Call them the Not-So-Odd Couple. They finish each other’s sentences, know each other inside out and outside in, belong together every inch as much as Stan and Ollie, Eric and Ernie, even Joel and Ethan. But where does Don end and Walt begin?
Such has been the question buzzing in the unfrazzled fragments of my brain while listening to Donald Fagen‘s latest elpee, Sunken Condos. Not for the first time, of course, but more intensely than hitherto. More than any other of his solo recordings, even The Nightfly, this one sounds as if it coulda been, even shoulda been, a Steely Dan platter. Or, rather, a post-Gaucho Steely Dan platter. Familiarity breeds the very opposite of contempt as you luxuriate in that unique fusion of jazz, funk and rock, underpinned by honking horns and Jon Herrington’s wondrous versatility (Larry Carlton and the sorely-missed, grievously unsung Denny Dias aside, no Dan axeman has had such juicy chops). The words aren’t too shabby either.
Four studio albums in, The Don has yet to make an offer I’ve been able to refuse. Neither of Walter Becker‘s solo sallies, conversely, have had remotely the same impact, even though, musically, they have been almost as intriguing, if not terribly memorable. The obvious difference is his voice. Not a bad one by any means, but when the competition is the “dry white whine” (thankyou kindly, Mr Kent), the chances of cracking open the victory bubbly are not especially good.
By the same token, Don without Walt still feels akin to Don without Phil, Dastardly without Muttley. Sure, the principal musicians on Sunken Condos, Walt aside, are pretty much the same as they were on 2003′s Everything Must Go, their most recent collaboration, and the sound is every bit as perfect as we have come to expect, nay demand – as sharp as a titanium needle; as deep and crisp and even as the snow in Wenceslas Square; as meaty, beaty, big and bouncy as one could reasonably expect of a duo to whom 33 chords will always be preferable to three. But there’s something missing. Call it mischief, call it edge, call it ingenuity, call it pretzel logic. OK, call it Walt.
Part of it’s that grating clavinet. Had Walt been at the console, one likes to imagine he’d have done a Harry Enfield: “Fagen, no! Don’t you know that Stevie Wonder is the only musician on the planet who has ever not made the clavinet sound like the Mighty Larry Adler tripping on bad acid.” Mostly, though, it’s the sense that the intangibles that bond Don and Walt leave a tiny but crucial hole when loosened. It is hard, for instance, to imagine that the latter would have countenanced covering a decent-but-unmagical Isaac Hayes track, Out Of The Ghetto, even though the band (how often have you ever seen that word crop up in a review of any Dan product post-Countdown to Ecstasy?) more than compensate with a rousing workout capped by Antoine Silverman’s klezmer-esque violining.
At its peak, nonetheless, Sunken Condos is up there, way up there. Right now, probably for all the wrong reasons, I can’t get past Miss Marlene, a slab of supremely bodacious Dannishsness, capped by Don’s unusually breathy vocal, that simultaneously, almost miraculously, recalls I.G.Y, Glamour Profession, Night By Night and Jack of Speed while still being sufficiently different to be completely gorgeous, wholly irresistible and utterly original.
Not bad for a 64-year-old.