As far as debut albums are concerned, Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill is top-notch. Say what you will about this musically obsessive compulsive double act, they certainly knew how to write a stylish and sophisticated composition, and who seemed to approach the art of song writing in a similar way to a couple of high cuisine chefs or makers of fine wine (a drop of “Dildos Creek” anyone?). Although the same can’t be said about the album cover, which looks like something even Frank Zappa might have rejected. So I guess taste does have its limits. But the good news is that this album is very much a band effort, a concept which would soon became a thing of the past with each subsequent release, as Becker and Fagen began to indulge their natural instinct for instrumental perfectionism. Strange really, considering that so much of the music they admired, i.e. jazz, blues, rock and roll etc, was basically performed off the cuff, and often under rather austere conditions (“Excuse me Mr. Davies, we think your song “Lola” is rather good, but there’s only ten minutes left of studio time”).
First song “Do It Again” is a Latin-infused, Santana-esque six-minute exercise about a gambling addict, that was a popular hit on US radio. And little wonder. The electric sitar, played by Denny Dias, is a throwback to the late ‘60s, and an instrument which was largely forgotten by 1972 (even George Harrison seemed to have turned his back on it, or at least publicly). Donald Fagen sings the lead vocals and plays ‘plastic organ’, whatever the hell that is. But regardless, it all works. Cool, catchy, and a great driving number. If this tune doesn’t get your toe tapping, then you must be either deaf or deceased (or Phillip Glass perhaps).
The country roots-rock of “Dirty Work” is a throwback to The Band, with swirling organ (a la Garth Hudson), and an arrangement reminiscent of “The Weight”. Until the chorus comes in, which in itself is pure Steely Dan. And when you’ve finished planting your crop, and tilling the land, the next track “Kings” takes you out of the country and into the modern city, with a semi-funky beat, and some jazzy guitar courtesy of Elliot Randall, while the harmony vocals have an aspect of CSN about them.
“Midnite Cruiser” was obviously a clear attempt at making a dent in the ever competitive Billboard Top 20, but ultimately sounds a little too desperate in the process, especially when it comes to the chorus (let’s face it, Fagen/Becker were no Lennon/McCartney). “Only a Fool Would Say That” is impeccably recorded, though lacks the sort of emotional quotient necessary to make it truly work. Although I have to say, that Jeff Baxter’s guitar flourishes are enjoyable.
Side two starts off with the effervescent and upbeat “Reelin’ In the Years”, where Elliot Randall’s guitar playing pretty much dominates this pleasurable yet innocent number. “Fire In the Hole” is a hint at what would appear in the future, arrangement-wise, while “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” is pretty much your standard country-pop replete with obligatory pedal steel and other plaintive arrangements which somehow fail to move the needle of my emotional register. Likewise “Change of the Guard”, a song overflowing with immaculate musicianship, but little in the way of poignant feeling, much less a handful of human emotion. Because if you’re going to express something meaningful, at least try not to be too mathematical about it. Similarly the album’s last track, “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, a song which fails to resonate due once again, to the one flaw which seems to serve as the Achilles heel of Fagen and Becker, and that is craft over Art, where perfection always comes first before sentiment. As if a couple of autistic songwriters got together and decided to write a handful of tunes that were catchy and well crafted, but left out all the emotional bits, thus making it difficult for the rest of us more randomly expressive individuals to detail our worries through good old-fashioned improvisation, with plenty of misery included. And I suppose that’s another quality which can seem lacking throughout much of their professional output. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my popular jazz-rock as much as any flawed mammal, who is at least musically informed enough to distinguish wheat from the chaff. And in this case, it’s the brightest stars that matter, above all the smaller ones which hold the constellation together.