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This is the thirty-sixth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
As the cold of winter finally leaves the city of Chicago and we have a brief bit of spring weather, I felt like it was time to feature an album with more of a summery feel in anticipation of the summer heat really taking hold.
It may seem strange to some to describe an album as “summery” or “having a summer feel” but that's really how they feel: summery, or wintery. I mean some albums just seem to lend themselves to driving with the windows down and laying down in the cool grass on a warm summer night than others. Those albums have more of a summery feel, with this month's feature I think serving as a shining example: Can't Buy a Thrill by Steely Dan.
When Steely Dan was initially formed, it was really designed as a vehicle to record the songwriting of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The band would evolve into an expansive, jazzy studio band though with a rotating cast of some of the best backing musicians of all time. Their 1972 debut album though, Can't Buy a Thrill definitely leans more towards pop sensibilities than their later jazzier albums. That isn't to say it's really a straight forward pop album though... it's definitely jazzy, funky and complex, complete with their trademark clever slightly cryptic lyrics... just not quite as much as their work would become later in their career.
Although I actually like the majority of the Steely Dan catalog, this album is one of my favorites... maybe because it happens to start off with one of my favorite Steely Dan songs: “Do It Again”. With it's salsa flavored beat and percussion, deep rich guitar and keyboard sounds and great soulful lyrics throughout, it's no wonder why this song became a hit and one of the band's most recognized. I especially like the lyrics and guitar flourishes on this one... and whoever thought of adding that occasional little tinkle of wind chimes to the relatively sparse and open arrangement was a genius. They're just the perfect touch for that summertime feel.
The slower blues tinged ballad “Dirty Work” is another catchy one, not to mention another classic. With it's slower slightly melancholy feel and darker lyrics, combined with jazzy harmonies and deep horn parts, this is another one of those defining Steely Dan songs.... and for good reason. These two opening tracks not only define the feel of the album from the start, but defined the sound of a very unique the band as well... not to mention the fact that both have become rock classics.
“Kings” when compared to the first two seems to head off in a slightly different direction. There's an added rock edge to the jazzy feel with a gritty, but not too gritty, rift. The chorus has a lighter feel though, keeping the song as a whole from getting too heavy. I think the transition back from the chorus to the original riff on this song is just perfect. It has a weight and anticipation that makes it hit hard without actually being heavy. I'm also a big fan of the guitar work in this one... some great rapid speed flourishes and interesting melodic moments throughout for sure.
“Midnight Cruiser” returns to the more traditional jazz feel in it's versus, perhaps appropriately... isn't that a reference to Thelonious Monk in the lyrics there? The chorus on the other hand is just classic soaring 70s style pop at it's greatest... perfect for those warm summer nights cruising with the windows down. A funkier, Latin and island flavored jazz is where “Only a Fool Would Say That” makes it's home. The feel works quite well though as it's tight, locked together and bouncy. It's a light song, but catchy enough to get your toes tapping I expect.
What can really be said about “ Reelin in the Years”? Perhaps the quintessential Steely Dan song... or certainly one of them... it's a rock and roll classic through and through. Who doesn't love that upbeat rhythm behind that awesomely fuzzy guitar riff? What a perfect sound, rich and sparkling with harmonics, taking the heavy fuzz pedal and applying it to a completely different genre with a completely different technique than hard rock raunch. The guitar has an almost horn like quality to it that works just perfectly contrasted against the clean, rich harmonies of the chorus and driving keyboards and rhythm. Suddenly fuzz guitar has a place in jazz too. Great song... great guitar work... like I said, it's a classic.
Jazz takes a slightly twisted turn with “Fire in the Hole”. One part disjointed rhythmic jazz with plenty of flourish, and one part soulful cabaret, this one is definitely a unique song with great piano and guitar touches included. “Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me” takes things to the sweeter side a little with it's dreamy melodies and floating lyrics. I think the best part of this one though is the rich backing vocal harmonies and some uniquely slippery guitar work. Both really add to the more ethereal feel and give the song an almost surreal quality.
By comparison to the previous track, “Change the Guard” sounds squared off and almost rigid, but it's funkier than it seems on first glance. There's some pure 70s era soul amongst the more straight forward beats along with more of that killer guitar work that's really prevalent throughout this entire album not just where I've pointed it out. At it's heart though, this track is just a catchy little funky tune to get you moving... and it does just that quite well.
The album closes with the upbeat and airy “Turn that Heartbeat Over Again”. It's a sweet song with a couple of great lyrical turns of phrase... as exist throughout the entire album actually. It's a nice way to close things out and leave a lasting impression. It's a final statement that Steely Dan may have come onto the scene right around when 70s rock was peaking, and jazz rock was really breaking onto the scene, but they're forging their own path and making the music they enjoy... jazzy, funky, melodic, harmonious and without pretense.
Overall I think Can't Buy a Thrill is a great album. That said, it's also one that can sound specifically rooted in the sound of the era that bore it: the 70s. Production wise it seems just a little too polished at times... a little too glossy, maybe a little too geared for 70s radio play, specifically on some songs more than others. It's not really a bad thing as it does directly relate to the context of the album, and the time during which it was produced, but it is definitely a distinctive and noticeable style that does seem a little cliche looking back.
Don't let that deter you though if this is your first time checking this album out. There are some fantastic songs here and as a complete work, it contains all the building blocks for the rest of Steely Dan's impressive catalog. The band would go on to further expand their sound, becoming a straight studio band for a while. They would create many more memorable tracks as well as some of the most well known jazz rock albums of all time, but it all hearkens back to this album. This is the root of all that genius.
Of course as a complete work I also think Can't Buy a Thrill is just that perfect summer album I was looking for this month's feature. You listen to these songs and you can just picture the warm breeze blowing, stars in the sky, laying down in the cool grass and seeing some fireworks. Yeah maybe it's Independence Day and you're watching the fireworks, having a laugh, maybe a beer and relaxing with some friends. Sure there's ups and downs, changes in emotion over the course of the night, but overall it's good fun all around. Although maybe that's simplifying things a little, I think that's some nice imagery to associate with this music.
When it comes to starting off the summer right, you can't beat Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill... jazzy, funky rock and roll at it's best, and the roots of a band that would go on to become one of the pillars of jazz rock of all time.
You can find this album from Amazon here: Can't Buy a Thrill
This feature is dedicated to a person who's become a good friend of mine recently... someone who's not only a big Steely Dan fan, but also someone for whom I know summer can't come soon enough. Hopefully she enjoys this little tribute to her favorite band and it makes her smile. Who knows, maybe sometime soon we'll be able to kick back on a cool summer night, have a laugh and take a listen to this album together.