This post came about because I was reading a book about the Dan called Major Dudes. They were discussing this album and when I realized that its 20th anniversary was on this exact date, well, a review was definitely in order. If you’re not familar with my blog, I am second to no one in my Dan devotion. But well, this is not their finest album.
A note first about Major Dudes – it’s a book compiled of reviews of Steely Dan albums and interviews with the guys from very early on, right through a tribute to Walter Becker on his passing.
And while fun to read, you wind up getting essentially the same bio over and over again from different angles. It’s fun to read about guitarist Denny Dias’ 1970 Village Voice ad that read “Looking for keyboardist and bassist. Must have jazz chops! Assholes need not apply.” Becker and Fagen overlooked that and applied anyway.
So you’ll read how the guys met at Bard when Fagen heard Becker playing the blues, how their jazz-inflected downbeat lyrics did not work at the Brill Building, how they joined Jay and the Americans and how they ultimately wound up in LA with producer Gary Katz. (Jay did not “get” Becker and Fagen and referred to them as the Manson and Starkweather of rock which amuses me to no end.).
Anyway an enjoyable – if repetitious – book. (You can safely avoid Ian Penman’s “review” of Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters which is not much more than him showing off how literary he thinks he is. This is the kind of guy that some readers are impressed by but for me he just spent time going up his own arse.)
Wikipedia: Two Against Nature is the eighth studio album by Steely Dan. It was released on February 29, 2000, and marked Steely Dan’s first studio album for Warner Bros. Records. The album won the group four Grammy Awards thusly:
Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Engineered Album – Non-Classical, and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for Cousin Dupree. It marked the first Steely Dan studio album in 20 years, following 1980’s Gaucho. It has been certified Platinum in the United States.
For those of you who did not watch the Grammys that year, the big shock was that Manson and Starkweather actually beat Eminem in a category where everyone thought he was a shoo-in.* In trying to explain what happened that night, the blog Goldderby says this:
“What was most astonishing about the record was the fact that the band had done something thought to be almost impossible: they sounded like they had picked up right where they left off in terms of their style, and the 20-year hiatus didn’t seem to factor into how the album sounded at all.
It’s also important to remember that the music industry as a whole was going through a crisis when these Grammys were decided. The issue of peer-to-peer file sharing and the high-profile court cases against Napster were throwing the music industry into conflict over what the future of the business would be. Some feared that the very idea of an album would become obsolete, with people downloading only the songs they wanted.
Steely Dan, however, was known as an album-oriented band. While they did release singles, it was their musical choices in shaping their albums as a whole that made them successful. This turned the support for Two Against Nature into a powerful message: by voting for it as Album of the Year, the powers that be in the music industry were able to say that they were not going to let companies like Napster destroy this traditional form of music-making.
When you also consider that the group had never won a single Grammy before, Eminem’s controversies and Grammy disses on his album, and the fact that nominated alternative acts Radiohead and Beck were probably a bit beyond the grasp of older members of the Recording Academy, you get a better idea of why Two Against Nature was their choice as Album of the Year for 2000.” (As a kid I believed that awards were “pure” and free from politics and agendas. How naive was I? – ME.)
Enough background. How’s the album? Well, when it was released I’m pretty sure I picked up the CD. But before I gave it another listen for this review, I recall thinking that indeed it did pick up where the guys left off. Which, unfortunately, was neither Fagen’s terrific “The Nightfly” nor the magnificent, timeless Aja. Where they left off was the (I thought) somewhat bland, overproduced, smoothed out Gaucho.
In fairness, I gave this album a couple of spins before reviewing it. And while there’s nothing really bad on it, the problem for me is it takes the cocktail lounge essence of Gaucho, smooths off the few edges that that album had and turns much of the songs into background music. Too much of it sounds like what I’d play for the wine-and-cheese set should I ever invite them over.
Now you could easily make the argument that the Dan had long since shaved off the rough edges. But I think there’s a fine line between their latter-day music either working or just becoming what some have over time referred to as yacht rock. Where are the edges, where’s the jazz?
When I listen to the song “Aja,” I want to grab someone and say “Listen to this interplay between Steve Gadd on drums and Wayne Shorter on sax. Listen to how exciting it is.” The album does grow on you. But in looking at statistics on which Dan songs get played most at their concerts, it’s interesting to note they don’t appear to play it in its entirety nor do they play many of its songs.
All that said, there are a couple of pretty good tunes. I think my favorite is “Cousin Dupree” which may be one of the sleaziest of the Dan’s characters since the guy in “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies.” Levon Helm’s daughter Amy plays whistle on this tune which continues the Dan trend of relegating women to minor roles.
Now I’ve come back home to plan my next move
From the comfort of my Aunt Faye’s couch
When I see my little cousin Janine walk in
All I could say was ow-ow-ouch
One of the few other songs I can claim to really get jazzed about is “West of Hollywood” and that is largely due to saxman Chris Potter’s almost four-minute solo. (And some tasty lead guitar from Walter Becker who was a better guitarist than anyone gives him credit for.) I get the feeling the guys said Hey, we’re not just background music. Let’s get the jazz fans back. Too little too late I think.
Can I recommend this album? Well if you haven’t heard it for a while it’s certainly worth a spin. really. Gaucho had “Hey Nineteen” and so there’s always some gold. But apart from these tunes and a couple of others, I don’t feel compelled to go back and listen to it. Give it a listen and maybe add a few tunes to your Dan Spotify list. Or hey, maybe you’ll love it, who’s to say? I’d rather have 2nd-tier Dan than no Dan at all.
*The irony, for this most ironic of bands, is that over time Steely Dan has become a very heavily sampled band by rappers. The band De La Soul sampled “Peg” in 1989 and Kanye West famously worships these guys. They initially turned down his offer to sample “Kid Charlemagne” in his song “Champion” till he wrote them a personal letter.