BY THE TIME I got a job editing a hi-fi oriented gadget magazine, I had built up quite a head of steam about Steely Dan. I always loved that they got their name from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and that it referenced a steam-powered adult toy, but I had grown to hate the fact that every single hi-fi shop I walked into just had to put on a Steely Dan track to show how good the gear was, which put them in the same camp as the execrable, aptly-named Dire Straits.
Over the years, however, my attitude towards the duo softened, and their smooth, sly sounds started tickling my aural pleasure zones. I still find them unchallenging, but understand that at their best, their work is a kind of sculpted pop masterpiece.
The group became inactive (from a recording point of view) many years ago, however. Walter Becker’s two solo albums have pretty much passed under the radar, while Donald Fagen has managed four whole albums in the past 30 years, all of which have acted as almost-but-not-quite Steely Dan substitutes. The Nightfly – released way back in 1982! – is still the most revered of his solo work, but the gently funky, playful grooves of 2006 release Morph The Cat were enjoyable, partly because it sounded like Fagen was enjoying himself. Six years on, and Sunken Condos comes on more like a quickie in a posh hotel toilet than an attempt to replicate or improve upon his past.
I don’t know if Fagen writes autobiographically, but there’s a theme of sorts running through the album: one that involves an older man shelving a stale relationship, getting it on with a hot young thing, and having his whole world turned around. The first section is glowing with the freshness of new possibilities, but complications soon set in. It makes for an interesting set of lyrics, and good on him, I reckon, for avoiding cliché to write prosaically about sexual/love relationships the way a famous 64-year-old musician experiences them, metaphorical warts and all!
Musically, it’s a mixed bag, and not all of it great. The album gets rolling well with ‘Slinky Thing’, which nibbles away at the funk in the most delicious way, letting perfect morsels of vibes and glockenspiel decorate a picture already populated by perfectly formed guitar, bass and horns. On this track, he’s already worried that he might be too old for the object of his erection, but we know that’s not going to stop him.
‘I’m Not The Same Without You’ isn’t the expected moping ‘miss you’ song, but instead a joyful piece, in which he expresses how his world has a bright gleam to it since he left her. It’s somewhat callous, but then, who would want to deny Fagen his second wind at the love game?
By the time we get to ‘The New Breed’, however, it seems that his slinky thing has found some younger dot-com geek, and now views Fagen as “ready for Jurassic Park”. The fruity B3 organ and harmonica are nice, but compositionally, it feels like little more than a sketch.
Things rev up again with a juicy cover of a disco-era Isaac Hayes song, ‘Out Of The Ghetto’, with its equally juicy lyrics – “You’re a hunk of raw sugar/You got some real sweet hips/Your love is like a honey drip.” Somehow, however, the momentum is lost, and ‘Miss Marlene’ is the kind of thing he could do in his sleep.
The last two songs make you realise what’s been lacking. It’s that finely nuanced funk that was so evident on ‘Slinky Thing’, which makes a guest appearance on both ‘Good Stuff’ and ‘Planet D’Rhonda’, the second of which comes good on all fronts: it’s about an outrageous female, Fagen going all Prince on us, but his fly stays zipped during its somewhat jazzy guitar and vibes solos.
Really, Sunken Condos is only half a good album, and that’s a pity, given the length of time he had to make it. But then again, it’s clear that the guy has had other things on his, uh, mind. GARY STEEL
Sound = 4
Music = 3.5