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Steely Dan - Pretzel Logic CD (album) cover

PRETZEL LOGIC

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.63 | 105 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars In 1974 Steely Dan released "Pretzel Logic," their third album. It raced straight up the charts like a fairground skyrocket to peak at #8 and it seemed like the whole music community stood back en masse to ooh and ahh over it. I, frankly, thought it was okay but less than overwhelming. Considering the avalanche of momentum they had generated with the raw energy captured on "Countdown to Ecstasy" I expected to be blown away. I most assuredly didn't expect a breezy, laidback stroll along the shoreline of Hermosa Beach. I now know that co-leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker detested playing concerts to the point where they'd rather go hungry than tour while the other band members didn't share their starving bohemian aspirations. I also know that the constant pressure from the label fat cats to deliver another hot, steaming bowl of revenue-cultivating Top 40 hit singles along the lines of "Reeling in the Years" must have been maddening but there's barely over half an hour of music to digest here! It's almost as if their motto for this album was "shorter songs, less progressive instrumentation." While there's not a sour or misplaced note to be found it was evident to my ears that something was amiss in Danland.

Fagen and Becker are perfectionists. Nothing wrong with that at all. It comes in pretty handy inside the recording studio and the pristine engineering/production on "Pretzel Logic" takes a giant, high- fidelity bullfrog leap over their first two offerings. No one says otherwise. But one of the bugaboos about perfectionism is that it often leaves too much of the human emotion out of the art being created and that's what I think occurred here. Though the tunes definitely have that undeniable Steely Dan charm swirling about them, there's just very little to get excited about.

I'll put it this way. If you're enamored by the graceful tones and leisurely pace of the opener, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," then you're going to love this collection of eleven tight tracks. It climbed up to the #4 spot on the singles chart and it's hard to argue with that level of success. It has a smooth, jazzy groove for swaying back and forth to and an unforgettable hook line that veers about as close to being a love song as Donald & Walter ever got to writing so what's not to like? (May I suggest the less-than-spontaneous guitar solo?) Moving right along, the next cut is the slick, R&B-styled "Night by Night" featuring a full, robust horn section and a large slice of big-band funk. Good dance number and the hot guitar break has a spicy kick to it but where, oh where are those mysterious play-on-word lyrics I've come to expect from these brainiacs? Has the corrupting Hollywood lifestyle robbed them of their rapier wit and their gift for the runaround?

Not entirely, as evidenced on "Any Major Dude Will Tell You." Acoustic guitar and piano dominate this disarming and simply-constructed tune where Fagen's charismatic voice reassures with lines like "any major dude with half a heart/surely will tell you, my friend/any minor world that breaks apart/falls together again/when the demon is at your door/in the morning it won't be there no more..." For a weary generation that was witnessing the unfurling deception that was Nixon's Watergate while trying to comfort the walking wounded returning home from the pointless Vietnam debacle, this was a message we needed to hear. A rock beat trotting under Donald's sprightly piano draws you up into "Barrytown," a compelling piece of social satire where the singer explains how he's not really the bigot he appears to be, he's just coming clean on how things are in the real world. "I'm not one to look behind/I know that times must change/but over there in Barrytown/they do things very strange/and though you're not my enemy/I like things how they used to be/and though you'd like some company/I'm standing by myself/go play with someone else" he sings. Racial integration's fine, just not in my neighborhood.

Then from straight out of left field comes an unexpected instrumental detour into the land of Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley as the ensemble gives their old-time "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" the full Steely Dan treatment. We may never know the full answer to "why?" but it hardly matters as the whole thing is over before you know it. The slinky steel guitar ride and the lively piano solo are both grin-inducing, though. "Parker's Band" is perky pop but lacking balls and lyrically lame. Their quirky sense of humor resurfaces in "Through With Buzz," an incredibly brief, off-beat song about a guy being in an unspecified state of denial about his relationship with a male acquaintance. I really like the clever string quartet score that dances around the melody.

I'm not big on the blues but by the time the soulful pitch and roll of "Pretzel Logic" arrives I'm more than ready to rock the joint and this one packs more punch than the rest of the album put together. The interesting chorus chord structure, an intense guitar ride and abstract lyrics about time travel keep it from being just another 12-bar snorer as Donald snarls "I have never met Napoleon/but I plan to find the time/'cause he looks so fine/upon that hill/they tell me he was lonely/he's lonely still." Primo stuff. "With A Gun" takes you on another surprising tangent and this time they fly off into a sort of folkish polka thing that seems to be aimed at the NRA. Hey, I like variety as well as the next progger but these tunes are all over the place. It's almost as if they were picked blindly out of a hat.

But the best and most progressive song on the album saves the day. "Charlie Freak" is what brings me back to listen to this record time after time. Its simple but powerful instrumentation consisting mainly of rolling piano, bass, drums and another appearance by the string quartet coupled with an intriguing, humming, ambient guitar effect is awesome. The tune's dramatic story of a homeless drug addict who sells his last earthly possession, a golden ring, in order to score his final fix is sung with heartbreaking conviction by Fagen who portrays the buyer of said jewelry. He later goes to retrieve the body from the morgue and slips the ring back on the poor kid's finger singing "yes, Jack/I gave it back/the ring I could not own/now come, my friend/I'll take your hand/and lead you home." Its powerful imagery and slow build makes it one of my favorite Steely Dan cuts of all time. "Monkey in Your Soul" is the finale and yet another casual dip into the R&B pool for the boys. It's about the protagonist's dawning realization that his once-passionate infatuation with his significant other is waning and the time to say adios has arrived. Playful fun but it really never goes anywhere interesting.

If you think I don't like "Pretzel Logic" then you're wrong. When I'm in a contemporary, adult-oriented mood I put it on and happily sing right along from start to finish. Yet it's about as prog as a Randy Newman album and the prog content (or lack of) is what I'm addressing in this review. If you have a hankering for eclectic little songs with stick-in-your-head melodies and a lite rock attitude then this will fill that prescription. But the inventive jaunts into unexplored Jazz/Rock Fusion territory that these boys took us all into on "Countdown to Ecstasy" just don't happen here and proggers who are raring to go on those exciting journeys need to know that. It's very good, no doubt, but progressive just isn't one of the adjectives that apply to much of the music included here. 3.3 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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