April 28, 2008

Book Review: Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years (Updated Edition)

On the surface, this book tells the story of a legendary band. Technically speaking, though, the band in question really isn’t a band at all, at least not in the rock ’n’ roll “group” connotation. Consider its principal members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, more as auteurs of a joint enterprise, if you will.

Basically, these two jazz and literature buffs from Jersey write their own stuff – weird stuff – while utilizing the skills of proficient musicians to interpret it, yet not always (and more often than not) by using the same musicians. More to the point, they interchange session players like most bands swap out guitar strings and drumsticks.

In Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years, author Brian Sweet traces the history of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s songwriting partnership, giving the reader a meticulous account of some of the most enigmatic, cynical, and hippest sonic compositions in modern music. First published in 1994 following the Dan’s long-awaited comeback to concert performing, this updated edition (released March 2008) covers the making of their successive albums, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, as well as Morph the Cat, Donald Fagen’s third solo release.

While this book doesn’t reveal much in the way of personal specifics, it does, however, chronicle Steely Dan’s emergence and progression within context of the 1970s music scene. Recalling an era saturated with sentimental pap, the author illustrates how albums like Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam, and Aja injected the zeitgeist with biting lyrical satire and cunning embellishments of traditional song forms. The Eagles or Three Dog Night they weren’t; Steely Dan didn’t convey any “Peaceful Easy Feeling” or “Joy To The World” vibes whatsoever, yet their songs undeniably resonated both with critics and record buyers.

The most illuminating aspect of Steely Dan covered here – which will interest fans and drive detractors to the brink of insanity – is Fagen and Becker’s infamous and meticulous work ethic. Before the days of digital recording and modern computer technology, most Steely Dan albums resulted from inordinate amounts of painstaking performances and production. The author sheds light on extensive (and expensive) recording sessions as well as the minutiae involved in mixing and mastering songs. Sardonically commenting on the fastidiousness that he and Becker applied to their craft, Fagen is quoted as once saying, “This is music, music we care about. We don’t make records to find girls. We already have girls.”

Drawn from a myriad of source material and rendered with considerable insight, Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years reveals the lowdown on a “band” that conformed not to convention or popular style, but rather to the rhythm of its own quirky groove.