Saturday, January 12, 2013

Top 50 Albums All Time, #26 - "Pretzel Logic," Steely Dan

For a while now, I've gone back and forth on the question of whether to select one Steely Dan album in this spot, or make it a three-, four- or even five-way tie.  Their albums in the 1970s were that good, and with the exception of "The Royal Scam" (parts of which I like, but which always struck me as too cold and uninviting for its own good), I could make an argument for all of their 70s album output:

Can't Buy A Thrill - a brilliant debut without a single weak song, and two hit singles to boot - both of which you still hear on the radio today.

Countdown to Ecstasy - the first hint that this band was perhaps a little bit different than your run-of-the-mill long-haired 70s rock band.  The songs were longer, making AM radio play next to impossible, and the lyrics...sometimes they were straight-forward, and sometimes they were pretty damn inscrutable.

Katy Lied - the first of their albums where they began to embrace the fact that they really weren't a band anymore, by featuring photos of a handful of the myriad session players who contributed to the work.

Aja - the transformation was complete, "Steely Dan" was now, as it would be to this day, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and whomever they selected to accompany them on what some would denigrate as nothing more than MOR jazz.  Sure, the songs were smooth, one might even argue mellow, but to these ears it was a logical extension of what came before, and given the time I might even try to tie Steely Dan's evolution to what was happening around them during that decade.

The internal debate within my mind ended right where it began - with "Pretzel Logic," a logical extension of where they had been, but one with plenty of hints of where they would be headed in the future, with one song written by Duke Ellington and another paying homage to Charlie Parker.

There is a photo of the original band - Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and Jim Hodder - on the inner sleeve, but the notes also credit 17 additional musicians, including such session luminaries as Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, Michael Omartian, Ernie Watts, and Dean Parks.  Clearly, this was Becker and Fagen's show, and they had come to the conclusion that the constraints of the traditional rock band - guitar, keyboard, bass and drums - was insufficient to achieve the musical vision that they were after.

If the collective memories of music fans were erased today and "Pretzel Logic" was released tomorrow, there's little doubt in my mind that it would fit right in to today's fractured musical landscape.  As a band, Steely Dan was always a little on the fractured side, and there's something here to please just about everyone - the magnificent hit single "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," the sly social commentary of "Barrytown," the Ellington homage "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," the inscrutable lyrics of "Pretzel Logic," and the downright weirdness of "Charlie Freak" and "Monkey in Your Soul."

Great stuff.

Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan (1974)
Produced by Gary Katz

Rikki Don't Lose That Number/Night by Night/Any Major Dude Will Tell You/Barrytown/East St. Louis Toodle-oo/Parker's Band/Through With Buzz/Pretzel Logic/With a Gun/Charlie Freak/Monkey in Your Soul

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