CertifiedBryan’s Dad Rock Discography Discovery – The Steely Menace of Steely Dan
Greetings, children of the Toilet. My name is Bryan. I am an inauspicious 30-something who has been addicted to heavy metal of all kinds for more than half my life. It’s almost the only genre I’ve listened to since becoming a music fan. This year however, whether it’s because of some early mid-life crisis, or because I’m just hungry for shit (the truth comes out), I’ve dedicated my listening to exploring the music of my father’s generation. At times it’s been an eye-opening journey of wonder and merriment, but at other times it’s been a Sisyphean mountain to climb. Since the depths of schadenfreude tend to bring such joy to so many people, I think recounting my experiences could be entertaining. So, here I am. Welcome to my Discography Discovery experiment. A quest to appreciate the finest qualities of “Dad Rock” in the depreciating landscape of today’s popular rock music industry. Let me tell you tales of a forgotten age where flutes were cool and- man, did you hear that wicked saxophone solo? Move the needle back, I wanna hear that cut again…
Steely Dan are arguably the dadliest band on the planet. You can’t get into a live show without pushing through an ocean of pleated shorts and crew socks. Their music tends to incorporate so much soft jazz and adult contemporary stylings that you may find yourself waking up in an elevator hours after pressing the play button. You know the feeling of being on hold for an eternity after calling your cell-phone provider to complain about those new charges on your bill that make no sense (you’re already dadlier than you think)? That’s what it’s like sitting through some of Steely Dan’s albums.
If you’re a brave soul who actually enjoys a cool groove and a bit of fun, there’s so much more to Steely Dan than their outward appearance and reputation. They have a rich discography which I honestly can not recommend enough to fans of music in general. If it’s not your thing, hey, that’s OK too. But give them a shot! Here’s my take on their studio albums and where you may want to start.
Just start from the beginning. No, seriously. Steely Dan are one of those bands who buck the trend of mediocre first albums and actually released one of their best right out of the gate. Can’t Buy a Thrill shouldn’t be judged by its cover (seriously… what were they thinking?). When you’re rocking out to classics like “Reelin’ In the Years” and “Do It Again,” their two popular singles from the album, you’ll understand why Steely Dan became a phenomenon in the early 70s. They built a strong foundation of musicianship and songwriting that appealed to a wide audience thanks to the variety and quality of their recordings.
Known perfectionists, Steely Dan would often do hundreds of takes, from numerous studio musicians, before deciding on which guitar solo or saxophone lick to put in a song. This intense scrutiny eventually culminated in what many still label the greatest sounding album of all time. In 1977, Steely Dan released Aja to wide critical and audience acclaim. I can only add to the hype 40 years later. In my growing music collection, Aja is easily the best production I’ve heard. It’s pristine on the original vinyl release and just as impressive on modern reissued formats. There are no effects used or moments where instruments overshadow others. It’s just a beautifully dry blend of perfection in playing and sound recording. Something which so few musical artists strive for any more in the age of digital software and overly loud mixes. It’s an audiophile’s treat to listen to Aja, but the songs themselves are also fantastic. I can’t recommend this album enough, even if you’re giving the band a second chance after not liking Can’t Buy a Thrill. I say without any doubt that it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.
Perfectionism doesn’t always lead to greatness, however. The follow-up to Aja, titled Gaucho, took 2 years to make and, despite still sounding excellent, featured lackluster songs and much legal drama behind the scenes thanks to too many hands being on the album and in the coffers of the band. Gaucho was a mess and ultimately ended Steely Dan, as they went on a 20 year hiatus following its release.
I can’t say the band got any better when they reunited. Two more albums were released in 2000 and 2003 which, despite industry insiders hyping the shit out of the return and throwing awards at them, are two of the most boring slabs of tired dad tracks I have ever heard. Just nauseatingly average and forgettable. Going back to the pictures I painted earlier of horrible elevator atmosphere and rage-inducing call center hold music, listening to modern Steely Dan is the audio equivalent of watching naked 80-year-old men shower at the gym. They’ll continue to flop and sag their old asses around for a paycheck whether you like it or not. It’s such an obvious cash-in. None of that old creative soul is left in these albums. They won’t stop. They’ll do it again. And I’m terrified of a world where Steely Dan may inflict yet another album on us.
There’s still much to enjoy in the past though, and in that blessed world of the 70s where our dads flourished and the world of popular music still had some hope for the future, there were many, many other bands releasing awesome albums. I’ve been up to my ears in that smooth dad flow, and, Dad willing, will return again to tell you a tale of the greatest prog band ever.
Until next time:
Have you heard of that new band 1023MB?
They’re good, but that haven’t got a gig yet.
(Cover photo VIA)