouldn't be until 1986 that Becker/Fagen were "reunited" on model-turned-singer Rosie Vela's debut album, Zazu (produced by longtime Dan producer Gary Katz), and not until 1993 that they would reform Steely Dan and go out on tour once again. As usual, the good far outweighs the bad here, so I highly recommend this as one of the first two or three Dan albums that you should own. 4.5 stars out of 5.

cfergmusic1 | 4/5 |

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