Present company excluded Tom Moon’s Walter Becker tribute is the one to read if you’re reading only one:
Becker, who died Sunday at the age of 67, stands apart from that class, off in a semi-neglected dark corner, his contribution to the rock canon less clearly defined. He had technical dexterity on the guitar, but was hardly a shredder. Or a flamethrower. He didn’t grandstand. Sometimes he didn’t even play the big solos — he regularly hired studio hotshots to provide firepower on the Steely Dan hits he cowrote with keyboardist and singer Donald Fagen.
If pop music is a constant tug of war between the reassuringly familiar and the jolt of the modernist new, Becker’s gift was the ability to hit both extremes at once. What Becker added to Steely Dan was an elusive strain of magic — the terse little melodic thing that turned out to be exactly what the music needed. And nothing more. He represents a flickering high-water moment for understatement in rock, and his work — spread across nine meticulously crafted studio albums with the band, two solo projects and production on records by Rickie Lee Jones and others — is a lesson in the ways wickedly irreverent left-field inspiration can expand and multiply the pleasures of a pop song.
The basic Steely Dan formula has been described, in a reductionist way, as “jazz chords with backbeat-heavy grooves.” It was more than that, of course: Fagen sang from a place of caustic, urbane cynicism, and his tone (astringent, with undertones of exasperation) gave significant dimension to narratives about wild gamblers, drug-dealing athletes and faux hipsters. The stories work because at heart, the guys doing the telling were romantics, versed in the yearnings of Great American Songbook tunesmiths and the beat poets that came later. They understood both the importance of formal structure and the desire to subvert the rigors of form.
Becker and Fagen were also known jazzheads, and the music of Steely Dan embraces some verities of Sinatra-era song — the bridge sections and tricky chord progressions — while rejecting the smoother happily-ever-after storybook narratives. The duo worked on the lyrics and every other aspect of the songs together, and though Fagen was the “voice” of Steely Dan, his edge-of-sarcasm tinge needed softening. The sleek, streamlined cool of the music, that faint essence of sophisticated lounge culture, helped offset the abrasion of the lead vocals. Much of that “interior” sonic landscaping can be traced to the stealthy spotlight-avoiding Walter Becker.
Investigate any of the Steely Dan songs that became earworms, and somewhere in the vicinity of the vocal hook, you will find a slight, seemingly insignificant instrumental gesture, a morsel that lifts the music higher. The angular five-note opening phrase of “Josie” from Aja. The burbling talkbox-guitar counterpoint that underpins the sordid tale of a “Haitian Divorce” or the talkbox emulation of Depression-era brass on “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”
Definitely read the whole etc. if you’re into that kind of thing.
Like Rob Sheffield and many other fans, my favorite Dan is the Countdown to Ecstasy-Pretzel Logic-Katy Lied trio. But every one of their albums — the uneven but high-peaking debut, the transitional The Royal Scam, the blockbuster Aja, and the ultra-smooth Gaucho and Everything Must Go are rife with musical and lyrical pleasures that don’t wear out once if they grab you. And while the excellent first comeback album Two Against Nature became a punchline because of NARAS, if the criterion is aesthetic quality rather than “relevance” the academy has done far worse — a look at my iTunes confirms that I’ve played it more than, in descending order of preference, Midnite Vultures (likable, some really nice grooves, songwriting not quite all the way there), Kid A (perfectly pleasant, sometimes more, OK Computer is still where I’ll usually go when I feel like Radiohead), the Marshall Mathers LP (the sometimes witless kidding-on-the-square hatefulness has aged pretty badly on lesser material than “Stan” or “The Way I Am,” i.e. all of the rest of it), or You’re the One (reduced on my iTunes to “Old” and “Darling Lorraine”), and I have no regrets. I CELEBRATE THE ENTIRE COLLECTION. As Paul said, very few major bands have been more consistent although their records vary a lot sonically.
In a decision that looks even better in retrospect, we decided to catch a Vegas show for my birthday. One benefit of cranky perfectionism is that (Walter’s droll asides about how at least the show would make it easier to get laid aside) there was nothing remotely perfunctory about the potentially profit-taking gig. After three Yacht-Rock-adjacent-era classics that sometimes benefited from the looser and rockinger live arrangements and performances (“Black Cow,” “Aja,” and “Hey Nineteen”), the setlist ranged pretty far and wide, including the Ecstasy deep cut “Razor Boy,” a Joe Tex cover, and Walter doing lead vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.” (I like both Becker solo albums, especially 11 Tracks of Whack, but his voice does tend to expose itself in larger doses. As a Keef/Ringo style change of pace, though, it works really well — “Slang of Ages” might be my favorite track on Everything Must Go, and it’s bad they didn’t try it before.) What was most striking about seeing the material live. though, was seeing the evident pleasure Fagen and Becker, who made their reputation as studio hermits and ruthless taskmasters, took in seeing crack musicians (including Larry Carlton, invited for “Kid Charlemagne” and “My Old School”) cutting loose on stage. The show wouldn’t be worth seeing if they weren’t control freaks, but it was hugely entertaining in part because they learned to let go just enough.
And sometimes you can see this even on their most polished records. As Moon says, what generally made the music work was creating a context of high-quality songs and structures in which virtuosos didn’t show off. But sometimes, when you can afford Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd you have to allow them to just let ‘er rip: