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Donald Fagen’s Cheap Xmas

During their first go-round, a period bookended by 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill and 1980’s Gaucho, Steely Dan released a string of silver, gold, and platinum albums yet differed markedly from other best-selling artists from that period. If you consider that teen fluff like “Rock & Roll All Nite” and “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” was more in tune with the times and then compare those songs to Steely Dan’s “Show-Biz Kids”—a none-too-subtle jab at privileged brats who, it turns out, “got their Steely Dan t-shirts”—you recognize that rare 70s band who disdained glitzy, self-enamored party animals and recognized that their music was part of that culture’s soundtrack.

Another difference: the co-leaders of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, avoided interviews, quickly stopped touring, and holed up in studios, where they tinkered obsessively and made recordings that were as polished musically as they were sonically. Also, what started as a band with several full-time members evolved, after 1974’s Pretzel Logic, into a revolving door of studio musicians who laid down rhythm tracks or overdubs while Fagen and Becker hid in the control room. Add to that cryptic lyrics drenched in irony and you might wonder how their albums and singles sat atop the pop music charts for eight years. A partial answer: their songs were well-crafted and catchy, and they told a good story.

The idiosyncrasies and achievements of Steely Dan bear mentioning in light of Rhino’s new remastered 7-LP vinyl box set of Donald Fagen’s Cheap Xmas, which contains his four solo albums to date plus a disc’s worth of outtakes and B-sides (the compilation originally came out on CD in 2012). While listening to these records, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with Steely Dan, as Fagen was, for starters, a co-leader, singer, songwriter, arranger, and keyboardist for the group. A quick scan of the musician credits on the solo albums confirms that, after the first incarnation of Steely Dan, Fagen continued to employ top-notch studio aces. Also, in true Steely Dan style, great care was taken in the preparation of this vinyl set, for which all the LPs were pressed at Record Industry. Nightfly was cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Master, Sunken Condos by Scott Hull at Masterdisc, Morph The Cat by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at AcousTech Mastering, and Kamakiriad and 10 Extras at Abbey Road. The sound is superb, offering clarity, dynamic range, and taut, well-defined electric bass lines at unusually low frequencies (a great example being Freddie Washington’s bass on Morph the Cat).

As would befit a Steely Dan record, when Fagen recorded 1982’s Nightfly he spent endless hours in the studio, where he faced fresh new technical hurdles, including drum machines and digital recording. Even without Walter Becker’s assistance, the songcraft remains of a high order. Lyrically, though, something new is afoot, as Fagen’s irony is somewhat tamed. The title track is a sympathetic portrait of an old-school jazz disc jockey, and while “I.G.Y” depicts the naiveté of white suburbia in the late 50s and early 60s, Fagen doesn’t seem to sneer at that culture. Conceptually Fagen broke new ground with Nightfly, and it worked.

When 1993’s Kamakiriad was released, critics didn’t know what to make of it. If Steely Dan’s music was sometimes chided for its cool detachment, there were moments of raw passion (remember Wayne Shorter’s tenor sax solo on the title track to Aja?), and a dark sensibility sometimes brought an edge to their music. Kamakiriad, on the other hand, is almost disarming in its casualness. That said, not all music needs to invoke the dark night of the soul or make meaningful statements about the human condition. In fact, even a story about a young man who, in a vehicle that’s “a total biosphere” and has a hydroponic farm in the back, embarks on a series of episodes whose underlying meaning has escaped everyone except a few overzealous English majors, can make a memorable album if the music contains a plethora of solid grooves and catchy melodies, as Kamakiriad definitely does. To these ears it’s Fagen’s best solo album to date, and considering the high cost of procuring a long out-of-print early pressing of Kamakiriad, its inclusion in this vinyl set is definitely cause for celebration.

Like the earliest incarnation of Steely Dan, 2006’s Morph the Cat features a core group of musicians, including Keith Carlock on drums, Freddie Washington on bass, and Jon Herington on guitar. Where Kamakiriad seems sunny and bright, Morph the Cat has a noirish tinge. The groove established on the title track at first seems strangely somnambulant, but when you consider that the stealthy Morph symbolizes the way the media brainwashes our society (think “opium of the masses”), that groove makes a lot of sense. In a similar vein, “Mary Shut the Door” depicts an oppressive regime overtaking American society. Here pop music’s #1 ironist seems dead serious—and, considering recent developments, quite prescient.

The most recent Donald Fagen album, 2012’s Sunken Condos, has no overriding theme, although Fagen’s younger-women problems continue to resurface throughout the record. This isn’t the most tuneful Fagen album, but some snappy horn charts, eerie vibraphone, and other nice touches spice it up a bit. And while I suspect that Fagen has tamed some of his earlier demons, it’s nice to know that that the mixed-up guy from those Steely Dan records still has an issue or two, as his anxieties and frustrations have always made for memorable music.

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