Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic

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Steely Dan’s third and arguably finest LP can be seen as something of a bridge between their more band-oriented efforts and the albums that would follow, where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker employed an ever revolving door of session musicians and outside parties to play and record their music. Such a transition was in no small part due to Fagen’s increasing dislike of touring and live performance in general, and so when he suggested that they should continue solely as a studio unit, a la The Beatles, it was a concept which Becker himself was not entirely averse to. However such a proposal was at odds with several other members of the band who wanted to remain on the road. But since it was Fagen and Becker who wrote most of the material anyway, whether the other members remained or not, bothered them not in the slightest. Therefore with the majority choosing to depart, other musicians had to be flown in to fill the gaps.

First up is the pop perfect “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, a song which would prove to be their highest selling single, and would turn one of the music industry’s least photogenic couples into two of its most celebrated songwriters. (I realise that there was no shortage of ugly pop stars doing the rounds back then, but Fagen and Becker weren’t exactly what one might call sexy pin-up material.) Easily the most accomplished number of the record; it remains a pristine example of Steely Dan’s ability to fuse intricate arrangements with accessible not to mention irresistible melodies.

The pure Anglo-Saxon funk of “Night by Night” is next, and reminds me a little of Traffic’s “Rock and Roll Stew”, although the two are completely unrelated obviously. It’s a tremendous tune all the same, and one of the best on the album. The lyrics to “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” make no sense at all, but that doesn’t matter when the song itself is so good. All pretty glittering keyboards and sophisticated arrangements. It’s smart, as well as memorable. Like a well-tailored suit.

The lyrically derisive “Barrytown” takes a stab at class discrimination, or maybe just prejudice in general. It’s a so-so tune, not bad, but not all that remarkable I must say. The ragtime “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” is a Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley composition; where Jeff Baxter’s guitar gloriously imitates a sleazy trombone, and although it’s something of an oddball inclusion, it’s a fun and entertaining way to conclude side one.

The second side commences with the Charlie Parker inspired “Parker’s band”, a short upbeat number more pop than Parker, but a worthy tribute nonetheless, where the only real reference to the saxophonist comes near the end. Now if there is one weak link (and there usually is. Fagen and Becker are human after all. Or at least I think they are) it would be “Through with Buzz”, where the strings not only sound extraneous but become rather annoying after a while (well, throughout the whole song in fact). Yet at only one minute and thirty seconds it’s only a brief irritation fortunately, like a mosquito you wish would just buzz off and bother someone else.

The bluesy title track was the second single off the album, and although not as catchy as “Rikki…” it’s a slick piece to be sure, with more of those quirky lyrics, which are apparently concerned with time travel, including references to Napoleon Bonaparte which I’m still trying to understand. Jeff Baxter’s guitar playing is especially noteworthy, even if the song itself is the sort of blues more suited to white-collar workers than those who live at the bitter end of town.

“With a Gun” reminds me of Crosby, Stills and Nash meets the Beverly Hillbillies. Baxter’s pedal steel is worth a mention, but apart from that, it’s a bit of a throwaway. “Charlie Freak” contains some nice harmonies,  where the lyrics tell the story of a homeless junkie on the verge of starvation. By the last number “Monkey in Your Soul”, the album is definitely beginning to run out of steam, like a kettle that boils hardest at the start, before eventually all you’re left with is vapour by the end.

One of Steely Dan’s greatest gifts was to make the complex sound seamless, as if everyone just turned up at the studio, plugged in, played their parts over a couple of takes, and then went off to the pub for a few well-earned beverages (once again Gary Katz did a brilliant job as producer). But the reality couldn’t have been more different. Both Fagen and Becker were as meticulous as they were fastidious when it came to recording practices, to the point where a less patient musician unaccustomed to such studio methods would probably have raised the old tall finger in protest before storming out in a fit of frustration. But regardless of how any of the musicians themselves may have felt throughout the whole creative process, Pretzel Logic was lauded by critics on release, sold by the trailer load, and in the process succeeded in transforming them into the latest darlings of FM radio. Yet helping to make it the hit that it was required a surfeit of additional musicians on top of what remained of the original group. Nevertheless, putting all birth pains aside, the results were obviously worth it. At only 34 minutes, it’s a short album, though like a deep, dark and overly rich chocolate cake, eat too much, and you’re likely to get a stomach ache.