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Steely Dan - Countdown To Ecstasy CD (album) cover

COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY

Steely Dan

 

Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.05 | 203 ratings

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TCat
5 stars After their decent but far from perfect debut, one of the lead singers (David Palmer) left the band leaving Donald Fagen to sing lead on all of the songs. Who knew that this would lead to a much better album with their follow up "Countdown to Ecstasy", especially when the album cover was so ugly. While it's true that a hit single wasn't generated from the album, it has its share of classic tracks that have become favorites. Eventually, it received the gold status it deserved, but it wasn't an instant success even though the critics loved it. Now many fans consider it one of their best, and rightly so.

The original cover art was created by Dorothy White who was Fagen's girfreind at the time. The record company couldn't see past the fact that her painting had 3 characters and insisted that two more should be added to represent all of the band's members. What ended up happening was the cover looked unfinished. The proofs were also stolen and that didn't help either. Fagen ended up hating the cover, but he pretty much hated all of the early covers.

The subjects of the songs pretty much followed the same themes of the debut with topics like drug busts and living in excess. The music also stuck with the jazz inspired rock sound of the debut, but this time around, it was more evident, and that movement towards a more free feeling sound is what helps elevate this album so far above the debut. Yes, the debut had "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years", and it is tough to beat those to jam-based songs that are definitely some of SD's most memorable and popular. However, the opening track to "Ecstasy" is sooooo much better. With layered vocals, Fagen strengthened his voice, but the biggest draw to this song is the long instrumental sections that feature rocking and bop-style playfulness between Fagen's keys and Becker's bass and Baxter's guitar which was one of the best examples of their ability to work together. The fact that the lyrics alluded to the fact that if you want to achieve spiritual perfection, you don't necessarily have to give up everything you have was a concept that went against what the hippies of the time tried to preach.

From there, we go to a more jazzy, laid-back vibe that also had a nice even level of complexity in the ironic song "Razor Boy". There is a nice, happy, island vibe to the whole thing, plus Jeff Baxter (who would later play for The Doobie Brothers) lends his smooth steel guitar to the mix, and what you end up with is a biting, yet positive feeling track. "The Boston Rag" works off of a heavier rock sound, but retains the shiny jazz feel nevertheless. As the song develops and moves into the final instrumental break, the piano and guitar work together to create a rugged sound and Jeff Baxter once again pushes it to a nice climax with a distorted guitar solo. This is followed by "Your Gold Teeth" which has a great jazz groove established by the solid keyboard work which use jazz harmonies to lay a nice foundation for Becker's bass and Baxter's guitar. The topic is a female grifter and her ability to scam people with her looks and smarts. The sleazy world is well represented and enhanced by the cool keyboard and guitar solos that surround the verses.

"Show Biz Kids" is another SD classic which forms the persistent and infectious groove early on that repeats all the way through the track but never gets tired as the almost hip hop sound of the music. It works its way into your brain and refuses to leave until long after. The rowdy slide guitar solo is performed by the guitar guru Rick Derringer. This one will get your foot tapping and was one of the first popular songs to use the famous "F" word which was sampled by "Super Furry Animals". After this comes the 2nd of the one-two punch of fan favs called "My Old School". This one is also infectous with the solid backbeat and a jazzy flair. The track is autobiographical as it tells about a drug bust that Fagen and Becker were involved in at their high school. "Daddy G", the person mentioned in the lyrics, is G. Gordon Liddy, who was the local prosecutor at the time. Baxter has another rocking guitar solo in this one too. The sassy sax lines created by the 4 person sax ensemble also make this track a keeper and a favorite.

Baxter continues to deliver excellent pedal steel guitar on "Pearl of the Quarter" which has a definite country flair to it, one of the few SD tracks that could be considered country tinged. The final track to this masterpiece album is "King of the World" which explores the theme of nuclear holocaust in a somewhat sarcastic manner, a theme that Fagen would return to. If anyone doubted SD's ties to jazz flavored rock would not be able to deny it after this track and this album. A nice, smooth synth solo in the instrumental break caps everything off perfectly.

Definitely a major highlight in SD's discography, I consider "Countdown to Ecstasy" one of their best and for sure an influential album for bringing jazz/rock fusion and pop together in one seamless style. The album would be the source of inspiration for many artists, even including Joe Jackson, who released an amazing jazz/rock/pop album of his own called "Night and Day". If there is only one SD album that you hear, this is one that should be one of your choices. Excellent musicianship and songwriting persist through this album which never really gets stale and would be the album that would define their unique sound. No doubt that this album is one of their 5 star masterpieces as it raised the "cool" factor 100%.

TCat | 5/5 |

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