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Steely Dan - Countdown to Ecstasy CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.05 | 230 ratings

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5 stars The first time I heard "Countdown to Ecstasy" it stopped me dead in my tracks. It satisfied every aspect of my sensibilities both as a musician and as a music lover and it still does to this very moment. The difference between this album and their pop-oriented debut is like night and day. So much for the sophomore jinx! In most cases bands use up all their best material for their music biz grand opening and have nothing to equal it on #2 but here the West Coast prog creations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker reflected the mood of the disillusioned peace & love generation in a uniquely abstract and sublime way. The album and its compelling cover art is nothing short of brilliant. It is also the only one in their catalogue that was written and arranged for a working ensemble because the band as a performing entity would cease to exist after its release. It seems the group HATED touring with a passion and the fact that they had to interrupt their recording sessions to go play "Do It Again" on amusement park stages led to the unheard of decision (a secretly-made decision, at that, shared only between Don and Walt) to stop doing concerts altogether. Like The Beatles before them, they eventually abandoned the road to further explore their true calling as a pack of studio rats. But that would come to a head later on. This album was made in the heat of battle between artist and management and it bristles with raw energy because of that. If I'd been keeping a journal back in 1973 my entry would have been something along these lines:

Dear Diary - From the moment Jim Hodder's naked drum strokes on "Bodhisattva" reached my ears I knew that this was something fresh and new to absorb. The onslaught of Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's amazing triple guitar harmonies as they flew over the driving rock & roll beat below sealed the deal for me before Fagen even opened his mouth. What WAS this I was hearing? Then Donald sang "can you show me/the shine of your Japan/the sparkle of your China/can you show me?" and I was drawn into a Salvador Dali-like dimension with melting watches hanging off tree limbs and such. Skunk then delivered a hair-raising guitar solo followed by a call & answer segment with Fagen's cool synthesizer and I couldn't hoist my jaw up off the floor. This stunning track alone signified a radical departure from everything they had shown me before and I am hooked. These guys are for real.

Was I impressed? Ya think? Thus began a lifelong affection for most everything Steely Dan manufactured and now my hope is that others who may not know of their charms and only think of them as the guys who did "Hey Nineteen" will venture into their fascinating world with an open mind. Now back to the review.

Next up is the piano and vibraphone-colored "Razor Boy" as it glides atop a swaying jazz rhythm. It has a very unconventional and intriguing chord structure that even Baxter's lazy steel guitar can't take away from. Here Fagen's charismatic voice creates its one-of-a-kind timbre as his stacked three-part harmonies give the tune a distinct flavor that will resonate throughout the rest of their career. My interpretation of the lyric is that he's referring to a girl's drug habit when he sings "I guess only women in cages/can play down the things they lose/you think no tomorrow will come/when you lay down/you can't refuse." Chilling. That's followed by the awesomeness that is "The Boston Rag," just one of the many sparkling gems included in this album. It has a very progressive and dynamic arrangement with Donald's vocal giving it his indelible stamp as he delivers a bittersweet view of a man's reckless youth with lines like "Lonnie swept the playroom/and he swallowed up all he found/it was 48 hours till/Lonnie came around." The middle section builds up gracefully as the guitar swirls around it like a wild vine. What a great song.

The playful "Your Gold Teeth" has a swift, jazzy groove that won't quit and the complex melody lines streaking across its face are breathtaking. It's about avoiding the lure of a flirtatious lady. "Your fortune is your raving eye/your mouth and legs/your gift for the runaround/torture is the main attraction/I don't need that kind of action," Fagen sings. The bridge is about as different as is imaginable and the sly electric piano solo trailed by another stellar guitar ride is excellent. This is Jazz Rock/Fusion coming at you from a completely foreign angle. And, speaking of oddities, "Show Biz Kids" just may be the most unusual and simple track they've ever recorded. Its mantra-like, droning edginess coupled with guest Rick Derringer's dangerous slide guitar makes for a song that has no reason to be as delightful as it is. A scathing dissection of the L.A. star scene with words such as "show business kids making movies of themselves/you know they don't give a f**k about anybody else" accompanied by a chorus of "lost wages," this belongs in a class unto itself.

Did I say class? "My Old School" is magnificent from start to finish. Despite having to compete with a devastating horn arrangement (courtesy of Jimmie Haskell) and performance, Skunk literally steals the show with his blazing guitar licks as he slashes and dashes in and out of the crisp horn accents striking like lightning all around him. It's one for the ages. The tune's sarcastic look at memories of a heartbreak reads like beat poetry. "Oleanders growing outside your door/soon they're gonna be in bloom up in Annandale/I can't stand her/doing what she did before/living like a gypsy queen in a fairy tale." The fabulous horn run after the "California tumbles into the sea" line is pure genius and when they turn Baxter loose on the fadeout he becomes a maniac on the fretboard. Yowza! After that barnburner a change of pace is in order and the gentle "Pearl of the Quarter" fits in nicely. This song about a man being in love with a New Orleans hooker is a much more "normal" number but engaging nonetheless in spite of another dose of whiny steel guitar.

The album closer, "King of the World," is spectacular prog rock. It's one of the best post-apocalyptic tunes ever written because it never submerges into maudlin territory. The last guy on earth is just looking for company. "If you come around/no more pain and no regrets/watch the sun go brown/smoking cobalt cigarettes/there's no need to hide/taking things the easy way/if I stay inside/I might live till Saturday." The seamless track cruises along effortlessly before the arresting middle section pops up like a surprise party. In the end the melodic synthesizer line slinks across the ever- moving chord pattern like a snake in the sand and the guitar solo weaves a hypnotic tapestry in the fading light.

In the very entertaining liner notes included with the '98 remastered version Fagen and Becker tell the story of showcasing the finished product for the label big wigs, "Hawaiian shirts, cigars and all." Expecting another pop blockbuster like the previous LP, they were sorely disappointed to hear what must have sounded like "German art music, or worse." Of course, that meant the album would have immense appeal to proggers like me but not so to the public at large. It produced nary a hit single but FM radio ate it up (to my delight). One man's loss is another man's gain, as they say. If 90% of prog comes from thinking outside the box then this is prog in its very essence. This is the first of several masterpieces these talented visionaries would present to the world and one you should experience often.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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