Steely Dan Sunday: “Trans-Island Highway” (1993)

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After an 11-year period of quiet, intermittent activity by both of our main protagonists, Steely Dan came roaring back into the public eye in 1993, starting with Fagen’s long-awaited follow-up to The Nightfly, dubbed Kamakiriad. The eyebrows were raised even further when it was revealed that Walter Becker produced this album, played the bass and lead guitar, and even co-wrote a track with Fagen. The reunion was further cemented that year with Steely Dan’s first live tour since 1974. The band has toured fairly regularly ever since.

Donald Fagen has never made a bad album and I can confidently state that he never will, but in the pecking order of quality, Kamakiriad is his weakest effort. Whereas the first album of the Nightfly Trilogy is set in the distant past of Fagen’s youth, Kamakiriad lurches ahead to the then-futuristic late 1990s. It’s always a tricky proposition to write about the future, but even more so when the time frame is only a few years out, when imagined events quickly get superseded by real ones. “King Of The World” aside, sci fi just ain’t up Fagen’s wheelhouse.

But even if stories about a turn-of-the-21st century Stanley Steamer with a vegetable garden out back, a mood-changing moon and alien girls preying on hapless lonely guys aren’t below par for one of rock’s sharpest songwriters, the moments of flat melodies and unpolished production are (I’m looking right at you, Walter). This is one of the rare Steely Dan albums that hasn’t aged well, either; the joy of having a fresh new Fagen record made it easier to overlook the shortcomings, and in the fall of ’93 this CD was in my daily rotation for months. Taking it in now, especially knowing how the ship later got righted, it’s not as easy to get worked up over this album as it used to be. That all said, there are a number of things that were done well (like the bass playing…still looking at you, Walter), and the sweet spot middle of the record.

“Trans-Island Skyway,” exemplifies both what I like and don’t like about the album as a whole. Becker’s bottom notes are a precise, commanding counterweight to the overly trebly drums, keyboards and guitar; it boasts unmistakably ’90s production values. The horns charts and female backing vocals are good, but the singing in falsetto and the sloppy ending are not. The lyrics? I haven’t decided if the come-on line “come on Snakehips it’s all over now, strap in tight ‘cos it’s a long sweet ride” is charming, or just faux hipster. There’s a fine line between the two, and he’s right on it. And then there’s a bridge all about coaxing his father to put down his lawn mower and hop in the car, though it’s hard not to sing along to “come on Daddy, get in let’s go.”

So, a little rust had developed on the precision recordmaking machinery of Steely Dan. Shaking it off might have been necessary in order to get back near the heights of the classic period. In any case, Kamakiriad, while somewhat disappointing, is far from a being a wasted effort.

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
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