Let’s face it: Steely Dan should have stopped recording albums a long, long, time ago. Or rather, they never should have started recording albums again. Either way, you can throw all the Carlos/Clapton Concessionary Grammy awards at them as you want, but every knowledgeable listener, unbiased by the nostalgia built up over the reeled-in years, knows that the title of their most recent album applies to anything the Dan has released since Donald Fagen’s spectacular solo effort, The Nightfly. And whether you miss Steve Gadd’s ridiculous drumming that lit up Aja or the unparalleled guitar work of Larry Carlton that set so many classic Dan tracks on fire, it’s safe to say that the recent output of the sarcastic duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—while staying perfectly in tune—has completely fallen flat.
The arc of this most disappointing trend, in its trajectory from Two Against Nature to Everything Must Go, had its origins in the last album of original material the boys would release for two decades, 1980’s Gaucho. Lackluster and boring at its worst, and uneven at best, Gaucho bears revisiting not only because of its overwhelming similarities to the underwhelming Steely Dan output of late, but also because it, most inauspiciously, is first in the series of SACD hybrid reissues of the older, and in every sense of the term, original Steely Dan records. That Gaucho is the first of the classic albums to be heard in this pristine format is most odd, since it was the last album selected to be released in remastered format by MCA just three years ago. Unlike this decision to make Gaucho lead off the rotation, MCA’s previous efforts to keep the album under wraps seem far more fair to the history of one of the great bands of its generation.
As Becker and Fagen’s bewildering liner notes indicate, Gaucho sounds like the product of a band based on the unique gifts of session musicians who are unfortunately focused not on creating great music in the studio but instead on snorting little white lines of powder off of mirrors. A total sense of dislocation pervades Gaucho, whose title track and closing song both speak of feeling incredibly out of place in and out of touch with the world as we know it. And how detached are the musicians from the music they purport to make? In the case of drummers like Gadd and Jeff Porcaro—who are listed on the liner notes—they are not even to be heard on songs for which they are given credit. In their place, on five of the album’s tracks, the percussion is provided instead by an early and dismal form of a drum machine. The audibly plastic nature of these synthesized sounds fails to highlight the songs’ sense of unreality; they only push the sometimes borderline light jazz of Becker and Fagen completely into the realm of elevator music.
Of course, Gaucho is not a complete disappointment. Had it been released as a single of the album’s first two tracks, it might have been the best send-off any group could want before retiring for twenty years. Both “Babylon Sisters” and “Hey Nineteen” rank amongst the best work that Steely Dan has created, and they rightfully earn their place on just about every greatest hits compilation the band seems to release. Fagen’s reminiscences of Cuervo Gold and Kirschwasser are topped only by the sly fashion in which he immortalizes those “Sweet things from Boston / So young and willing” who moved down to Scarsdale.
Where the hell was I? Oh, yeah, listening to Gaucho. But not for long. For once this review is in the can, this CD, no matter how super its audio might be, is going to rest on the shelf a long time, making friends with Two Against Nature, jealously watching Katy Lied come out to play.