Steely Dan – Two Against Nature (2000)

Twenty years is a long time to go without a proper studio album, but long-suffering fans of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s Steely Dan finally got relief in February of 2000 with the release of Two Against Nature.

Expectations ran high for one of the most successful rock bands of the seventies, and bands that reunite after an extended layoff rarely, if ever, recapture the old magic. Did the latter-day release avoid this curse?

The overall feel of Two Against Nature is unmistakably Steely Dan: note-perfect production, solid engineering, smart horn charts, superb musicianship, and sophisticated song craft. All topped off by Fagen’s nasally vocals and familiar Wurlitzer block chords. Those who follow SD will find points in each song that remind them of various prior albums by the band and solo Fagen, even solo Becker.

Also true to form, this album will not grab you on first listen…it takes several go arounds to get inside these unorthodox chord progressions. But once you’re there, you just can’t get these tunes out of your head.

Compared to the seventies output, Two Against Nature contains some of Becker and Fagen’s wittiest and complex lyrics ever, portraying lives of obsession, hopelessness and deviancy with a quirky, almost smirking tone. The lingo is about as hip as fifty-somethings can get, which adds to the charm. On the other hand, those older albums were always good for some anthemic guitar solos by hired guns like Rick Derringer, Elliot Randall and Larry Carlton.

For this project, Walter Becker, a self-admitted “B+ guitarist,” fills in all the solos here, and his blues noodling just doesn’t quite fit the bill for most tracks. In that respect, Steely Dan raised the bar high and then ran under it.

A quick take of each song:

1) “Gaslighting Abbey” – A funky number with a strong resemblance to Fagen’s Kamakiriad. Inside joke lyrics explain the details but still leave you wondering what “gaslighting Abbey” really means(!)

2) “What A Shame About Me” – Blues, Steely Dan style. The one place where Becker’s lead guitar is exactly right for the song.

3) “Two Against Nature” – Irregular (6/8?), infectuous rhythm underlies a call to assault the environment. Yes, really.

4) “Janie Runaway” – Spare use of guitar and keyboards used to great effect here. About an old man fulfilling his fantasies with an underage juvenile and as an afterthought wonders if that “would be a federal case”.

5) “Almost Gothic” – The soft, jazzy overtones recalls “Deacon Blues” and “Any Major Dude.” Probably the most stereotypical of Steely Dan songs here.

6) “Jack Of Speed” – Contains a very catchy guitar-horns riff, an r&b inflected anti-drug theme, with a sound that recalls late seventies Hall and Oates.

7) “Cousin Dupree” – incestuous lust set to an up-tempo soul-rocker. While the other songs grow on you, this one sounds good from the start, and then gets a bit tiresome after a while. Still, not a bad tune.

8) “Negative Girl” – The jazziest sounding of the bunch, complete with a vibes solo. Excellent rhythm guitar work by Dean Parks and Paul Jackson, Jr. makes one wonder of the possibilities.

9) “West Of Hollywood” – The fast-paced closer clocks in at over eight minutes, mainly due to a tasty, if lengthy, tenor sax solo by the sorely underrated Chris Potter.

So, yes, Steely Dan managed to avoid the curse, sounding like they simply picked up where they left off, and seemed to have had a lot of fun doing it. That they beat the odds was unexpected; that Two Against Nature won Album of the Year at the 2000 Grammys was even more so.

Better late than never, though.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
  • Anonymous

    So what DOES “Gaslighting Abbey” really mean?

  • Pico

    I recall reading where Becker and Fagan explained it but then I forgot what they said. Urban Dictionary to the rescue!>>>

    When a ‘significant other’ or friend stops wanting to hang with you unless they can’t find anyone else to hang with.

    Some believe this terminology roots back to the operation of a gas lantern and how it can be turned down in an instant as not to waste fuel (i.e. a persons time) and then turned back up once there is insufficient natural light (i.e. there’s no one else to hang with).

    Unsuspecting Dupe: “Man, I don’t know what’s up with Emmy. Everything’s cool and then all of a sudden she won’t call for a couple weeks; then she’ll just start showing up again.”
    Unsuspecting Dupes friend: “Yea, she’s gaslighting you bro’.”