Monday, September 10, 2007

Morph the Blog

Donald Fagen
Morph the Cat
Reprise / Wea


My musical tastes (as I've written elsewhere, I know) lean toward the contemplative and deliberate. I've always responded more strongly to music as an act of premeditated intellectual toil than as an act of spontaneous emotional outburst. I can appreciate the immediate expression of a jazz solo, but a larger part of me would prefer to see those same ideas mulled over and expanded or refined. I mean no value judgment in this; it's just a personal preference--composed classical music gives me more to sink my teeth into than music which is not so worked-over. (And I think this preference is also why I'd usually rather listen to a recording than attend a live performance. That plus the fact that sound at a live popular music show almost always sucks.)

Nothing is absolute, though, and I respond to many different things. The French organ school I so love places great importance on improvisation, though it is improvisation within a tight framework. And maybe there's another element: I love music which has to overcome restrictions in structure or framework. Bach is the predominant example, with his fugues and canons being an ultimate example of flowering under the duress of regulation.

Still, I think almost any musician strives for perfection, however defined. We all want to be as clear and as true and as accurate as possible toward our goals and preferences and tastes. Lately--for a couple decades really, but again lately--I've been listening to a lot of Steely Dan. The occasional solo notwithstanding, this is a group renowned for their obsessive attention to detail, and their use of the recording studio to achieve note-perfection. The stories of what it takes to make Donald Fagen and Walter Becker happy in the studio are legendary. Not that they're tyrannical about it, but they are just very, very particular about the exact sound they're looking for, and they're willing to keep trying until they get it. They are in pop music perhaps an ultimate expression of a certain vein of perfection, and they have several Grammies as a result.

This present album (though I lump them all together under "Steely Dan" in my iTunes) is actually not a Steely Dan album at all, but a solo release from Donald Fagen, his third. SD's other charter member, Walter Becker, released his own solo album a decade ago, but it got little attention and really his presence in music history books will be attached to Steely Dan. Fagen's three solo efforts, on the other hand, have left their mark on his little corner of the musical universe.

His latest one is called Morph the Cat, and is about a year old (hey, if most of the stuff I listen to is three hundred years old, I'm allowed to be a year late in my Donald Fagen review). Sonically, his releases are pretty much indistinguishable from a Steely Dan record, which is fine by me. They're both harmonically-funky, they're recorded to within an inch of their lives, and Donald Fagen is the only lead voice you hear in either place. He uses Steely Dan's usual roster of studio musicians. Both have a hip, New York feel. One distinction is that each of Donald Fagen's three albums follows a kind of storyline profile, some unifying theme or thread which ties the individual songs together. Though his voice is a little changed over these 30-plus years (but not much), he has written in a pretty consistent style throughout his career, and live shows can draw from all his material without sounding dated.

Apart from this legendary attention to detail, which makes repeated listenings very satisfying, Fagen has a fabulous, jazzy harmonic palette, something unusual and ambitious for pop music. His long-line melodies typically follow a really sophisticated harmonic progression, and the musicians are often allowed to wander around a bit in the lush landscape, with extended vamps at the end of a song. Backup singing parts and horn charts are a consistent delight, with the horn parts particularly being very skillfully and idiomatically written by Fagen (though he is not a horn player himself). His ease with all this makes even fairly adventurous harmonic progressions (The Night Belongs to Mona, The Great Pagoda of Funn on this album; The Nighfly on his first solo album of the same title) sound deceptively easy; but a little scrutiny finds us in abnormal territory for a (more or less) mainstream pop artist.

To my ear, the craftsmanship of this record is awesome. Drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington and pianist Ted Baker make for a flawless rhythm section, with crisp, understated grooves (Brite Nightgown, H-Gang) that almost defy belief. (I played Brite Nightgown for my landlord in Kentucky, an accomplished drummer and rock and roll afficianado for five decades, and at Keith Carlock's introduction his shoulders slumped in resignation. "Oh fuck me!" he said, incredulous.) And there are little quirks about each song which make for a distinctive personality: a fantastic harmonica solo by Howard Levy on What I Do, brilliant muted trumpet work by Marvin Stamm on The Great Pagoda of Funn, great guitar work everywhere by Jon Herington, Wayne Krantz and Hugh McCracken. Everybody seems to occupy an immaculate little space specifically carved out for him, making for a sonic landscape which seems clean and straightforward at first, but yields almost bottomless layers and details upon closer scrutiny. This plus the lush harmonic details make the record worth its weight in gold.

It's not some substitute for Bach, but this CD offers something to similarly dig into, something thoughtfully produced by someone with talents well beyond most of us. Like in all of nature, human capacities exist in a wide range, and somebody, some very few, will occupy that thin part of the bell curve. I don't get to live there myself; but I'm grateful that someone invites me out for the occasional visit.


Dzesika said...

Hey, thanks for this one! I grew up on Steely Dan, but kinda forgot about them ... now I want this. You did your job. :)

wunelle said...

If it weren't proposing to break the law, I'd suggest that I rip off a copy for you...

I think you're my first commenter! (Well, Jeffy commented on that launch post, but he's blog fambly, so that doesn't count.)

Dzesika said...

er? proposing? Not that I would ever suggest to anyone to do that ... or at least not out loud! :)

Plus, I am rather low on good stuff to trade ... grr.

wunelle said...

If I were to do such a thing as this proposed, I'd need to be at home where my blanks are and not down in KY where they JUST got running water and electricity. But in a week I could manage it most happily.

If, er, I were that sort of law-breaking reprobate! ;-)

(And I need no swappage; I have too much stuff already that I'm not listening to!)

Dzesika said...

Erm ... not to encourage reprobation or anything :) ... but we should discuss sometime!