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Steely Dan - The Royal Scam CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.76 | 202 ratings

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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.

Raff | 4/5 |


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