[8 July 2008]
The most beautiful thing about Steely Dan is their ability to keep within the framework of their signature sound, and make it sound fresh with every new release. When Two Against Nature arrived to the surprise of longtime fans the world over in 2000, they were elated at how Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were able to pick up exactly where they left off on 1980’s Gaucho as if the 20 years in between never even happened. And from there, they jumped right into the recording and release of the follow-up, 2003’s Everything Must Go, an album that gels with Two Against Nature with the same fluidity that binded Aja and The Royal Scam. Even Fagen’s fabled trilogy of solo albums (1982’s The Nightfly, 1993’s Kamakiriad and 2006’s Morph The Cat) lyrically may behold more personal musings, the albums never strayed too far from the ‘Dan’s artsy, clever fusion of jazz precision and rock sensibility.
Walter Becker’s solo material, on the other hand, is a whole other beast entirely. His 1994 debut, 11 Tracks of Whack, by far and away the quirkiest, most underrated album in the entire Steely Dan canon, was a looser, darker affair than what we were used to hearing from a member of the Dan. Though by no means a far stray from the signature style he helped to perfect on such classic albums as Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic, the employment of an extra layer of fuzz on the guitar, and, most notably, the fact that Becker sings lead on all 12 cuts certainly helped Whack earn its place as the oddball of the duo’s discography.
Circus Money, Becker’s long-awaited follow-up to 11 Tracks of Whack, once again proves the guitarist’s desire to branch out beyond the classic Becker/Fagen sound. This 12-song set, his debut release on his own 5 Over 12 imprint through Jimmy Buffett’s Mailboat Records, can also be construed as Walter’s first true solo album. Meaning that whereas Fagen maintained a minor presence on Whack, playing on and co-producing the album as Becker had done on both The Nightfly and Kamakiriad, he is completely absent on Circus Money, a seemingly tactical bookend to Becker’s AWOL status on Fagen’s Morph The Cat. Here, Becker teams up with journeyman producer (and ex-husband of Joni Mitchell) Larry Klein. And while the album is indicative of being constructed by a member of Steely Dan, Circus Money finds Becker diving headfirst into his unrequited love for reggae music, a torrid affair only hinted at on Whack, particularly the song, “This Moody Bastard”.
One can envision Becker, Klein and the crack team of studio pros they employed for these sessions, drummer Keith Carlock, guitarist Jon Herington and keyboardists Ted Baker and Jim Beard chief among them, sitting in a ganja-hued Avatar Studios in New York City, listening to King Tubby’s Dub From The Roots and laughing as Becker animates the lyrics that bring such characters as the dirty-minded “family member” (perhaps a distant relative of “Cousin Dupree”?) in “Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore”, or the philandering game show host who hooks up with a young contestant on “Door Number Two”, to life before a THC-stained microphone.
However, before you mistake Circus Money as something directly akin to a Walter Becker Meets Rockers Uptown type of situation, there is more than enough of that classic Steely Dan element imbued within these grooves to let you know whose record this is, especially when you are paying attention to the lyrics, all draped with Becker’s classically sardonic wit and wanton interest in May-December trysts. Songs such as the snide Hollywood send-up “Three Picture Deal”, and the sad remembrance “Paging Audrey” wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Two Against Nature. Yet overall, the reggae and dub influences here are undeniable on “Downtown Canon” and “Do You Remember The Name”, tunes that simply revel in a tasty “Babylon Sisters By Bus” vibe that will most certainly appeal to any music lover with vinyl copies of both Katy Lied and Visions of Dennis Brown nestled side by side in their Ikea Expedit. Hell, the irie-flavored phrasing makes Becker’s voice sound almost as smooth as Fagen’s. Plus, given that there are a lot of closet Steely Dan fans out there in the reggae and hip-hop worlds who may not exactly openly admit to their secret love for the music of one of the whitest bands in the business, this triumph of a second solo album from Walter Becker will certainly provide them with a sense of gravitas to come out of the woodwork with a fistful of Circus Money in their hands.
Kudos to Mr. Becker for continuing to think outside the box, and provide longtime Steely Dan fans with another collection of songs that is anything but “whack.”