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Steely Dan - Katy Lied CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.72 | 172 ratings

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4 stars "Katy Lied" is extremely significant in the evolution of Steely Dan. It's the first album to be created after Donald Fagen and Walter Becker jettisoned the traditional band concept in order to become the ongoing two-man research and development department at their very own private recording studio laboratory. No longer limited to relying solely on the talents of other members of a set group, they now had the revolutionary freedom to pick and choose for each individual song the talented session musicians they considered best able to translate their compositional ideas onto tape. Don & Walt were also continuing to meticulously mold and refine their own unique style, one that separated them from every other artistic endeavor on the planet then and now. Whereas most of the pioneers of the Jazz Rock/Fusion movement were jazzmen intent on bringing a hard rock mentality into their realm, Steely Dan was doing the opposite. They were primarily a rock & roll outfit intending to boldly season their tunes with flavor-packed dashes of contemporary jazz, both classic and modern. The result is progressive music that sounds like no other.

Case in point. "Black Friday" begins with a percolating Rhodes piano rising stealthily up from the shadows, soon to be yoked to the young drum whiz Jeff Porcaro as he lays down a solid, driving foundation for them to build this rocker on. The boastful protagonist has, for vengeful reasons known only to him, somehow schemed to cause the company he works for to go belly-up in spectacular fashion. "When Black Friday comes/I'll collect everything I'm owed/and before my friends find out/I'll be on the road." Fagen chortles gleefully. The hot guitar that bulldozes through the number is deliciously brash and dirty and the solo is a scorcher. One of the many charms of this album is their use of no less than seven different axe men (see credits) to achieve their uncompromising goals, so trying to determine who played what and when can be a challenge unto itself. On the surface this fiery cut may seem to be no more than a standard bluesy rock song but when the chorus hits the whole complexion of the track changes. It's a great opener, that's for sure.

The excellent "Bad Sneakers" is next and it has a smooth, jazzy groove to flow in. The faux sitar effect is graciously subdued in the mix and Michael McDonald's unmistakable voice in the harmonies adds a fresh timbre to the surroundings. The tune's point of view comes from a poor individual who is in the frightening process of losing his marbles. ".I'm going insane/and I'm laughing at the frozen rain/and I'm so alone/Honey, when they gonna send me home?" he pleads. The guitar ride is exquisite. On "Rose Darling" Donald's voice is a bit Dylan-like in its delivery of double-entendre words that I interpret to be an ode to self-stimulation. Giving himself a hand he sings "All I ask of you/is make my wildest dreams come true/no one sees and no one knows." So much for subtlety, boys. The inventive chord structure and strong, cascading chorale make it work. "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More" is a blend of R&B and 50s rock and roll spread over an easy, infectious rhythm. The street- level lyrics describe a con man that has either gone on the lam or now swims with the fishes. "Driving like a fool out to Hackensack/drinking his dinner from a paper sack/he says I gotta see a joker/and I'll be right back." Or maybe not.

The apex of the album follows and it is pure, hypnotic magic. Starting with enticing hints of the mystical aura that is to resurface years later on the "Aja" album, "Doctor Wu" is simply fantastic in its brilliant blend of expert arranging, use of melody and inspired individual performances. Fagen's vocal has just enough wistful sadness to draw you into the world of a drug addict desperately in love with his narcotic and actually have you feel sorry for the sap. "Don't seem right/I've been strung out here all night/I've been waiting for the taste/you said you'd bring to me," he moans, "Katy lies/you could see it in her eyes/but imagine my surprise/when I saw you." The song is poetry in motion and when saxophone legend Phil Woods leans into his instrument and pours out his passionate notes the whole thing ascends into the clear blue ether. You don't want it to end. Nothing could comfortably follow that masterpiece so the light, Caribbean samba of "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" fits into this spot as well as any could. The dark side of this duo loves perverts and this ditty about a guy who gets his jollies showing skin flicks to unsuspecting youngsters is right up their demented alley. It's a decent casserole of sax, vibraphone and Latin percussion and includes a spicy Rhodes piano break.

For die-hard proggers the waltzing "Your Gold Teeth II" (the amazing first part is found on the "Countdown to Ecstasy" album) may represent the highlight of the proceedings. Piano, vibes and synthesizer color the cool intro and the tune sports a contagious modern jazz atmosphere that is undeniably intelligent. I have no idea what the song is about but the full chorus of "Throw out your gold teeth/and see how they roll/the answer they reveal/life is unreal" is very effective, the slinky guitar solo is engaging and Porcaro dazzles on the drumkit. The slow, bluesy swagger of "Chain Lightning" makes the listener feel as if he's perched on a barstool in a smoky nightclub, sipping on whiskey and smoking Lucky Strikes. Donald croons "don't bother to understand." and I'll take him at his word. Guest Rick Derringer spits out a defiant, spontaneous guitar ride that completes the scene.

The low point arrives with "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)" in that it is too straightforward pop for my tastes and offers nothing in the way of surprises. For a long time I didn't think much of the album ender, "Throw Back the Little Ones," but that's because I wasn't really paying attention. It has numerous changes of styles and rhythms coming one after another that fascinate and the abstract lyric content ("Lost in the Barrio/I walk like an Injun/so Carlo won't suspect/something's wrong here.") just adds to the Zen of its oddness. The horn section's brief spasm that appears right after the guitar ride is downright Zappa-ish and the bizarre piano run at the end will make you cock your head like the old RCA dog sitting in front of the newfangled gramophone.

I was so glad to get the reissue a while back because my vinyl copy suffered from thin, lifeless sound and the remastering job done for the CD went a long way in correcting that tragic flaw. (The technical gremlin attacks that bedeviled the recording of "Katy Lied" live in infamy. Donald and Walter were so traumatized by the experience that they refuse to discuss it to this day but you can check out Denny Dias's retelling of that unbelievable horror story on the SD website.) Having escaped the rat's maze of the spirit-breaking, record-tour-record-tour routine the labels demanded of their contracted property in those days, Steely Dan was at this point blazing their own trail and playing by their own rules. This album is not your typical combination of jazz and rock. It's not typical at all. In fact, it's more about progressive songwriting than anything else and that's an area that I've always thought to be underappreciated in the prog world. Give it a spin.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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