Steely Dan Sunday, "Trans-Island Highway" (1993)

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

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write about the future, but even more so when the time frame is only a few years out, when imagined events quickly get superseded by real ones.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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Nick DeRiso gives his own take on Donald Fagen's 'Kamakiriad,' offering a few harsh words about boring vamps, fake drums and lazy writing ... Ouch!]

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’s 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.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst 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. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

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4 Comments

  1. You could not be more wrong about the album. I like the concept, songs and cohesiveness of the cd. Becker’s bass is stellar ( especially on Trans-Island) the the late Cornelius Bumpus shines on sax. Of the 3 albums in the trilogy, this smokes ‘ Morph The Cat”.

  2. Jives Miguel says:

    Agreed. This is a fantastic album with peerless writing and unmatched grooves throughout. 1993 never sounded better and never will. You and Nick can go jump in a lake, for all I care. You just dissed one of my all-time faves a little to harshly. No rides in the Kamakiri for you.

  3. S. Victor Aaron says:

    I appreciate the alternative takes on the record. Jives, that lake water is cold!

    As stated above, I thought Kamakiriad is a good record overall; I still play it from time to time today. I can’t say that too many other rock records that came out in ’93. But once the new car smell faded from this steam-power 10, I noticed a few flaws that I just couldn’t ignore, and they all have to do with falling short of the high standards Becker and Fagan had set with their prior work.

    If this is the worst Fagen can do, he’s in pretty good shape in my book. I could rattle off the names of several Beatles records I like less than this one.

  4. Iñaki Iraeta says:

    Preston, Jives: I’m with you. Too many funk vamps? I love them. Sloppy ending to TIS? Intentional, tongue-in-cheek. Lazy writing? “Snowbound” and “On the Dunes” among others prove otherwise. Fake drums? These guys’ army of fellow players have always been soooo great that they sounded “unnaturally” good on many occasions. Flat melodies? This is one of SD/DF’s funkiest works, with emphasis in the almighty GROOVE, but there’s still singable, memorable lines aplenty. This is probably the SD/DF album that has aged better IMHO (certain production values aside: EQ is always a subjective issue) In short, one of my favourite SD/DF efforts EVER (much better than Morph to me) But I respect other views.

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