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Steely Dan - Countdown To Ecstasy CD (album) cover

COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.00 | 120 ratings

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Raff
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars When Steely Dan were added to the database, there were many who doubted the legitimacy of their presence on this site. Now, while their music has definitely little in common with 'traditional' prog rock, its sheer complexity, sophistication and technical brilliance (not to mention Donald Fagen's literate, sarcastic lyrics) deserves a place on any self-respecting, comprehensive account of progressive music.

Though I was already vaguely familiar with the band, it was only in the past couple of years that I really got to know them in depth - thanks to the man who became my husband two months ago today (OK, you all know his name...). Having listened to all of their albums, I can safely state that I consider Countdown to Ecstasy their best offering, superior even to the much-praised Aja. Almost every track on it is a gem, a perfectly crafted example of music that is at the same time accessible and demanding, intricate and smoothly flowing. Steely Dan can do great hooks with the same ease as any seasoned pop band, and stun you with such complex instrumental interplay that would do any 'classic' prog band proud. Their choruses are infectiously memorable, but a dark, often seedy reality is hidden beneath those apparently happy, carefree strains.

Coundown to Ecstasy opens in upbeat mode with Bodhisattva, which targets the hippie fad for Eastern philosophies (I especially love the pun in 'the sparkle of your China'). Rich with horns, guitar and piano, the song has an almost danceable, brisk rhythm, but (unlike other songs on the album) no recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. Razor Boy follows with its melancholy, laid-back vibe underlying one of the many seedy SD tales of lost lives: Will you still have a song to sing/When the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away.... The presence of an unusual instrument like the vibraphone makes this song even more haunting. The initial triple-whammy is closed by my favourite track, the moody, somewhat menacing The Boston Rag, another tale hinting at crime and punishment with one of the best choruses ever known to man (Bring back the Boston rag/ Tell all your buddies that it ain't no drag), and the closest SD can get to guitar power chords.

Out of the remaining songs, the hit My Old School and the romantic, French-flavoured Pearl of the Quarter lean more towards the more commercial side of things. The former is a real delight for lovers of brass rock, but as a whole leaves me somewhat cold; while I agree with those who think the latter is the weakest track on the album. Your Gold Teeth, the longest song at over 7 minutes, is instead an exercise in slinky elegance, deceptively lazy and effortlessly sophisticated. That leaves us with another couple of crackers - the venomous Showbiz Kids, punctuated by relentless background chants of 'outrageous', and featuring some killer slide guitar courtesy of Rick Derringer; and album closer King of the World, another lyrically intriguing tour-de-force enhanced by the distinctive, slightly cheesy sound of synths.

Even though at a superficial first listen the Dan may sound like an entertaining, but ultimately hollow pop/jazz band, if you bother to peel away the layers you will find a lot to keep most demanding prog fans on their toes. Everything is there - the technical proficiency, the sterling production values, the intelligent lyrics, the expressive singing, the flawless songwriting. So, forget any labels and preconceptions, and get hold of a copy of this masterpiece. You won't regret it.

Raff | 5/5 |

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