Thursday, March 16, 2006

First impressions of the new Donald Fagen album

One might be tempted to call this the new Steely Dan record-- it does, after all, feature one of the band's two co- master- minds, as well as several other musicians who have appeared on recent Dan releases. And it is very much in the same vein as the last two Dan albums, stylistically-- in fact, Fagen and Becker haven't really changed their sound much at all since 1980's Gaucho, either as a band or as solo artists.

Thing is, Morph the Cat is actually better than either of the new millenium Dan albums. Sure, it's another set of smooth, sophisticated, jazzy pop, with the emphasis squarely placed on mood and tone. But the songs here are, quite simply, some of the best to ever come out of the Steely Dan camp. The melodies are more immediate, the grooves more irresistible, and, for the first time in a long time, the sleek, subdued production doesn't suck all the life out of the proceedings-- there's so much chemistry between the musicians here, so much warmth that was sadly missing from albums like Two Against Nature.

And as a songwriter, Fagen's never been better. That trademark Steely Dan cynicism is still in tact, but here there's so much humor and pathos that it's anything but a downer. There's a song about a giant, ghostly cat hovering over Manhattan; a conversation with the ghost of Ray Charles; a meditation on a quotation from W.C. Fields; even a song about a fling with an airport security officer.

At this point some of the songs run together in my mind-- particularly toward the end of the album. But that's always the case with albums from Fagen and/or Becker, and it's likely that the individual tracks will begin to distinguish themselves more with further spins. As it stands, though, this is one of the most pleasurable and memorable albums of the year so far, and may very well stand as one of 2006's significant recordings.

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