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Steely Dan - The Royal Scam CD (album) cover


Steely Dan

Jazz Rock/Fusion

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4 stars When I saw this great love-of-my-life-band was added to the site I was overjoyed. Because now I had the chance to review all their albums. I started rating them all because even though I love them to the bone I don't believe they made a true masterpiece (my standard for that is very high) but there appeared to be quite a lot of 4 star efforts amongst their releases.

One of those is this great one called The Royal Scam. Starting off with Kid Charlemagne, a very famous and very popular song, I like it a lot but it's not even one of my very favourites of this album. Next two: The Caves of Altamira and Don't take me alive are 2 songs I discovered when I bought the disc a few years ago, They sound very jazzy and very nice too. 4th track is Sign in Stranger, that one I know for a very long time, since 1976 actually because it was the B-side of Haitian Divorce, the vinyl single back then (those good old days !). I didn't think too much of it in those days but this song has really grown on me the last decade. Next is The Fez, a nice funky/jazzy track. Followed by Green Earrings, like track 8 (Everything you did) and the mentioned 2nd and 3rd track relatively new for me, is another funky one showing once again the versatility of the band. Steely Dan is truly brilliant for me, right now I'm listening to the whole album once more but at times I can hardly believe my ears. Because track 7 is Haitian Divorce and that's a true evergreen as we all know and in fact the only single I bought in those days, it was one of the few SD-hits in Holland. Everything I did is more of a regular track, mediocre for SD-standard almost, but still good. Last and very very best for me is the gloomy title track "The Royal Scam". I simply can't get enough of this one, a very intriguing song again showing the diversity.

Along with Aja this is probably the best Steely Dan album ever. It deserves 4 stars but to be more specific: 4,25.

Report this review (#180856)
Posted Tuesday, August 26, 2008 | Review Permalink
Chris S
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars The next masterpiece in the Steely Dan catalogue after Countdown To Ectasy. More progressive again too which is always a good thing! Kid Charlemagne is a solid platform on which the album builds. The next two tracks The Caves of Altamira and Don't take Me Alive are classics IMO continuing with the more progressive rock themes. Sign In Stranger more kind of R & B and then we get into some jazzy funky grooves with The Fez. Great chorus and driving vocals, Green Earrings follows and this is found on many compilation works of Steely Dan to endorse it's popularity giving it that Hit status. Haitian Divorce arguably the most accessible tune off Royal Scam with lyrics like Babs and Clean Willie were in love they said, So in love the preacher's face turned red, Soon everybody knew the thing was dead , He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night........ Great stuff, clever lyrics which in many respects makes Steely Dan special because the vocals and lyrics form an integral part of their sound. The title track plays out this fine album with their most progressive song to date, excellent straining vocals from Fagen, musically the instruments played to perfection.You have to listen to this song loud and without interruptions to fully appreciate it! As said this is another masterpiece from Steely Dan and the funny thing is they still had about another two to come...
Report this review (#181113)
Posted Saturday, August 30, 2008 | Review Permalink
5 stars Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have called their 5th album's thought-provoking illustration "the most hideous album cover of the seventies, bar none" and, while it's hard to disagree with their assessment, it's also a most appropriate canvas for the unsure times surrounding its release. In 1976 the Cold War world was in the last days of the pre-computer analog era, the mind-numbing disco phenomenon was thriving just as The Ramones were ushering in the punk movement and while the USA was celebrating its bicentennial, it was also still mourning the loss of 58,000 young men who died for nada as Vietnam became a unified country under a communist flag. The biting cynicism of "The Royal Scam" cuts deep but it is justified. Yet you will be hard pressed to find an album that contains tracks so magnificently tight and well-defined. Steely Dan's previous four offerings showed them in the process of discovering their own sound but with this recording it was evident that they had found their special niche in the music universe. The worldbeat-tinged songs are lengthier and less radio-friendly than before, indicating that they were no longer inclined to compromise. The malicious technical bugs that had so beleaguered the previous project were a thing of the past and, by using studios and session players on both sides of the continent, they captured the mood of a jaded generation like few could.

Announcing that the dreamy, carefree "tune in, turn on, drop out" phenomenon was deceased and decomposing, "Kid Charlemagne" with its funky rhythm coiling underneath a bouncy clavinet made it official. Written for one notorious Mr. Owsley, the acid prince of Haight-Ashbury, the message is direct and brutal. "Now your patrons have all left you in the red/your low-rent friends are dead/life can be very strange/all those day-glow freaks who used to paint the face/they've joined the human race." Fagen sings. The tune's full chorale is impressive but words fail when I try to describe the guitar performance delivered by Larry Carlton here. If you're a guitarist and you haven't heard it you need to. Now. Not allowing you any chance to recover, "The Caves of Altamira" arrives and sweeps you right off your feet. After an ominous beginning a fat horn section blares as the rock-solid drums of Bernard Purdie and the awesome bass of Chuck Rainey pull you along like an unrelenting undertow. Written about a youngster who finds peace and solace among undiscovered cave drawings, it raises the specter of history repeating itself. "Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall/when there wasn't even any Hollywood/they heard the call and they wrote it on the wall/for you and me, we understood," he croons. But the ultra-dynamic accents punctuated by the sharp brass throughout and the great sax ride at the end are what slays me about this number.

"Don't Take Me Alive" just may be the hardest rocking song Steely Dan ever created and it is an unspecified guitarist (take your pick from the credits) with his stunning tone and technique that steals the show. He kills without mercy. The verses ride atop a powerful wave of electric piano, guitar and vibraphone while the unforgettable chorus kicks like a mule. It's about a standoff where the protagonist has reached the very end-threads of his mental rope. "Can you hear the evil crowd/the lies and the laughter/I hear my inside/the mechanized hum of another world/where no sun is shining." Donald sneers. Despite its tragic tale that has no discernable silver lining it's my favorite cut on an album that literally oozes with excellent tunes. "Sign in Stranger" follows and this simmering filet of funk tells of an exotic and dangerous locale where a criminal can go to establish a new identity. "Do you have a dark spot on your past?/ leave it to my man he'll fix it fast/Pepe has a scar from ear to ear/he will make your mug shots disappear," Fagen sings. Whoever is responsible for providing the torrid piano licks is nothing short of amazing and by now you should expect the guitarisms to slap you silly and they do. The inventive bridge pops up out of nowhere and the thick horns at the end are a complete surprise.

There's nothing particularly tricky about "The Fez," it just hitches a ride on its supremely funky groove and doesn't stop till four minutes later. This ditty briefly describes a fellow's odd sexual peccadillo that requires his wearing of a certain kind of hat and it's a hard one to categorize. I suggest you just sit back and enjoy the entertaining collage of instruments that rise and fall throughout the expert Roger Nichols mix. Or get up and dance. Either one. The eclectic "Green Earrings" has a very prog arrangement to digest as it rumbles by your ears. Can't say that I have an inkling of what lines like "cold, daring/no flies on me/sorry, angel/I must take what I see" signify but that's okay. Some things are best left as mysteries. I must point out, however, the cool psychedelic guitar effect that makes it swirl like a boiling lava lamp during the fadeout.

"Haitian Divorce" is not only the only Steely Dan single to chart in the UK top twenty but it's also one of their most endearing and clever songs. Here the traditional reggae beat fits perfectly as it tools along below the vibraphone and a gritty talk box guitar that give it a unique personality. Divorce was all the rage in the 70s and Don & Walt's snickering story of a woman who flees to the Caribbean to dissolve her marriage, enjoys a passionate tryst with one of the hot-blooded locals and then has a "tearful reunion" with her spouse is spot on for the times. But it seems she brought back a souvenir. "Some babies grow in a peculiar way/it changed, it grew/and everybody knew/semi-mojo/who's this kinky so- and-so?" Donald sings with a sly grin. Of particular interest are the nifty bass harmonics that ring out during the finale. Primo stuff.

Speaking of weird sexual situations, "Everything You Did" tops them all in that category. In this saga a wife's jilted husband seems a lot more interested in hearing the juicy details of her indiscretion than in locating his rival and, in the process, discovers that she's kinkier than he ever imagined. "I never knew you/you were a roller skater/you gonna show me later/turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening," he implores. The number's sneaky feel and by now obligatory terrific guitar ride make it a winner. The album's title cut and closer is by far the darkest and most progressive tune included. This unorthodox track is mostly a repeating pattern of a verse, verse, and chorus structure, separated by instrumental sections populated by hair-raising jazz trumpet and cornet runs. The sarcastic but glorious chorale belies the stark glimpses of harsh reality offered in the lyrics. It tells of desperate immigrants who give up everything to chase the American Dream only to find they're no better off than they were living in the squalor they left behind. "They are hounded down/to the bottom of a bad town/amid the ruins where they learn to fear/an angry race of fallen kings," Fagen reports. It's a haunting piece of aural art that will leave a permanent impression on your psyche.

In my review of "Katy Lied" I said it was a fine example of progressive songwriting and I feel that this album is even better in that respect. Add in the exemplary musicianship (especially the out-of-this- world guitar performances that pepper the music from start to finish), the fantastic engineering job, the majestic arrangements and the articulate wordplay that abounds and you have a bonafide masterpiece. There are those who will protest Steely Dan's very presence on any prog rock list but I'm here to tell you that music production this wonderful, that makes such a progressive statement, needs no one's validation. 5 stars.

Report this review (#181201)
Posted Sunday, August 31, 2008 | Review Permalink
Sean Trane
Prog Folk
3 stars 3.5 stars really!!!

Second album for the studio-era Dan, and finally the Becker-Fagen duo comes to realize their potential fully, easily surpassing their previous best Countdown To Ecstasy. And just like Ecstasy, this Royal Scam has few and longer tracks, six tracks over 4 minutes, including two nearing the 6 minutes, thus allowing for what every proghead yearns for, instrumental interplay. With the usual cast of suspects supporting the duo, the album is the first of Dan's brilliant trilogy. Released in early 76 with an incredible artwork, one that hits the gloomiest of thoughts (for some colourful reasons I always think of Giger's works on BSS or Magma's Attakh album) that fits well the disillusion slowly entering the North American public

Starting on one of SD's proggiest song Kid Charlemagne, with its incessant rhythm breaks and that dreamy piano that Alan Parsons would make his. The funky groove is also perfect in accompanying the burial of the hippie dreams/ideals lyrics that were still pervading in many youths (including yours truly, but I wasn't listening ;o)))). No-less excellent is the non-prog but full-blown brass-rock Altamira Caves, where a superb brass section at the start and end of the song and shows that SD can do normal songs of theirs sound interesting. The album doesn't seem to slow down one bit with the guitar-laden Don't Take Me Alive, where there is some dramatics involved, the only glitch being the usual Dan backing vocals (yes, these that make SD soooo special that you instantly know you're in a SD song) that are a bit too encumbering. The following funky Sign In Stranger is probably the album's weakest track, but it would probably be a highlight in Pretzel or Thrill, but the funky-reggae tune has some fun lyrics moments, but ultimately doesn't cut the mustard with its acoustic piano except around the end. Closing side 1 is the ultra-funky The Fez, a track that is content in staying in the groove except for one break, and has weird synth tones lying above the schmilblik. Not the most fascinating but holds its own on this album.

Opening the flipside is Green Earring with its jazz-funk that most black groups of the era would've love to call their own if it was for more soulful vocals. Not that it's proggy or something, but it's got arguments for itself. The reggae-ish Haitian Divorce is definitely another highlight and allows much space for interplay between a vocal-effect guitar, some rhythmic vibes and a pulsing bass that grows as the song grows longer. After another weaker track (Everything You Did) that would easily fit as a highlight onto Pretzel or Kati, the album is closing on the fantastic self-titled finale which has definitely seen SD come as one of the forces to be recognized with during the second part of the 70's. The track is quickly installed with an incredible groove and some wild jazzy horns covering everyone of your living room's corners, while Fagen tells us of the great American dream turning into a royal scam. The artwork fits quite well these lyrics as there are monsters atop the four Manhattan skyscrapers, ready to strike anyone trying to come up the echelons of an already too crowded pyramid top and all to ready to send you back on the subway station bench.

While never being a complete head-over-heels fan of SD (I wouldn't place a SD album in my top 300), it is clear TRS is clearly one of their better albums, the first of a trilogy that no self-respecting proghead should ignore, some 30 years later. I know I sure as hell missed the SD wave back in the 70's for their songwriting was about writing songs, instead of numbers, epics, tracks or pieces of music, and their sometimes too-similar song structure to the industry standard didn't appeal to me who was still a teenager, while SD was the epitome and probably the best example of Adult Oriented Rock, a movement that they probably invented with Thrill, but would take a few more years to invade Adult Oriented Radios that would flood the airwaves in the later 70's. In the meantime, those progheads not willing to accept SD as a prog group, should probably do so after re-listening carefully to TRS, Aja and Gaucho.

Report this review (#186704)
Posted Thursday, October 23, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars The Royal Scam is the fifth studio album from US pop/ rock act Steely Dan and IMO a welcome return to form after the two last albums Pretzel Logic ( 1974) and Kaly Lied ( 1975) which I found way too formula written for a commercial hit list market. They are not bad albums by any means. In fact they are extremely professional and polished pop/ rock albums. The Royal Scam just has that extra jazzy dimension that also made Steely Dan´s second album Countdown to Ecstasy ( 1973) such a great album. I guess Steely Dan had satisfied their record company enough to be allowed to add a bit more artistic spice to their music again.

The music is laidback and cool jazzy pop/ rock. Very well written and performed. The album starts with three great songs in Kid Charlemagne, The Caves of Altamira and Don´t Take Me Alive and continues that way for the duration of the album. There are a few more average songs like Sign of Stranger along the way but the album ends with the great Title track and I´m left smiling and thinking that this was a good album. There are more solos and interesting instrumental interplay on The Royal Scam than has been the case on any other Steely Dan album before it. It´s by far the best album from the band/ studio project up until then.

The musicianship is excellent. Everyone contributing to The Royal Scam are higly skilled musicians.

The production is professional and polished. No raw edges only pleasant and warm sounds.

For all the praises I´ve given The Royal Scam it´s still just a sophisticated pop/ rock album and the commercial appeal is very much present here as well as on every other Steely Dan release. It´s an aquired taste if this is something that will turn you off. Personally I´m biased. 3 BIG stars is deserved here for a highly professional product.

Report this review (#189053)
Posted Thursday, November 13, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars The Dan pinnacle, part 1: The Underdog

"I know you're out there, with a rage in your eyes and your megaphones"

In this chapter of the famous Dan liner notes the boys speak of wanting to "redeem themselves" from a general feeling of underachievement. Despite some obvious success they were still wishing to "see our own names written on the stars alongside the greats, the near-greats, and ingrates of jazz, funk, and/or rhythm and blues." They wanted to raise the bar and with "The Royal Scam" they finally made a perfect Steely Dan album. History would reward "Aja" with that title but I think for many Dan-heads it wouldn't necessarily surpass this for pure listening pleasure. After the lackluster "Katy Lied" the boys found here that special blend of jazzy rock and roll that would frame their final three classic period albums. This one is arguably the most "fun" as it still contains some grit and gruffness whereas "Aja" and "Gaucho" would get significantly "dryer" in taste. Every aspect is firing on all cylinders here: expertly-crafted songs, biting lyrics, and phenomenal execution of performance and arrangement. Perhaps the only misfire here is what the Dan themselves note "the most hideous album cover of the 70s, bar none-except perhaps "Can't Buy a Thrill." Well, it is more hideous than their first album cover but nevertheless works with the lyrical content. Musically the Scam is probably my personal favorite of the great Dan catalogue, bubbling with energy and attitude, getting close to the maniacal perfectionism of the next two albums while retaining plenty of rocking fun. "Kid Charlemagne" and "Green Earrings" are two of Steely Dan's finest works, powerful and jazzy especially in the live versions from the "Two Against Nature" DVD. Uptempo, crisp, with a rolling groove is "Kid" accented by the fabulous female vocals. "Earrings" is all glamour and stepping out on the musical town in the baddest duds for martinis and all manner high class debauchery. "Don't Take Me Alive" is one of the Dan's finest radio hits with a great Fagen vocal and excellent lead guitar throughout. "Sign-in Stranger" is another highlight via some funky piano chops and great chugging percussion. "The Fez" is another one of those novelty Dan tracks but this one works and is listenable unlike some earlier ones. The last 3 tracks are not of the same level as the first 6 and this makes the album a tad less consistent that Aja, but worry not-if you are considering a SD purchase, you will not be scammed by this one. In the argument over which Dan album is the finest The Royal Scam may be the underdog but is a contender nonetheless.

Report this review (#189539)
Posted Sunday, November 16, 2008 | Review Permalink
Symphonic Prog Specialist
2 stars Still I don't know the relation between STEELY DAN and Progressive Rock except for some ALAN PARSONS like keyboards (Probably Alan was influenced by them), but I heard so many good comments about "The Royal Scam" (The only STEELY DAN album I hadn't heard) that had to listen and review it.

The album starts with "Kid Charlemagne" which reminded me of the poppiest albums of ALAN PARSONS PROJECT because of the keyboard intro, but as soon as the voice joins, it's obvious we are before a Funk track that may be good for those who like this genre, but not my cup of tea. The caves of Altamira has some Jazzy elements, but not stronger than what you would find in an "Earth Wind & Fire" album, good brass section, but again disappointing.

"Don't Take me Alive" starts more rocker than the previous tracks, still that Funky atmosphere, but at least due to the guitar solo it's obvious they are doing some Rock, sadly when the voice enters seems as we are before a STEVE MILLER BAND track with Rock, Pop and even Southern Rock elements, but still the question is...Where is the Prog?

The best I can say about "Sign in Stranger" is that has an excellent piano and some interesting changes that make a very slight approach to Prog, but still is mainly a POP - Funk track.

"The Fez" has an excellent intro, but again morphs into an EARTH WIND & FIRE atmosphere, even the keyboards that were the highest point enter totally in a FUNK territory with Pop leanings. By this point, all the tracks seem more of the same, Green Earrings is even more poppy than the previous stuff with a clear JAMES BROWN (Sex Machine) influence and Haitian Divorce despite the vocoder is some sort of diluted Reggae, at least for me, there is no interest.

"Everything you Did" is a POP track, that reminds me of the hundreds of POP Motown bands that invaded the airwaves in the mid 70's as to introduce Disco music, only a good Psyche organ saves this track from total oblivion.

The last track is "The Royal Scam" again sounds like ALAN PARSONS PROJECT, but not like his first three Prog albums, maybe like Vulture Culture or some later ones.

I won't say the album is bad, because there is people who consider it great and I respect their opinions even when I don't share them, but following the guidelines of the sites, 5 or 4 stars (Exclusively for Prog Albums) are out of the scenario, and not even so good to give it the same rating I gave to the non Prog but outstanding Who's Next, so it's 2 stars for Royal Scam.

Maybe on a non Prog site I would had rated the album with more, but not here.

Report this review (#193287)
Posted Sunday, December 14, 2008 | Review Permalink
4 stars This album contains some of the best songs the Dan ever did--or some of my most favorite, I get confused.

I just love the pomp-jazzy Green Earrings. It probably sticks with me about as well as any SD song. I prefer Hackett-era Genesis to almost anything, but this song has about as much as Genesis ever did to listen to--even in their subtly layered Dancing With the Moonlit Knight (a headphone experience).

It somewhat troubles me the number of progheads that will turn their nose up at a little funk (or even it's cousin, disco), but will listen to Steve Howe ripping off raucous rockabilly riffs in Going for the One without comment, as if straight rockabilly was akin to prog. Or fail to understand that the English and Celtic folk elements that Genesis borrowed from heavily are about as simple as any other raw form of music. All it has to do is have a disco/funk/smooth jazz beat and people are calling it pop.

Along the same lines, the reggae-textured Sign in Stranger is another of my all-time Dan favorites. Blended with straight piano jazz and more decorated jazz in the chorus, it uses a sort of swing-based vocal harmonies unrelated to either style. And builds to a raft of trumpets during the outro guitar solo. Just a nice listen, IMO.

The Caves of Altimira is another classic. The wall of horns meshed with the subtle keys is especially memorable. I don't think of this one as a personal favorite as much as it is more objectively one of their better tunes.

Meanwhile, I've long thought Everything You Did is probably the weakest song Steely Dan ever did. So it contains a little of both the best and the worst of SD.

Still, it's a CD this proghead cannot stop putting on his player.

Report this review (#200127)
Posted Thursday, January 22, 2009 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Years and years before I actually heard The Royal Scam, I remember being intrigued by its cover. Even at a very young age, I was familiar with H.P. Giger's work - and who of my generation wasn't, especially after his iconic cover for ELP's Brain Salad Surgery? Anyway, I knew a few Steely Dan songs (notably their hit Do It Again), and could not for the life of me figure out the connection between the uplifting nature of their music and Giger's dark, disturbing art. Now that I'm older and wiser, and my knowledge of the English language allows me access to Donald Fagen's complex, thought-provoking lyrical world, I understand that connection much better.

Released in 1976, The Royal Scam is probably the Dan's most accomplished work after the masterful Countdown to Ecstasy. Though Aja is widely held as the highlight of their career, it ultimately leaves me somewhat cold, in spite of its technical perfection. On the other hand, The Royal Scam gives off a sense of warmth and well-roundedness that the band's following albums lack, in my opinion. As well as the 'usual suspects' (i.e. their habitual collaborators), Fagen and Becker avail themselves of the help of such luminaries such as Poco (and later Eagles) bassist Timothy B. Schmidt, Doobie Brothers' Michael McDonald, and renowned jazz guitarist Larry Carlton. As usual, backing vocals (male and female) play a strong role in the band's music, bolstering Donald Fagen's dry, deadpan delivery of his own inimitable lyrics. As a matter of fact, Fagen's vocal style is probably the most important single factor that prevents many listeners from finding SD's music progressive, and this is a problem common to other bands, even modern ones. Many people expect prog vocalists to be over the top in some way or the other, and Fagen is definitely anything but that.

As a whole, The Royal Scam is more guitar-oriented than other SD albums (as the band point out in their funny, witty liner notes), as shown by such tracks as Don't Take Me Alive (with a simply brilliant opening solo) and Green Earrings. True to their kitchen-sink approach to musical composition, they explore reggae rhythms in Haitian Divorce and Sign It Stranger, go almost hard rock on the aforementioned Don't Take Me Alive, and throw in enough horns to grace a Motown album. They even produce something close to conventional prog rock in the dark, brooding title-track, with its plodding beat and plaintive saxophone strains, which closes the album in style, reflecting perfectly the mood set by the cover.

As usual, the musicianship displayed on this disc is nothing short of stunning. However, as we all know, great musicianship does not a prog album make, and there are a few tracks on this album that could easily be termed as little more than sophisticated pop-rock with jazzy overtones. This may well be true, but I am not sure the same criteria could not be applied to many songs on 'real' prog albums (and I don't think I need to bring up any examples here). The main problem is, tags are sticky, and there seems to be no way to remove them - not even by trying to listen to the MUSIC for once.

If you like your music to be sophisticated and accomplished, yet not cold and lifeless, you could do worse than to get The Royal Scam. Yes, it may not be prog in the strictest sense of the term, but it is definitely an album worth exploring - unless you expect everything to sound like Yes or Genesis. Four solid stars from this reviewer, with a 'virtual' half-star thrown in for good measure.

Report this review (#204855)
Posted Monday, March 2, 2009 | Review Permalink
2 stars Steely Dan - The Royal Scam. This was a bit of a disappointment. A pop/funky/jazzy record with almost no progressive elements. I can't say I dislike it, but this just isn't my cup of tee. The vocal are really suitable for pop music but are totally far away from the rock/prog territory. This ain't a review in which I state this is a bad record, for it isn't. All instruments are played very well, the production is good (for it's musical style) and there are a lot of catchy songs. A lot of people might actually like this record. But for me this is simply not very interesting for fans of progressive music. I'm going to rate this two stars, but no hard feelings! Try this if you want to have a relaxing evening, want some jazz influenced pop or want to please your girlfriend with soothing light music on your romantic evening.
Report this review (#231191)
Posted Wednesday, August 12, 2009 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Near "Aja"-next really good SD album. Balanced mix of soft-rock with some funky and jazzy arrangements, perfect musicians, golden melodies, perfect ( if not too commercial, polished) production.

This is Steely Dan at their best ( near "Aja "). Yes , it 's still very pop-sound, but it's a SD trademark. But at the same way you can find highest level of instrumentation, sound balance and warm atmosphere.

Never candidates for experimentalists or avantguarde, group rich their top in 1976-1977, with this and "Aja " albums. Even if you 'hate pop-rock, it is always interesting just to hear as artistic, intelligent and high musically profesional could it be!

Report this review (#235138)
Posted Wednesday, August 26, 2009 | Review Permalink
Matthew T
4 stars Skyscrapers with snakes heads and a well dressed bum, Steely Dan have album number five on sale in May 1976. Once again the list of musicians who particapated is enormous. All compositions are written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker with the usual variety of Rock ,Funk, Pop and Jazz within the songs. Larry Carlton on guitar appears and makes a large contribution to the album, Denny Dias is still hanging in there and that is just only two from five listed doing guitar on this album so another big Production was done by Gary Katz. Special mention must go to the Backing singers on the album with those three girls,Venetta Fields, Clydie King, Sherlie Matthews who were one red hot group of session singers at the time and appeared with so many other great artists, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan. Neil Diamond, Quincy Jones and there are plenty more. This was their 2nd album with Steely Dan as they were also on the debut Can't Buy a Thrill and Sherlie Matthews appears on her own on the previous album Katy Lied.Michael McDonald contributes with some vocals but is a full time Doobie Brother now.

The album takes off from the start with the driving Kid Charlemagne and one simply stunning guitar solo from Larry Carlton with some fantastic Backing Vocals provided by the girls and is a favourite with many who have the album. The Caves of Altamira is more low key with a some lovely saxophone throughout but with track three Larry Carlton is back with the lead guitar and The track Don't Take Me Alive is one great tune. Piano dominated funk and jazz is basically the ingredient for Sign in Stranger. Special mention must be made for the tracks the Fez and Green Earrings. Once again there is not a poor track within the album and to finish it all of we get the title song The Royal Scam and Larry is back on guitar for this one as well with one nice beat driven tune with piano as an undercurrent and Larry's Guitar and Donald Fagen's voice up front. I simply love the trumpet used throughout as well. The girls are there also and once again as with Pretzel Logic the title track is the high point of the album.

Another great effort and something unique but music was about to change and rock, prog, would take a back seat for a while when the world went disco mad. Four Stars but very close to five.

Report this review (#262470)
Posted Monday, January 25, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars Looking back at Steely Dan's career arc, I might have been tempted to have left them for dead after Katy Lied. What a mistake that would have been!

It's just amazing to me how much better Steely Dan sound in nearly every aspect with Royal Scam: better lyrics, faster tempos, solos with some real passion, and most of all, not a single "throwaway" song. I enjoy each song on Royal Scam, and I think most offer a unique contribution to the album, classic Gentle Giant style.

The album opens with an absolutely killer set of songs. Kid Charlemagne features some of my favorite guitar work on a Steely Dan album, and part of this results directly from the song structure. For the bridge, there's an opening call-and-response between the keys and guitar, which only builds the tension for the extended solo, over a brilliant chord progression to boot. With Caves of Altamira, the Dan find the perfect balance--in my opinion, of course--between their smooth jazz leanings and some genuine attitude...and of course it doesn't hurt to have an absolutely infectious chorus. Right after this, we're treated to Don't Take Me Alive, with one of my favorite guitar lead-ins to any song. You're digging the groove so much, hoping--just begging!--for the guitar to take one more phrase. And what do you know? They do! Great track.

And that's just the first three songs!

Nothing that comes after equals the opening trio--at least musically--but I enjoy the generally snarky tales to be found in Haitian Divorce and Everything You Did. And the title track is no slouch, although perhaps a little overlong.

Special mention to the public service announcement against unprotected sex that is The Fez. Don't ever do it without a fez on, to all the kids out there!

All in all, Royal Scam is just a great album...perhaps my favorite by the Dan. It appears that rumors of their demise were indeed premature.

Report this review (#318233)
Posted Saturday, November 13, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars A very good album from Walter Becker, Donald Fagan and the rest of the gang in 1976.. This is not perfect but at least it is not as bland as KATY LIED, or COUNTDOWN. I almost lost my faith in Steely Dan after Katy Lied but this album and the next one. Good songs: "Kid Charlamaine", "Don't Take me Alive", "Haitain Divorce", and "The Loyal Scam" are especially fine. Bad songs: "The Fez". This just plain gets on my nerves! Along with AJA and their first album, this is one of their finest works. And, of course, fine musicianship, as always. Not perfect, as I said, but close enough to get a 4 star review from me. ****
Report this review (#438960)
Posted Monday, April 25, 2011 | Review Permalink
3 stars Royal Scam ? 1976 (2.6/5) 10 ? Best Song: Kid Charlemagne

This is, admittedly, the first time in their career where I can readily assess their output as excessive, very much over the edge of good taste. I was looking over the cast, which plays off as a big budget summer thriller. This is overkill. They lost Skunk Baxter, which is a damn shame, and they opted to replace him with five or six no-names that turn the usually enticing atmosphere of your typical Steely Dan album into a real outing in mediocrity. It's not that the album is altogether poor in quality. 'Kid Charlemagne' must stack up as one of their greatest songs, with a blistering solo to end it all. But this is definitely a perfunctory affair. They must have spent ten minutes writing the songs and half a year finding out how to turn it into a means of poking fun at the lowest common denominator public. Another major pin against the record is how each song sounds much too similar to the songs next to it. All those were reasons this album isn't as good as Can't Buy a Thrill. But man, the cooking sax solo in 'Caves of Altamira' are something else. They're burning the place up, as usual. I can't knock the band for being adequately consistent; most bands would rather be beating a formula to death that sucks ass. At least Steely Dan's formula is more concerned with tact and subtlety, as opposed to the trillions of heavy metal dunderheads wasting time with a rip-off each subsequent year. It's a solid performance. Aside from all the flaws or praise I can give the Royal Scam, though, the biggest hitch is in the melodies ? they ain't so hot.

Report this review (#440490)
Posted Friday, April 29, 2011 | Review Permalink
Mellotron Storm
3 stars This album and the previous one "Katy Lied" really leave me feeling indifferent. Maybe i'm just tired of their sound or maybe it's because they've done this better with "Countdown To Ecstacy" I don't know exactly. I listen to this and I feel like i'm listening to soft FM music from the late seventies. Okay I guess I am (1976) but they aren't impressing me like they did earlier. Yes there is more guitar here but I would classify it as wimpy guitar so it does nothing for me. Some good songs as usual though.

And "Kid Charlemagne" is one of those. An upbeat tune including a guitar solo 2 1/2 minutes in. "The Caves Of Altamira" opens with horns but vocals, drums and piano are the focus. "Don't Take Me Alive" is led by guitar early on until the vocals arrive just before a minute.The guitar will come and go though. An okay tune. "Sign In Stranger" is piano and vocal led and I like the piano after 3 minutes in particular. "The Fez" is funky and fun. "Green Earrings" is a good funky song as well. "Haitian Divorce" is all about the lyrics. "Everything You Did" and "The Royal Scam" both do little for me for the resons stated in my intro.

Report this review (#451567)
Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2011 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Though I consider the band to be progressing with this album (from 1975's Katy Lied toward 1977's Aja), this album never really connects with me like Can't Buy a Thrill, Pretzel Logic, or Aja--this despite the album's opener, "Kid Charlemagne" its closer, "The Royal Scam," being two of my favorite Dan songs of all-time. The sound here is great, much better than their first three albums, but their reliance on lyrical content is too great and not enough room given to inputs from the amazing lineup of highly-accomplished studio jazz musicians.

Five star songs: "Kid Charlemagne" and "The Royal Scam."

Four star songs: "The Fez"; "The Caves of Altamira"; "Sign in Stranger", and; "Haitian Divorce".

A 3.5 star album rated down for lack of jazzy- or proggy-ness.

Report this review (#459506)
Posted Sunday, June 12, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars Steely Dan don't have bad albums, but some of them have more enjoyable songs than others, and in this respect The Royal Scam is very pleasing. They seem not to be as popular here as in the music world in general - and why should they be, they're not even remotely prog; in fact I never would have dared to suggest them here myself. During the band's original existence (from Can't Buy a Thrill in 1972 to Gaucho in 1980) Donald Fagen and Walter Becker shifted gradually into more radio-friendly jazzy pop or AOR with more polished production, but I don't see any big differences in the output. Many people tend to prefer their earlier albums (for the mentioned reason) but I actually enjoy their later works more. They never lost their true spirit to commercialism. Perfectionism in production is OK if it's not at the cost of songwriting. Anyway, Aja and Gaucho may be a bit too sleek and if they hadn't stopped recording after them, they might have become dull. So I can call this one from the middle their best album, as seem to think several other reviewers too.

'Kid Charlemagne' is one of their most charming songs. Also the next one, 'Caves of Altamira', is really nice. 'The Fez' about using condoms and reaggae-ish 'Haitian Divorce' are amusing ones, especially 'The Fez' with slight funk feel gets you humming along. Some songs leave me cold but so is the case in each SD album. The final title track is the most serious-toned and nearly majestic in its 6½-minute lenght. See the H.R. Giger -reminding cover that fits well together with the song.

Report this review (#480258)
Posted Monday, July 11, 2011 | Review Permalink
2 stars After Katy Lied, which was a masterpiece, The Royal Scam was a royal disappointment. Although it has a clutch of good tracks - the title track is interesting for showing a more sombre side of the band, Don't Take Me Alive is dramatic even though it's kind of a rerun of With a Gun from Pretzel Logic, Caves of Altamira has this odd majesty to it and Kid Charlemagne is a fantastic song - it's padded out with far too much filler. Not just filler, mind, but really badly misconceived filler, like the goofy novelty track The Fez or the horrible pseudo-reggae Haitian Divorce.

It's telling when one of the stronger tracks of the album (Caves of Altamira) is an old piece from the Dan scrapbook, with a demo version from before Can't Buy a Thrill widely circulating on bootlegs. The Royal Scam gives every impression of the band stuck in the midst of songwriter's block.

Report this review (#549727)
Posted Thursday, October 13, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars The Royal Scam is one of this timeless band's finest albums. Here their songs are as quirky as ever, with their unusual, yet accessible musical formula. Aside from the typical jazz-rock fusions, this album is often quite funky, especially with "Green Earrings". All the songs are classics, with marvellous solo perfomances on each, for example the rock guitar, played to the jazzy organ rhythm that opens "Don't Take Me Alive", Steely Dan was certainly one of the sharpest, wittiest and musically adventurous bands of its era. The lyrics are often obscure and clever, sometimes about such specific situations, like the exploitation of workers on "the royal scam". Of the arrangements, the muted trumpet that blows throughout that track is really cool, though in general the keyboard and horn performances are all great. Other standouts on the album are "The Caves of Altamaira", "Sign In Stranger" and "The Fez". It's well work taking time to get accustomed to this band, this music is sure to grow on a listener who appreciates slick songwriting and musicianship. The Royal Scam is the perfect place to start with Steely Dan, just as much as their second effort Countdown To Ecstasy.
Report this review (#591115)
Posted Monday, December 19, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars Deciding on a final star rating for "The Royal Scam" wasn't easy. It's probably one of Steely Dan's most "progressive" efforts, in the conventional prog-rock sense. However, "The Royal Scam" is not one of my favorite albums by Steely Dan, one of my top five favorite bands. Therefore, my final rating has to be in the 3.5 - 4 star range.

I work with a guy named Tim who, besides having other great qualities, is as much of a Steely Dan fanatic as I am. It's always good to find a kindred soul, isn't it? "The Royal Scam" is his favorite Steely Dan album. Another PA reviewer, Chicapah, hit the nail on the head with the term "biting cynicism". Tim has a sardonic sense of humor, so maybe that has something to do with his opinion. "The Royal Scam" has always seemed a little cold to me.

TRS does have longer songs and is less instantly accessible than Steely Dan's other albums. In that regard, it does fit the standard definition of "prog-rock" However, complexity in itself is not always a good thing. One of Becker/Fagen's biiggest strengths is their ability to write attractive and interesting music and arrangements.

My favorite tracks on TRS are Kid Charlemagne, The Caves of Altamira, and Everything You Did. The guitar playing, which seems to be led on this album by Larry Carlton and Walter Becker, is brilliant as always. I think this is an underrated aspect of Steely Dan's music. Why more teenagers don't idolize Walter Becker, Jeff Baxter, or Denny Dias instead of Eddie Van Halen, I'll never know!

The title track, "The Royal Scam", overstays its welcome. It's simply too long, and the brass parts are grating IMO. I'll place "The Royal Scam" in the four star pile for it's progressiveness. It's not Steely Dan at their best, but Steely Dan on an off-day is better than most bands every day.

Report this review (#947172)
Posted Sunday, April 21, 2013 | Review Permalink
3 stars 3,5 stars for sure

Fifth studio album The Royal scam from 1976 is to me another good towards great release from Steely Dan. Three pieces stands as highlights to my ears, the opening track Kid Charlemagne with excellent vocal lines, the smooth and elegant Don't take me alive with catchy chorus and the ending track The royal scam, the rest of the material while are ok are nothing really impressive. Keeping the same attitude as on previous albums , maybe little lighter then on Countdown to ecstasy but not bad at all in the end. the popier moments are well integrated in the overall jazzier sound. 3,5 for this one, good but I prefere Countdown much more

Report this review (#973583)
Posted Saturday, June 8, 2013 | Review Permalink
5 stars There is a marked change in Steely Dan's music for the album The Royal Scam. As some reviews written at that time also noted, Steely Dan move away from the generally laidback, cool attitude that their music conveys a bit and rock out. Aja should have been the logical next step after Katy Lied as songs like Doctor Wu already hinted at the direction they would take on that album. Instead, Steely Dan put together what they took to be a blend of rock and funk and which instead ended up sounding like - at least to my ears - jazz rock/fusion with vocals.

This aspect is particularly noticeable on Green Earrings. The intro sounds like it would build up to some funk but once their trademark guitar chords kick in, we are clearly in fusion territory. The song has two guitar solos back to back in the middle and another in the coda. Did they really expect to succeed with this? Apparently, they did.

As Finnforest mentions in his review, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the twin kingpins of Steely Dan, felt that they desperately needed to get their act together or they would get relegated forever to the 'second division' of the music business. This urgency is brought out in their sleeve notes (do read it, by the way, it has a hilarious account of Fagen and Becker sharing the same nightmare). Some of this urgency seems to have to rubbed off on their music.

The somewhat meandering nature of Katy Lied is gone and in its place is a very tight, driving execution of the Steely Dan formula. The elements remain fundamentally the same: a blend of jazz, funk, rock and blues with Fagen's sly style of singing on top, performed and produced to perfection. But slow burners like Caves of Altamira are now interludes that provide breathing space in the midst of racy music rather than the norm (as in Katy Lied). There is further a hint of tension that balances out their usually complacent irony so that, at least until you get to the somewhat repetitive title track, the album seems to fly past in a hurry. Clocking at 41 minutes, it is, like most Steely Dan albums, indeed not too taxing on your time.

The music also complements the lyrical themes used in this album (or, the other way round, if you like). Don't Take Me Alive or Kid Charlemagne focus on criminal activity while Everything You Did focuses on infidelity. The common feature is somebody has done some wrong and it's either him trying to run or the hunter in hot pursuit. The escapades are laced with trademark Steely Dan humour (for instance, "I jumped out of my easy chair/It was not my own"). You've really got to listen to that and the album as such with Fagen's wry delivery; it adds to the fun.

So is there a problem? Apparently not, if you ask Fagen and Becker. To quote from the sleeve notes: "we find ourselves rocking out to the soul stirring sounds of some fiercely funkadelic and deeply righteous Bernard Purdie grooves, Chuck Rainey bass lines, Paul Griffin piano riffs, and the like. Here comes a guitar solo - Larry Carlton, no problem there." As these words attest, there is indeed some amazing musicianship on this album. You will be simply spoilt by the abundance of great guitar leads (check out THAT tone on Don't Take Me Alive or Everything You Did for that matter) and there is also a wonderful saxophone solo on Caves of Altamira. As I mentioned earlier, the title track stretches on for a bit but otherwise, the album is mostly a very engaging affair.

But it did not ultimately deliver what they were looking for in terms of success. The difference between previous Steely Dan albums and Royal Scam is subtle rather than stark. By 1976, they weren't exactly alone in the corporate rock game either and it may have been felt that they didn't really have a new sound to offer with this album. As a result, it was reasonably successful but not the blockbuster they wanted.

Steely Dan raised their game on Royal Scam but the public weren't really listening. That would be the next album, Aja. But circa 2013, Royal Scam has much to offer for fans of jazz rock/fusion, as long as you don't mind it being fitted into a mainstream pop/rock format. 5 stars.

Report this review (#1050684)
Posted Wednesday, October 2, 2013 | Review Permalink
3 stars Jazz-Rock Fusion? Try Mahavishnu Orchestra Look, I love this group, hence my nickname, love every single track they ever composed but I don't think they are clearly a progressive group.

On the other hand who cares? This is one magnificent CD that has been on my living room while I croon to Haitian Divorce to my startled wife, her fault, she decided to marry me against all common sense.

Anyway I love this gem but I will give a 3 stars rating because I am a hideous person down deep.

But, a word to the wise: I'll never gonna do It without the Fez on. Comprende?

Report this review (#1449385)
Posted Wednesday, August 5, 2015 | Review Permalink
4 stars Not content with the bright, moccasin-comfortable sounds of their previous album, Katy Lied (which Becker and Fagen considered a failure because of technical gremlins), Steely Dan decided to once again change their sound radically; The Royal Scam, released in 1976, has a grittier, funkier and yes, darker sound than the Dan had explored previously. With this album, they resumed the practice of having a different cast of session players on every track (which began with Pretzel Logic). Gone are the days of the "Katy Lied band" as I call it (bass guitarist extraordinaire Chuck Rainey being one of the only holdovers from that record), giving way to a conglomeration of studio stars featuring no less than 27 musicians and around ten completely new names (including a new guitar hero in Larry Carlton, who was with the Crusaders at the time).

It is interesting to see the criticism levied at this record. A lot of people in my experience don't really like this album so much, and although I love it dearly, I can understand why. Much of the music is rather repetitive, built around four-, two- and even one-chord vamps ("Sign in Stranger," "Green Earrings") although this is not the case for the entirety of the songs in question. But the repetition doesn't bother me, as Becker and Fagen were always trying to do different things with their music (they even admitted they were trying for a disco hit with "The Fez"). They wouldn't have done it in the first place if they didn't find some musical merit in it (especially not at that time, when each successive album took longer to complete due to their studio perfectionism).

"Kid Charlemagne" is the leadoff track here, and incidentally, the inspiration for an old online handle of mine. Lyrically, the song is essentially a Cliffs Notes bio of 60s-70s LSD guru Stanley Owsley (or was that Owsley Stanley?). This track also serves as the official SD introduction to legendary studio drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, who had played on several hits by Aretha Franklin and countless other artists (his grooves here are instantly recognizable), and as the unofficial introduction to Larry Carlton (unofficial because he did play rhythm parts on Katy Lied), who has two amazing solos which, reportedly, were done in only two or three takes! A definitive Dan track.

"The Caves of Altamira" is another holdover from the demo tapes, revised and updated for 1976. The original version was piano-voice demo with simplified chord movement and an extra verse; here it's a slick, hip studio production with an added horn section. The sax solo in the middle and end sections I believe is by smooth-jazz cat John Klemmer (if so, it's one of the only times I ever liked his playing).

"Don't Take Me Alive" is considerably nastier then the previous two tracks from the outset, starting off with a loud, arpeggiated G7+9 chord by Carlton who will come to dominate this track (more or less). The lyrics paint one of Becker and Fagen's most dystopian future visions yet, backed up by Carlton, Rainey and drummer Rick Marotta (another newbie to the Dan). I think Paul Griffin may be playing keyboards here. Another great one.

"Sign in Stranger" continues the theme of the previous track (an outlaw on the run from society at large), this time with a science-fiction bent. This is the beginning of three tracks built on rather minimalistic vamps (which are of course expounded upon between the verse lines). The end-of-verse turnaround and bridge add interest, and Paul Griffin has one of the all-time great Dan piano solos. Dig the out-of-left-field horn outro, with Carlton working his magic again.

Speaking of Griffin, "The Fez" is the only SD piece credited to Becker, Fagen and another writer (not after the fact like "Gaucho"). Paul Griffin is the third writer here, possibly because he played a keyboard line in rehearsals that Becker and Fagen decided to use in the song. The lyrics are about as simple as you can get ("I'm never gonna do it without the fez on/Oh, no" repeated six times), although some would view it as a safe sex PSA wherein "the fez" represents... well, never mind. Carlton soars over the bridge once again, which has some of the best harmonic changes the band ever put together.

"Green Earrings" is the last of the vamp-based tunes for now, again with a killer instrumental bridge section (I'm starting to think that Becker and Fagen saved their best stuff for the bridges on this album). Lyrically, it describes a con artist who only loves a woman for the jewelry she wears. This track is notable for having two guitar solos by different players, something not done since "Bodhisattva." Denny Dias is up first, and Elliot Randall returns once more to blow over the instrumental verse, and in the out-vamp where he employs a ring modulator during the fade-out. Serious Dan fans should check out the instrumental version of this tune, where the out-vamp is retained in full, running three minutes longer than the album version; the rhythm section really lets loose there.

"Haitian Divorce" was, surprisingly, a runaway hit in the UK where reggae was riding a wave of popularity thanks to the likes of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The lyrics are based on then-recent experiences by co-engineer Elliot Scheiner (who wanted a quickie divorce at the time), and the running commentary throughout the track is provided by talk-box guitar, played by Dean Parks and manipulated by Walter Becker. This is the only potential downside of the record, as the talk-box tends to make this track rather sleepy (although, having said that, it's a hell of a lot more tolerable than Peter Frampton).

"Everything You Did" is, I feel, one of the Dan's more underrated tracks. Maybe people don't like it because of the subject matter (about a jealous husband discovering his wife has been cheating on him)? Not sure, but I always loved it, especially the 5/4 bars in the guitar solo (Carlton yet again). Have I mentioned yet that Larry Carlton is all over this record? Well, he is, although his studio tenure would only really last until the next album, but more on that in a future review.

By the way, I've mentioned the Eagles quite a bit in my Steely Dan reviews, and it's mostly because of this line in the song: "Turn up the Eagles/the neighbors are listening." This was Becker and Fagen's "poke in the eye" to the LA country-rock titans whose "Greatest Hits" album was on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums ever. SD evidently saw the Eagles (aka the White Drifters) as rivals because they both started in LA at the same time (but, refreshingly, bore no ill will towards them). Don Henley and Glenn Frey were flattered by the reference in this song, so they returned the favor in their huge hit of the same year, "Hotel California," with the line "they stab it with their steely knives/but they just can't kill the beast." Steely Dan and the Eagles are two of my favorite bands, so it's nice to know that they had a mutual admiration society of sorts.

Back to the album at hand, which ends with the title track. When people comment on the "dark" sound of this album, they're mostly talking about this song, which is about Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City (although Becker and Fagen changed the name of the city "San Juan" to "St. John," which is actually in Newfoundland, Canada). This is another vamp tune, based on six-bar phrases; in the key of C minor, the cycle unusually starts with the turnaround in the first two bars, then is followed by four bars of Cm7. Starting in the second verse, the fill-in solos between verse lines are played by Chuck Findley on trumpet and Dick "Slyde" Hyde on trombone. There is also occasional backing from the horn section, at one point featuring a low pedal C which I believe is played by contrabass trombone (???). At 6 1/2 minutes, it is the longest and best track on the album; I've always gotten off on the dark, brooding atmosphere it creates throughout its duration.

Even though some people don't regard Scam highly, I have a soft spot for it because it was one of the first Dan albums I had as a kid. (I actually started off with this, Aja and Gaucho, and somehow proceeded to work my way backwards through the catalog.) I refer to those three albums as the definitive period of Steely Dan, where their concept was realized more fully than any other album. If you're the slightest bit curious about this band, you probably already have this album anyway, but be sure to check it out if you don't; at least one song here will be familiar to you to begin with. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Report this review (#1450033)
Posted Friday, August 7, 2015 | Review Permalink
Prog Metal Team
4 stars "Kid Charlemagne", the opening track off The Royal Scam, accomplishes more in its 4:38 runtime than many progressive rock epics do in 20 minutes. Marrying jazz rock with a slick funk sound, the track manages to be both ornately detailed and catchy as hell at the same time. And despite the fact that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote the tune, it's guitarist Larry Carlton who leads the charge here. His lead parts - capped off with a truly showstopping solo - make for one of the most complex and impressive performances you'll find in a pop rock song. And in just four minutes, we as the audience know what sound Steely Dan were aiming for this time around.

The Royal Scam is affectionately referred to by fans as the duo's "guitar album", and for damn good reason. As with previous Steely Dan releases, this one shows yet another facet of their core jazz-rock sound: guitar-driven funk. Prior records had their funky moments as well, but they were never featured quite as prominently as they were here. More importantly, as is the case with funk rock in general, the chemistry between the guitar and the rhythm section is crucial to the quality of these songs. Luckily, the lineup of guitarists featured on The Royal Scam is absolutely fantastic. There's Larry Carlton as I previously stated, but there's also the return of legendary Steely Dan alumni Denny Dias, Elliott Randall (remember that amazing guitar work on "Reelin' in the Years"?), and Dean Parks. Add Walter Becker himself to the mix and you've got an amazing all-star cast.

But of course, they're all used in the service of these amazing tunes. "Kid Charlemagne" might be an incredible opener, but what it really does is give us a taste of just how eclectic and crazy this record really is. Despite being more funky in nature, this might also be one of the most diverse tracklists the group ever put out; jazz, pop, funk, hard rock, progressive rock, and a hint of blues can all be found on the album. In fact, just after the opener, we get a complete change of pace with the horn-driven number "The Caves of Altamira"; the song marries a story about the genesis of creativity and expression with an arrangement that only gets more complex as it goes on. Lots of jazz, of course, but also a hint of R&B in the verses and some prog in each post-chorus. Meanwhile, "Don't Take Me Alive" might just be one of the most hard-rockin' Steely Dan numbers; Larry Carlton's lead guitar work absolutely tears it up on this fast- paced number, perfectly complimenting the dark lyrics about a criminal who's killed his own father and wants the cops to shoot him. How pleasant!

And the stylistic contrasts continue. But it's not like any of this detracts from the cohesion and focus of the record. If anything, each song is like its own unique extension of the Steely Dan style while still very much being in the Steely Dan style. This is perhaps best represented in some of the album's deeper cuts, most notably "Haitian Divorce" and "The Fez". The former is a song that I never would have expected to enjoy; I'm not much of a reggae fan as it is, so I wasn't really excited about the prospect of a Steely Dan song using rhythms and guitar leads reminiscent of the genre. And yet, it somehow works! I think the band's infusion of jazz into the mix, as well as the haunting and melancholic chorus, are really what pull it through in the end. Those backing vocals in the chorus are just lovely, and they only make the song even darker and more atmospheric than it already was. "The Fez", however, is an interesting experiment for the duo as well. The music covers pretty familiar funk rock rock territory, but the lyrics are quite minimalistic. "No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on; oh no!" is repeated as if it were a mantra, while the strings in the background make you feel as though you're in a 70s cop show. Honestly, it's fun as hell. And it culminates in the beautiful jazzy harmonies that make up the chorus.

If I had to give a label to The Royal Scam, I'd say it's probably Steely Dan's most "fun" album. The energetic funk- inspired sound is just a blast, and the incredible roster of amazing guitarists just makes it even more exciting. Additionally, with the lens of hindsight, you can definitely tell that it was the immediate precursor to Aja. While it's a lot funkier and more fast-paced than its successor, The Royal Scam was even more drenched in jazz influence than its predecessors and paved the way for songs like "Black Cow" and "I Got the News". Simply put, this album absolutely rocks and I can't give it a higher recommendation. But if you put it on, just make sure to turn down The Eagles; the neighbors are listening!

Report this review (#2582454)
Posted Saturday, July 31, 2021 | Review Permalink

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