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Steely Dan - Two Against Nature CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.31 | 90 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars Toward the end of the last millennium I got the news that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were making another Steely Dan album. This may shock you, but I wasn't excited. I've been burned way too many times by purchasing on blind faith "reunion" projects from groups that I once looked up to only to hear some of the most God awful musical manure imaginable. In the case of the Dans it had been twenty friggin' years since "Gaucho" and children had been conceived, born, raised, graduated from high school and gotten halfway to their Bachelor of Arts degree in that time span. So I ignored it, which was easy because the radio played nary a song. Then the darn thing up and won four Grammy awards including the prestigious Album of the Year. But still I hesitated. Then I caught an excellent concert on PBS one night and decided that it might not be a letdown after all. So I bought it and guess what. The voters in the academy were right. The high level of musical integrity that characterized all their recordings in the 70s had been maintained and, in many ways, it was like they'd never left. As before, Don & Walt corralled an army of specialized studio cats to do their bidding so each jazz rock/fusion-tinged cut has its own unique personality and style. And, just as importantly, their compelling, intuitive lyrics plus their wry sense of humor is intact throughout.

They start things off with the funky prog (Frog) of "Gaslighting Abbie," where the arrestingly crisp drumkit sound of Ricky Lawson and the exemplary bass lines of Tom Barney let you know that Steely Dan is most assuredly back. Soon the hot horn section starts peeking into the track and the jazzy chorus begins to twirl around your brain. Walter shows that he's been practicing on his guitar for those two decades because not only is his tone pure as the driven snow but he shows tasteful restraint during his solo by simply riding atop the unstoppable groove. If you're craving something a little spicier, Chris Potter's sax ride later on is much more adventurous. Donald's vocal chops display no signs of suffering from age as he smoothly croons about a man and his mistress plotting to drive his wife insane. "Let's keep it light/we'll do a fright night/with blood and everything/some punky laughter/from the kitchen/and then a nice, relaxing hand of solitaire." Good to hear their love for creeps hasn't diminished.

"What a Shame About Me" has a fluid, slightly Latin rock beat that draws you right in from the get-go. The sharp accents on the chorus provide the dynamics, the horns are thick as thieves and, once again, Becker impresses with his slinky guitarisms both in the middle and during the ending as the female chorale chirps "shame, shame about me." Here a fellow runs into an old flame from college and he has to fess up that, while her and their peers have accomplished great things with their lives, he's nothing but a burned-out wannabe. She suggests a mercy poke for old time's sake but he responds with ". babe, you look delicious/and you're standing very close/but like this is lower Broadway/and you're talking to a ghost/take a good look/it's easy to see/what a shame about me." It's a brilliant tune from every angle.

A non-stop, driving 6/8 time signature provides a prog underpinning for the album's title cut, "Two Against Nature," and its open spaces allow a host of individual instruments to shine brightly. The brazen saxes in particular literally dance in and out of the spotlight. Lyrically it's a goofy funhouse full of inside jokes but the joyous, celebratory mood created by the delirious duo being together again can't be overlooked. "Two against nature/love this gig/pull up the weeds/before they're too damn big/two against nature/stand alone/who's gonna chase the shape/of things unknown?" That would be Steely Dan.

"Jamie Runaway" features a laid-back feel but it's lazy in a good way. I risk sounding like a broken record but the arrangement of the horns and the virtuosos that play them are the stars on this number. They're too cool for words. And, speaking of words, they describe yet another in a string of lecherous cads they've invented through the years. This disgusting dork has taken in a runaway teenage girl, not because he has a big heart but because he wants to talk her into a sexual three- way. "Who has a friend named Melanie?/who's not afraid to try new things?/who gets to spend her birthday in Spain?/possibly you, Jamie Runaway." (I suspect this might the same wrinkled grub worm who believed he could buy happiness and eternal youth on "Babylon Sisters.")

"Almost Gothic" is a throwback to the "Katy Lied" days of the mid 70s. In a nice change of pace Michael Leonhart's muted trumpet is a treat to hear and Fagen's slightly affected vocal is effective as he clues us in to a boy's excitement over his new girlfriend. She's unlike anyone he's ever met and he's infatuated. "First she's all feel/then she cools down/she's pure science/with a splash of black cat/she's almost gothic/and I like it like that," he gushes. The Frog groove returns on the next cut, "Jack of Speed," with its contagious background lines shared by Walter's guitar and the horns throughout. Donald seems to be expressing his concerns to a vulnerable girl about her shady meth-dealing acquaintance. "You maybe got lucky/for a few good years/but there's no way back/from there to here/he's a one way rider/on the shriek express/and his new best friend/is at the throttle/more or less," Fagen warns.

I'll preach this sermon to anyone who'll listen. If you're ever in the dumps just put on "Cousin Dupree" and you'll find it next to impossible to resist the dance floor of your living room. Drummer Leroy Clouden lays down a slick boogie that won't quit, Becker's sneaky guitar ride fits just right and the hushed tones coming from the female chorale is perfect for the theme. It seems that our leading man is a ne'er-do-well music man crashing on his Aunt's sofa who quickly falls in lust with his gorgeous cousin that lives there. But the joke's on him when he makes his libidinous intentions known to her and she turns him down flat. "She said maybe it's the skeevy look in your eyes/or that your mind has turned to applesauce/the dreary architecture of your soul/I said-but what is it exactly turns you off?" Gotta love it.

What may be the most amazing thing about this album is how they were able to tack on two very involved jazz rock/fusion pieces to the disc without the general public realizing that they were listening to prog. "Negative Girl" sports a deeply mysterious atmosphere and a complex chord structure that is delightful. Dave Schenk's vibes enthrall the senses and you'll be hypnotized by the way the whole song just seems to float like a cloud. It's about a guy who is helplessly attracted to manic drama queens. "She's in the zone/crying on the phone/I need you here/I'm on the street again/staggering out into the burn of the brain dead dawn/to arrive in time to find her gone," he sings. The final cut, "West of Hollywood," is another fine track with an intriguing chord progression. This song really opens up to cultivate some mind-bending guitar and obtuse saxophone episodes that are not to be missed. The words are abstract but appropriate in describing a modern L.A. love affair. "Together we'll endure the tyranny of the disallowed" and "I'm way deep into nothing special," Donald relates. But best of all, they let the track run its own natural course for well over eight minutes and it's primo stuff to the very end.

If anything, Steely Dan proved that, like old jazz musicians, there's a lot to be said for experience and dedication to one's art no matter how much water has streamed under the bridge. Fagen and Becker didn't try to exhume old bodies, spruce them up and relive their glory days. They're better than that. They intuitively took hold of the respect that continued to exist between themselves and expertly molded the music still creatively flowing out of their hands. In the case of "Two Against Nature" they proved that true art doesn't recognize age, only quality. And this album has plenty of that. 4.4 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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