HOW APPROPRIATE FOR Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to drop their first collection of new material since 1980 now, just in time to soundtrack midsummer cocktail parties for our freshly minted, self-made barons of e-commerce. On its surface, Steely Dan has always been the sound of bourgeois cool: slick, pristine, unobtrusively funky, and smartly aloof. But the trick of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's enduring vehicle has always been in the way their tasty chord changes, snaky melodies, and session-guy perfection sugarcoat lyrics that tell sly jokes about the flaws of their uncomprehending listeners.
All the Dan trademarks are present here: clever horn arrangements, female backup singers, vintage electric pianos, and metronomic drumming. Fagen's voice is a bit the worse for wear, but since many of his characters here are even more weathered and raw, that's just as it should be. Like Randy Newman, Fagen and Becker excel at writing about losers and villains, and Nature has its share: the recovering addict and starving artist of "What a Shame About Me," the "skeevy" "Cousin Dupree" ("What's so strange about a down-home family romance?"), and the mysterious lech from "Gaslighting Abbie."
But also like Newman, Fagen and Becker are, in their own twisted way, incurable romantics. Sure many of the songs are typically esoteric--take the pretty "Almost Gothic" (in which Fagen spells love "L-U-V") and the comically pedophiliac "Janie Runaway" ("Who has a friend named Melody?/Who's not afraid to try new things?") But blaring from the poolside speakers of the new elite, these tunes could be mistaken for rather direct love songs. Now can somebody get me a wine spritzer?
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