During Steely Dan’s first go-round—the period from Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) to Gaucho (1980)—I remained dubious about the increasingly popular and steadily shrinking band. To me their reluctance to tour symbolized a growing distance between rock stars and fans. Their perfectionist tendencies in the studio plus a penchant for obscure lyrics also branded them as disengaged and aloof.
Yet I felt compelled to attend the New York Rock and Soul Revue starring Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in 1992. That was only the second show of the tour, but the half-dozen Steely Dan songs were played with an urgency that washed away my reservations. When Donald Fagen raised his melodica to cue the horn section during “Josie” and the musicians responded with a look of intense purpose, it struck me that I was witnessing an artist who had as much business leading a band as anyone. That concert returned me to Steely Dan’s catalogue at the same time that it instilled an interest in post-Gaucho releases, and thus far Fagen’s solo work holds up at least as well as the group efforts. On his own Fagen has brought something new to the table, finding a lighter tone on The Nightfly and Kamakiriad and developing more extended compositions on Morph the Cat.
As with those releases, Sunken Condos boasts impressive musicianship. William Galison’s harmonica adds a touch of sweetness to the proceedings while Michael Leonhart’s vibes bring an eerie, otherworldly chill. The horn charts are sometimes quite ambitious, and the guitar solos by Jon Herington and Kurt Rosenwinkel combine studio expertise with that something extra that helped Steely Dan avoid the standard L.A. sound. Fagen and Leonhart coax nice riffs out of pianos, clavinets, organs, and synthesizers. The 180-gram LP I listened to boasts remarkable clarity, although—I hesitate to say this because I’ve changed my mind before—at times it seems too clinical. At times, too, it seems as if top- drawer musicians and engineers do a stellar job of embellishing so-so material. Sunken Condos features some medium- tempo grooves that feel too comfortable for their own good, and lyrically some material comes off as uninspired. The insecurities besetting older men dating younger women becomes a tired theme, especially compared to “Hey Nineteen” and “Babylon Sisters,” which were both wittier and darker.
It’s primarily when Fagen ditches the relationship worries that Sunken Condos gels. The Cold War motif of “Memorabilia” will resonate with Nightfly fans. The funky Isaac Hayes composition “Out of the Ghetto” forces the band to turn off the cruise control, and the Klezmer touches create an intriguing musical crossroads. “Miss Marlene” involves a dead bowler whose presence can still be felt on Saturday nights. Sound maudlin? Perhaps it is, yet it’s a memorable pop song. In “Good Stuff” a mob member with women problems invokes a strong work ethic in order to keep his emotions in check. It’s sick, demented stuff—and one wishes this thug could share his brand of self-healing on Dr. Phil. Although “Planet D’Rhonda” is Fagen’s third pass at the May-December theme, its lush, airy soundscape ultimately won me over—that and the line about CPR.