Steely Dan- Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972): 13 January 2020

Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

Welcome back to YDCS! It’s been a year since I last covered a Steely Dan album; despite wanting to review one for the past few months, I’ve controlled myself. This week is the week though, we’re taking a listen to Steely Dan’s first studio album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. Known for their cryptic lyrics, complex musical arrangements, and disregard for genre, Steely Dan cemented their sound from the first song on this record. They knew that they wanted to reject everyone’s expectations of what rock music was supposed to sound like and make their own music without compromise. Sometimes it came across as pretentious and others it came across as musically genius, but through all of that, Steely Dan has always had their loyal followers who love that rejection of the norm for the sake of good music. Can’t Buy A Thrill would be their starting point too. Albums would grow to be more experimental and cryptic up until the release of Aja.

I really enjoy Steely Dan, but the band has a problem as far as classic rock is concerned that I will coin the “Steely Dan Problem.” Is their music rock or pop/easy-listening? Each song has to be evaluated separately to get to that truth on their albums. Some are easier than others. “Do It Again” is solidly in the rock camp and “Brooklyn” is solidly in the easy-listening camp. Others like “Dirty Work” are a little more difficult. My criteria for deciding whether it’s rock or not is this: Would I be okay with it if I’m listening to a classic rock radio station, they just finished playing “Communication Breakdown” by the Zep and a Steely Dan song comes on. If I’m okay with that song following the Zep then it’s rock. If it makes me want to switch the channel then it’s not rock.

This sparks a larger conversation about what we can really call rock music. Is Steely Dan a rock band? Most of the time I would say yes. I think that the majority of their work could safely be called rock, however; a lot of the songs that are their most popular would not fall into that rock camp. If we call Steely Dan rock then what does that open us up to? Alternatively, we exclude them from the rock genre, who else are we leaving out? Arguably we would start to leave out people and groups like Jackson Brown, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Marshall Tucker Band, and a lot of the acts on the softer side of rock. I don’t think that’s the right answer. All of those acts have something in common and it pulls us back to a central question:” What’s rock about anyway?”. If you ask me, it’s about pushing boundaries and making new sounds. The Dan have clearly done that, and for that alone I’d be willing to call them a rock group.

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Do It Again: I was 12 the first time I heard “Do It Again.” I remember exactly where I was and I remember thinking it was a Carlos Santana song. I had never heard anything like it before and I was instantly hooked. “Do It Again” was the perfect way for Steely Dan to open their first album and show the world the kind of music that they wanted to make; complex multi-instrumental rock that wouldn’t be bound to traditional influences. The latin flavor is strong on “Do It Again,” and I find myself still amazed at the high degree of musicianship and multi-tracking. Listening to it this time, I noticed more backing instruments than before and they’re all playing these absurdly difficult runs. No one else would think it’s necessary, but it adds greatly to the song. A classic song and great start to the album. Dad’s Rating 10/10

Dirty Work: “Dirty Work” is such a weird song and I love it. The slightly distorted vocal harmony that is hallmark of a recording from the late 60s-early 70s is one of my favorite sounds in music. The Dan was well-known for their tight harmonies and this is one of the best ones in their catalog. Having said that, it is also a prime example of the “Steely Dan Problem” though; is it rock or is it pop? Tough to say on this one, but I put it solidly in the soft rock camp. Maybe that’s so I can rate it higher than I would an easy listening song, but if I heard this on a classic rock radio station, I wouldn’t feel like it’s out of place.  Dad’s Rating 7/10

Kings: “Kings” is one of the best hidden gems in Steely Dan’s discography and is gold mine of depth in lyrics and music. There aren’t many groups that would have the courage to do a song comparing medieval kings of England to drug bosses, but the Dan did it! If the comparison flies by, don’t worry because the song still stands up well on its own. It’s got a great, funky feeling to it and some of the best musical performances on the album. It’s one of my favorite Steely Dan songs and one of my favorite classic rock songs. Dad’s Rating 9/10

Midnite Cruiser: “Midnite Cruiser” is one of the least rocking songs on Can’t Buy A Thrill and about the limit for what I can call rockbefore I have to start classifying songs as easy listening. The song is average but it doesn’t make you want to rock out or push the boundary of the weird jazz fusion-rock that the band was known for. It feels more like an average pop song from the early 1970s than anything else but doesn’t quite cross into the realm of easy listening like some of the songs on this record do. Dad’s Rating 5/10

Only A Fool Would Say That: Now this is some elevator/yacht rock! Just imagine it; standing in an elevator in an office building with an instrumental version of this song playing. It fits so perfectly! Besides that, “Only A Fool” is a tight, latin/jazz-fusion inspired soft rock track. This just feels like a very polished piece with some great moments of jazz inspired guitar solos working to accent the lyrics. “Only A Fool” is on the softer side of rock, but it’s a high point for the album. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Reelin’ In The Years: If you’ve never heard of Steely Dan before, please allow me to introduce you to one of their songs that you might know without knowing it. “Reelin’ In The Years” was one of the most popular songs off this record and still receives heavy airplay. It’s a great rocker of a song, but I actually don’t think it’s one of their best. The Dan was known for complex musical arrangements and cryptic, poetic lyrics. “Reelin’ In The Years” feels like it was written to generate singles sales and I feel like it strays from their principles. It won’t stop me from listening to it, but there’s other songs on this record that are better representations of the band. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Fire In The Hole: As a song, I like “Fire In The Hole.” It has an interesting, free-flowing jazz structure in the solos that makes it great to listen to. The question we need to answer here though is, ‘Does it rock?’ Decidedly not. This is one of the problems with Steely Dan; because they weren’t limited by genre, you get some tracks that are great rockers and others that are more suited for easy listening radio. “Fire In The Hole” is in the latter camp. Dad’s Rating 4/10

Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me): See my comments on “Fire In The Hole.” I actually think this is worse than “Fire In The Hole” because it’s less interesting to listen to. There was some musical complexity to the former that has been replaced with a standard soft folk riff. Skip! Dad’s Rating 3/10

Change Of The Guard: “Change Of The Guard” improves on the last two songs significantly. We have a real rocker here, but it took me a minute to get there. I had to really think about whether this was rock or something else with the forward tambourine, keyboard driven riff and guitar that seems to be more backing vocals than actual guitar, but sure enough it’s rock! This is a track worth listening to in order to better understand Becker and Fagen’s genius and what they wanted the band to be; a laboratory for music. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Turn That Heartbeat Over Again: Skip. This is easy listening and it’s actually dull. It’s not what I expect from Steely Dan and doesn’t fit with the album. This is a real missed opportunity and an unfortunate closer to an otherwise great album. Dad’s Rating 2/10

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.

The Doobie Brothers- Takin’ It To The Streets (1976): 29 April 2019

The Doobie Brothers – Takin’ It To The Streets (1976)

This week on YDCS we’re covering a California rock act out of San Jose, The Doobie Brothers, and their sixth studio album Takin’ It To The Streets. The band had garnered success and accolades prior to this with their third release The Captain and Me, and arguably with their second album Toulouse Street, but Takin’ It To The Streets may contain some of the band’s best known work. This was the first album to replace the original lead singer, Tom Johnston, with Michael McDonald, formerly of Steely Dan, on the recommendation of his old band-mate, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Adding McDonald to the band created a shift in the sound, where the old Doobie sound was characterized by a more folk-rock sound, the band began experimenting more with blues and jazz sounds on this album.

Takin’ It To The Streets has some of my favorite material by the Doobie Brothers on it, notably “Wheels of Fortune” and “8th Avenue Shuffle.” The album hits plenty of high notes but also falls flat in some places, I believe due to an over-reliance on the synthesizer to carry the song, particularly on “It Keeps You Runnin’.” Regardless, I think that there’s a lot to like about this album, and it is interesting to listen to this and compare it to earlier works of theirs, like The Captain and Me, to see how the sound changed with two former Steely Dan members. Enjoy the album!

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Wheels of Fortune: “Wheels of Fortune” is one of my favorite songs across all genres and it’s hard to place a finger on what I like about it, but I think it’s a combination of factors. The band is really tight on this bluesy track, the vocal harmonies add depth to the song, and the whole band, from keyboard to lead guitar, is involved in the funky interlude in the middle of the song. I can’t do the song enough justice trying to describe it, but give it a listen and see if it deserves the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award” for yourself! Dad’s Rating 10/10

Takin’ It To The Streets: The title track of the album and a massive hit for the band, there’s a lot to like about “Takin’ It To The Streets.” The funky/jazzy sound from “Wheels of Fortune” and will be heard on the rest of the album is evident on this track, but perhaps less so until the solo as this song is more up-tempo than the former. Speaking of, I would like to submit that the saxophone solo in the middle may be a nod to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Michael McDonald’s stints with Steely Dan who featured a horn section on all but a few of their songs. Even if it’s not, it’s an awesome sax solo! “Takin’ It To The Streets” is such an easy song to listen to, and can you really skip the lead single?! I promise, you won’t want to! Dad’s Rating 9/10

8th Avenue Shuffle: The third track on the album starts with a decidedly lighter sound than the heavy, bluesy sound on the first two songs; however, it does retain that same funky feeling. “8th Avenue Shuffle” may surprise you with a solid rock guitar solo before giving way to a jazz solo. Tiran Porter’s performance on bass here might be one of the most appealing and overlooked parts of the album, and it’s a class act! McDonald’s vocals really shine here, and this might be one of his top performances on the record too. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Losin’ End: The Doobies were clearly invested in seeing what they could get out of the Hammond Organ and their synthesizers on “Losin’ End,” and this is by far the most synth-forward song on the track. The string solo over the bridge is absolutely beautiful and definitely a nod to Steely Dan because there weren’t many instances where the Doobies were using string prior to introduction of Baxter and McDonald. As far as Doobie Brothers songs go, this is a good one but it can drone on sometimes with the steady guitar riff in the background. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Rio: First, “Rio” opens with a great little drum beat, and there’s really not enough songs that do that. More bands should consider opening slowly like that then building into the full band like the Doobies do here. This is an awesome bluesy track that 100% fits the genre of “yacht rock” in my mind. Imagine sitting on a boat on the river, you could throw this song on and it wouldn’t be out of place. At times, “Rio” has a great Caribbean feeling to it and at other times it leans more heavily into its jazz/blues roots to create a dynamic song. Dad’s Rating 7/10

For Someone Special: “For Someone Special” is the slowed down and stripped back song for the album, and it really doesn’t impress me that much. It’s got a soft blues rock feeling to it, and it’s certainly not a bad song, but it’s just par for the course. There’s nothing that really makes this song stand out against the other songs on this album or against other soft rock tracks from the 1970s. Dad’s Rating 5/10

It Keeps You Runnin’: This is one of the Doobies’ more popular tracks and I’m going to go against the grain and say that it’s just okay. Look at this next to a song like “Black Water” or even “Wheels of Fortune” from earlier and you’ll see that it’s just missing that oomph that makes a great song. Now having said that, the vocal harmonies are still super tight and choosing to go synth-heavy on this track was a bold decision. I certainly won’t turn this song off if it comes on, but it’s not my favorite song by the Doobies. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Turn It Loose: “Turn It Loose,” on the other hand, is a great track! When I hear the Doobie Brothers, this is the kind of sound that I imagine. Awesome vocal harmonies, catchy hooks, and appropriate punctuation from each instrument as necessary. This is one of the best characterizations of the band’s sound, and while it might not have been their most well-known song, it’s a fun song that’s easy to listen to. Turn it up and turn it loose! Dad’s Rating 7/10

Carry Me Away: At first I thought the final song of the album was going to be a stinker just from the way it started, but I was pleasantly surprised with a great jazz guitar solo in the middle and tight vocal harmonies through the choruses. My expectation was to find a boring, repetitive track, but it’s actually full of some great musicianship that is particularly evident in that guitar solo and the horn solo at the end. Hold on ‘til the end and let the music carry you away. Dad’s Rating 6/10

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.

Steely Dan- Aja (1977): 7 January 2019

Because this is the first blog post for this series, I wanted to take a few lines of code and explain what the effort is all about. Classic Rock. Most people can listen to it, enjoy it, and really have no gripes if someone puts it on. With many modern genres that’s simply not the case. Have you ever been in a car with someone and asked what to put on? One person will say, “I like country,” and the next will say, “I only listen to rap and hip/hop,” before the driver (who should really be focused on the road and not the conversation in the back seat anyway) says they like Top 40. Nothing is wrong with any of these genres! Every single one has their merits, but it puts the person riding shotgun in the awkward position of putting something on that will please one person but not the rest. Fortunately, classic rock is here to save the day and most people can shrug and say, “yeah, this is alright.” Little do they know, that not all classic rock is made equally. For every Led Zeppelin, there’s a Warren Zevon that excludes Werewolves of London. For every Creedence Clearwater Revival, there’s a Mudcrutch. Your Dad knew this, and he knew the best albums to listen to. This blog will highlight his favorite albums and break them down track-by-track so you know which ones are hot to trot and which ones should stay on the B-side.

Steely Dan – Aja (1977)

For the first installment of Your Dad’s Car Stereo, why not start with an album that Dad hasn’t taken out of the car since he was a teenager. This album is arguably one of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s biggest hits and one that has captured easy listening radio since it was released with the singles Deacon Blues and Peg. This album is so smooth that it will make you pine to be in your mid-50s, spending your savings on a family boat to take out on the river on the weekends, and flipping on the easy listening station that will inevitably play one of those two songs. Steely Dan expertly interwove a brass section into almost every song that they produced and you can hear it on every track on this album. The saxophone and trumpet solo halfway through Home at Last is one of the best on the album and the whole song has an up-tempo jazzy feel that could give Kenny G a run for his money for re-playability.

I actually split this album into 2 distinct portions when thinking about the theme, “Mid-life Melancholy” and “We’re actually in our 20s so let’s party.” The album isn’t even when it comes to separating these themes either. They don’t alternate, they don’t front-load the album with one while back-loading with the other. The songs are just there. They exist, not to tell a story, or criticize, or to make a theme important, just for someone to listen to and notice that the albums weaves between the two, therefore interweaving the themes. It shows that age is just a number and whether you fall into the first camp or second camp by birth order, what really matters is how you take what you’ve been handed right now and what you do with it.  

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Black Cow: The song builds throughout, starting with a steady drive, leading to a decidedly gospel feeling to emphasize the ends of sentences and throughout the chorus. The saxophone solo at the end is worth waiting for. Keep waiting for it! I think the album really gets warmed up at this point. Black Cow isn’t a bad song by any means, it just doesn’t stand out from the others. Dad’s Rating: 6/10

Aja: Cryptic lyrics with music that reminds me of something that would play in a cocktail lounge. You don’t find vibraphone solos in many songs, but this one does it right! The drum solo at the 5-minute marker sounds like that Tarzan guy playing there sport! Dad’s Rating: 7/10

Deacon Blues: I don’t want to be called the Crimson Tide after hearing this! I’m sure Nick Saban listens to this song when he gets ready to beat Auburn for the n-th time since he was hired (We don’t strongly support either team here on YDCS, just stating a fact). Man, that guy can coach some football, and man does this song play! Check out the saxophone solo halfway through the song. It makes me want to slowly slide on some sunglasses real cool-like. Dad’s Rating: 8/10

Peg: This is the most radio friendly song on this album and was one of the singles for a reason, it’s got classic Steely Dan drive, a great guitar solo, a unique horn riff to break up the verses, and vocal harmony to give the chorus depth. I think I’ve heard this song in every waiting room I’ve ever been in it’s featured so heavily on the radio. Dad’s Rating: 8/10 (I almost took a point off for making me remember that one waiting room where the doctor was going to…you know what, never mind.)

Home At Last: JAZZ. AT LAST. FUNKY JAZZ. ‘nuff said, but I’ll say more anyway. The solos on this track go all over the place for a classic rock album and, musically, there’s nothing to fault. Listen to this on my hi-fi system kiddo and take in the mastery of the Becker and the Fagen. Dad’s Rating: 9/10, only because I was too busy listening to the sweet, sweet jazz to rate the lyrics.

I Got the News: Solid song. It’s really bluesy and funky. The vocal harmony about halfway through the song sounds similar to the Doobie Brothers in the 70s. The first part that I don’t like is that the story is difficult to follow. There are also too many solos to effectively bop your head to in the car to go pick up more mulch at the outdoor homestore on a Saturday afternoon. Dad’s Rating: 7/10, 8/10 for the vocals and funk, 6/10 for the story and solos that wander away more than you instead of helping me carry these bags of mulch.

Josie: I’m not a fan of breaking the law like Steely Dan wants to do “when Josie comes home”, but the level of funk in this song should be illegal. This is the closing track on the album and closes it out with the same jazz-rock fusion that carries the rest of the album without skipping a beat. The opening guitar riff sounds like the start of one of those action movies you like to watch. You should do something more productive than watch those movies all day, like carry these bags of mulch to the garden for me. Dad’s Rating: 7/10

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.