Donald Fagen
Sunken Condos


One day, while waiting for Sunken Condos to be released, I caught myself thinking that, as time goes by, Donald Fagen's solo albums - also those under the name Steely Dan - remind me more and more of Woody Allen's movies. I mean, very well-done products with a certain poetic light, but devoid of any real innovation or unexpected elements - just those "variations on a theme" that make a movie appear as being different from another. There's an important difference, of course: that while Woody Allen releases one movie per year - hence the famous saying which goes "if you didn't like my latest movie, I'm sorry, but you have just to wait one year, and maybe you'll like the next one" - when it comes to releasing new works Donald Fagen and Steely Dan are really slow (but here Fagen appears to have behaved somewhat differently, Sunken Condos coming a mere six years after his previous solo album, Morph The Cat).

There's also one other side that to me makes Fagen's narrative resemble Allen's: the immutability of the interpersonal dynamics, with all the different episodes appearing to come from the same era - for instance, on the new album, the tale of The New Breed, with computer and software updates, is not so different from the one told in Good Stuff, which appears to take place at the time of the Prohibition. (There are obviously exception to this rule, as witnessed by the album Morph The Cat, where things appear to be linked to the events of the day, in this case, the post-09/11 scenario.) So: Fine exterior... check. Perfect arrangements... check. Short but rich solos... check. Everything's in place. But what's different?

Let's have a look at who plays what. Here we find usual Steely Dan contributors such as Jon Herington (on guitar), Walt Weiskopf (on alto, tenor, and clarinet), and Jim Pugh (on trombone); of course, there are those female vocalists we know so well: Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle, and Catherine Russell. There's also - and as we'll see in a minute, he has an important role to play - trumpet player (and also multi-instrumentalist) Michael Leonhart.

I'm sure by now astute readers have already noticed that two main ingredients in the Steely Dan formula, not to mention Morph The Cat, are nowhere to be found: drummer Keith Carlock, and bassist Freddie Washington (the latter, as we'll see, appearing on the new album on a cover of a late-70s Isaac Hayes track, Out Of The Ghetto). But who's this Earl Cooke, Jr., who plays all the drums on the album?

The first thing one notices when listening to the new album is that it sounds "thinner", with the bass being clear but less "meaty" than in the past; while on first listening the drums sound "tiny", though clear, and maybe a bit poor when it comes to timbre and colours, but on second listening, they're quite detailed. (When listened to, today, The Nightfly appears to lack bottom, it's a very "bass-light" album.) I also appeared to notice what to me sounds like a simplification when it comes to melodies, which could maybe be filed under "tired vocals", Fagen's voice having appeared more than a bit strained when confronted with the melodic range of his previous album, while here he sounds more relaxed and at ease, in the Blues/R&B of Sunken Condos. Maybe his recent experience with The Dukes Of September - the trio where Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs play their hits and R&B standards - also played a part?

Whatever the reason, Fagen and Leonhart - both are listed as being co-producers and co-arrangers - have chosen a "drier" groove, more "R&B" than "Fusion", so to speak. And from what I've read, it appears that the drumming of Al Jackson (of Booker T. & The M.G.'s fame) - which I remember as being quite more "assertive" - was mentioned as a possible model for the drumming in Sunken Condos. The drums were played by Michael Leonhart himself, his groove sounding simple and fresh, never calling attention to itself, but on first listening it can sound a bit too basic and unadorned. After one week, all I can say is that the album - a proverbial "grower" - proved to be a lot better than I expected (which I'm aware can mean quite different things).

Opening track Slinky Thing is a mid-tempo with Clavinet, Fagen's vocals here reminding me a bit of Marvin Gaye, with vibes (Michael Leonhart), acoustic bass (Joe Martin), and a fine guitar solo by Jon Herington, nicely enveloped by the winds. There's a "cool"-sounding instrumental coda, then female vocals.

I'm Not The Same Without You has a faster groove, appropriately pushed by the bass (Harlan Post), a nervous rhythm guitar appearing in the left channel, a fine harmonica solo (William Galison), and in closing a very fine figure by reeds highlighting the low end of the range - as elsewhere on the album, Charlie Pillow on tenor and clarinet and Roger Rosenberg on baritone appear alongside Weiskopf and Pugh.

Memorabilia is a funky mid-tempo, starring drums, bass, guitar, muted trumpet, alto, tenor, and organ, with a fine solo by Leonhart on muted trumpet.

Weather In My Head - when he "pushes", Fagen sounds halfway between Otis Redding and... Randy Newman - is a Blues with a fine guitar solo (by Jon Herington, Larry Campbell's on rhythm guitar), the reeds having a fine counterpoint highlighting the baritone sax.

The verses in The New Breed are quite difficult to sing, there's a fine bass (Harlan Post), a great job from the wind section, a harmonica solo (William Galison), organ.

Out Of The Ghetto is the Isaac Hayes track, Freddie Washington is on bass, there's organ and Clavinet, the guitar "pushing" the groove. There's a fine instrumental palette, with clarinets (Charlie Pillow), and a coda featuring an agitated violin (Antoine Silverman).

Miss Marlene sounds a lot like I.G.Y., with a "mechanical" groove, a fine wind section (here Rosenberg is on bass clarinet and Aaron Heick is on bass flute), and a short guitar solo. Excellent female vocals. Great!

Good Stuff has very monotone verses, and a "light", airy, "B" section, the female vocalists coming to the foreground. Funky, there's a piano in the background (the instrument seldom appearing on this album), bass and drums "pushing", there is the trumpet, a melodica (played by Donald Fagen) which has a solo, and a wha-wha guitar.

No winds on the closing track, Planet D'Rhonda, featuring Clavinet, percussion, rhythm guitar, a fine bass groove (Lincoln Schleifer) and the most "jazzy" guitar solo on the album, by Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Oct. 25, 2012