Monday, April 22, 2013

Steely Dan 5: The Royal Scam

At this point it’s become difficult to categorize Steely Dan—too sneaky for pop, too proficient for rock, too pop for jazz. That’s probably they way they like it, but at the same time, it makes it difficult to voice how or why the band can rub people the wrong way.
The Royal Scam has all the usual hallmarks—pristine sound, jazzy keyboards, nasal vocals and snide lyrics that seem to be about something and nothing, except when they’re almost too obvious. The hero of “Kid Charlemagne” would appear to be a high-rolling drug dealer, while the narrator of “The Caves Of Altamira” ponders his measly existence while reflecting on prehistoric paintings. Sometimes a song is at odds with itself—such as in the case of “Don’t Take Me Alive”, which begins with a fuzzy diminished arpeggio, then saunters through a boogie with a lyric of the type usually associated with Warren Zevon. “Sign In Stranger” could also take place in another country, with repeated references to zombies, and a wonderful piano part by Paul Griffin. And then there’s “The Fez”, which is about as ‘70s as you can get for a song that may simply be an emphatic endorsement of prophylactics.
“Green Earrings” presents another jazz riff that seems to modulate a half-step at a time for the chorus. Meanwhile, Peter Frampton wasn’t the only guy working a talk box in 1976, as demonstrated in “Haitian Divorce”. “Everything You Did” is now notable for indirectly inspiring “Hotel California”. The title track oozes with a menace, somehow matching the mood of the cover art and capping a generally pessimistic album.
Does this do the album justice? Do the paragraphs manage to present an endorsement or dismissal? Somehow we feel it’s lacking, but that’s why we set it up as above. The Royal Scam is recommended for fans, and neither astounds nor annoys.

Steely Dan The Royal Scam (1976)—3


  1. I think this was a breakthrough album for them, when they really started using the best players. Larry Carlton's solo on "Charlemagne" is a clinic.

  2. Kid Charlemagne was Owsley.