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Steely Dan - Gaucho CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.69 | 166 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
3 stars If "Aja" was the ultimate congruent cast party for Steely Dan (an opinion I heartily endorse) then "Gaucho" was the inevitable hangover. Now, Dan fans, don't overreact to that weak metaphor, it's still a good album. They didn't make bad ones. Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and producer Gary Katz had released six long-playing records before this one and there's not a runt in the litter. But I think they realized that the near-perfect "Aja" project was a rare alignment of cosmic forces where the graces of the session Gods shined down on them, never to be simulated, imitated or duplicated in their lifetimes. Therefore a complete change of attitude and set design was the only way to avoid unfavorable comparisons to that crowning achievement. Taking a whole year off was a well-deserved vacation from the claustrophobic confines of the studio for all involved. But fickle lady luck moved on in their absence. An unfathomable tape erasure disaster, an ugly lawsuit with its requisite posse of conniving lawyers, poor Walt's disabling misadventure involving a New York City cab and a high-stakes wheelin' & dealin' swap meet on the part of their label may have been either circumstantial cases of bad fortune or some evil conspiracy hell-bent on sucking all the air from their billowing sails. Or maybe they just lost their mojo. Whatever the reason, "Gaucho" didn't pack the usual progressive punch and, worst of all, it would be their last album for over 20 long years to come.

The subject matter of many of the songs coupled with the overwhelming mellowness of the sound leads me to suspect that Don & Walt turning 30 while making the album also played a major part. Those of you who haven't breached that gut-check hurdle might think it's just a number but we on the other side of that milestone can attest to the existence-reassessment and soul-searching that it induces in the victim. At least that's what happened to me and I think it happened to the duo called Steely Dan. I offer the excellent opening tune, "Babylon Sisters," as evidence. A sly Rhodes piano creeps up, then crisp horns jump in before the verse arrives with Bernard Purdie on drums and Chuck Rainey on bass laying down the kind of tight track only they can provide. Fagen relates a story about a successful man of wealth who has come face to face with middle age and refuses to surrender, opting to look for the fountain of youth in the company of much younger ladies. He ignores all the dire warnings. "My friends say no/don't go for that cotton candy/son, you're playing with fire/the kid will live and learn/as he watches his bridges burn/from the point of no return," Donald sings. The way the female chorale leaps up out of the silky smoothness adds a great dynamic to the number and what becomes apparent is that this album will rely on clever arrangements to keep the listener interested rather than virtuoso guest performances. While that tactic works well here I can't say the same for three of the remaining cuts.

And "Hey Nineteen" is the first of those three. I know the stinging Stratocaster note at the outset gives it instant recognition the world over and the catchy hook line is custom made to be a "classic" AOR single in heavy rotation forevermore but what it sorely lacks is even a molecule of excitement. And, for a progger, that makes for a long five minutes. In the past they would have filled its wide-open musical spaces with a thrilling guitar ride or a sizzling saxophone solo but when the opportunity presents itself on this track absolutely nothing happens. Nada. Zip. Lyrically it offers more of the opening saga. Our macho man has acquired/bought his barely-legal trophy bombshell to keep him virile and make him the envy of his peer group but finds that, when not indulging in "the Cuervo Gold" and "the fine Columbian" in order to "make tonight a wonderful thing," he can't carry on a conversation with or come within a time zone of relating to his Barbie doll. His life has become as lacking in substance as the elevator music generated in this too-commercial ditty.

In 1980 disco was finally on its way out after becoming the obnoxious relative that grossly overstayed his welcome but you wouldn't know it by listening to "Glamour Profession." It's hard to believe that the same Steve Gadd who wowed us with his phenomenal drumming on "Aja" is relegated to demeaning single-stroke bass and snare work for 7:28 on this tune. He might as well be a cheap drum machine! The song itself isn't a total wash, though. The lush mix of keyboards is full and fat, the chord changes are nice and various guitars and saxes pop in and out along the way but it's still too predictable. Even the words describing how the late 70s cocaine culture had infiltrated all aspects of life, including professional sports, seem forced and contrived. "Living hard will take its toll," the chorus girls sing. Do tell. Maybe this ill-defined dance number was itself a casualty of their own, openly admitted "illegal fun under the sun."

Just when things are teetering on the verge of getting dull, Tom Scott's hot saxophone resurrects the mood as he ushers in the album's namesake and best song, "Gaucho." The intricate melody and drummer Jeff Porcaro's soft but intriguing accents playing around the beat is like a breath of fresh air at this point. The super-sized chorus is fantastic and the bright horn section poses a striking contrast to the tune's underlying velvety sheen. The lyrics may seem to be mocking the gay lifestyle at first hearing but they are nothing less than an overview of an awkward situation inside a shallow, open relationship founded solely on sexual preference and freedom. In this instance the protagonist's partner has brought home an unwanted guest. "Who is the gaucho, amigo?/why is he standing in your spangled leather poncho?/and your elevator shoes?/bodacious cowboys such as your friend/will never be welcome here/high in the Custerdome." he complains. The intelligent Steely Dan wit is on display here, of course, but the palpable sense of a heartbreak looming in the tale's unrevealed but inevitable ending is poetic and melancholy.

"Time Out of Mind" follows and here guest guitarist Mark Knopfler adds his eloquent fretboard passages to this upbeat, straightforward rocker but it's the dense vocal harmonies that provide the true dynamics. They jump right out of the speakers and credit for that enthralling effect goes to the expert engineering of Roger Nichols. The tune's words continue the story of Mr. Denial as he testifies about the age-defying benefits and euphoria-producing qualities found in modern pharmaceuticals and narcotics. "Tonight when I chase the dragon/the water will change to cherry wine/and the silver will turn to gold/time out of mind." he preaches. While we all know exactly where his race down the fast lane will land him eventually, his unabashed joy of living in the moment is infectious and propels this track forward like a rollercoaster ride.

The album's third uninspired number, "My Rival," is next and its presence here is inexplicable to me. Surely they had better material. It has a plodding, lazy feel that never gets comfortable as the song just lumbers along like a Lamborghini on cruise control in a school zone. If it weren't for Steve Kahn's lively guitar ride it could put you in a coma. Even the entertainment factor normally found in the wordplay is absent and unaccounted for. Donald portrays a fellow out to challenge another male for the hand of a maiden but the most he can boast of doing to the man is matching him "whim for whim." I'm glad they didn't end their first career as Steely Dan with this snoozer.

Instead, they wisely exited on a prog note with the mysterious, flowing atmosphere of "Third World Man." The song has a cavernous depth-of-field that pulls you into the hypnotic spell cast by the rhythm section of Gadd & Rainey, the electric piano of Joe Sample and the awesome guitarisms of Larry Carlton. It's unlike anything else on the disc. While the lyrics are rather cryptic, they describe an unstable dude that has gone underground as a one-man army, determined to make "the sidewalks safe for the little guy." The hints are there. "Johnny's playroom/is a bunker filled with sand" and "he's been mobilized since dawn/now he's crouching on the lawn," Fagen observes. Little did we know at the time, but as the tune slowly fades away into the darkness, Donald and Walter were also disappearing over the horizon, not to be heard together again for two decades.

The first track recorded for this album was one they were extremely proud of called "The Second Arrangement." It was accidentally erased. For Fagen & Becker it was as if one of their offspring had suddenly died and I'm not sure they ever got over that tragedy. All I know is that "Gaucho," while admirable in a laid-back Prozac kind of way, pales when placed beside the three albums that preceded it and I think the creators knew it. The magic was gone and maybe that was just as well. Because as soon as Don and Walt left the platform the prog-killing virus that was MTV quickly spread and infected the entire musical world and Steely Dan would have had to go into quarantine. Despite being a step back, this collection of tunes didn't tarnish their sterling reputation a bit and there are times when its sleek, contemporary mood is just right for me to recall what it felt like to turn thirty and wave farewell to my wild, uncomplicated youth. 3.4 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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