Friday, January 25, 2013

Steely Dan 2: Countdown To Ecstasy

While still a band with a rhythm section and everything, Countdown To Ecstasy has Steely Dan veering towards slick, if slightly. Donald Fagen is the only lead vocalist here, lending the album a little more cohesion and sameness.
The wonderful “Bodhitsattva” matches a big band swing to a spiritual plea, with terrific guitar throughout for a complete anachronism. “Razor Boy” sits on some island percussion and prominent vibes, with foreboding lyrics directed at somebody; it’s not clear. One would expect a title like “The Boston Rag” to be more upbeat, but that’s one of the points of the song, which meanders along, not really catching fire until the instrumental break. “Your Gold Teeth” is preloaded with the Steely Dan sound, riding one chord for the better part of seven minutes, with a few cacophonic Fender Rhodes runs here and a few modulations for the band to “stretch out”, as the liner notes sardonically remark.
Speaking of monotonous, “Show Biz Kids” rides in circles underneath guest star Rick Derringer’s slide guitar, with backing vocals comparing Las Vegas to “lost wages” until you’re ready to kill someone. (The song is also notable for a self-reference and a certain four-letter word.) The album finally gets another highlight with “My Old School”, a jaunty backhanded tribute to Bard College with crisp horns and just the right amount of cowbell. There’s something about “Pearl Of The Quarter” that reminds us of Richard Manuel singing “Lonesome Suzie” and “In A Station”. Maybe it’s the pedal steel; it’s certainly not the “voulez voulez voulez vous”. “King Of The World” is a lot of people’s favorite, but it gets awfully jittery after a while.
Again, it’s that Steely Dan “sound” that keeps us from loving this album, and the brand in general: too much electric piano and clean guitars. However, whenever somebody lets loose with a distorted lead (usually Denny Dias, or maybe it’s Jeff “Skunk” Baxter), anything with a little fuzz, grit, stank, whatever, we find ourselves more likely to tap our toes along. They were, after all, still a self-contained unit at this point, so Countdown To Ecstasy manages to surprise.

Steely Dan Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)—3

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