Donald Fagen makes a clean break from his thirty-year-old crowning achievement, with a big assist from the Steely Dan machinery’s secret weapon.
By early 2010, Fagen had enough songs written for a whole new album, one that was worked on around Dukes of September and Steely Dan tours. It was completed last spring and will be released next week with the title Sunken Condos (street date October 16, Reprise Records). Having completed The Nightfly trilogy over a quarter-century period with Morph The Cat in 2006, Fagen didn’t have to be concerned with being boxed in by rigid themes (Kamakiriad) or even broad ones (Morph The Cat). With no direction needed to conjure up these new songs, Fagen instead tabbed a partner to bring these songs to tape, and that partner wasn’t his erstwhile Steely Dan comrade Walter Becker, but rather, the trumpet player in the Steely Dan touring band.
That trumpet player, Michael Leonhart, played no small part Sunken Condos: he co-produced the album with Fagen. He also helped with the horn and vocal arrangements. Of course, he played trumpet, but he also played various keyboards, vibraphone, percussion, mellophonium, and background vocals. He also played the drums on every single track (under the pseudonym “Earle Cooke, Jr.”). He and Fagen worked out all the basic tracking with keyboards before even getting anyone else involved in the process. No one else on a Fagen/Steely Dan project aside from Becker and Fagen themselves had ever approached the level of involvement that this relatively little-known jazz musician did.
Fagen’s trust in Leonhart was hardly blind faith, though. While still in his mid-twenties, Leonhart undertook the all-important horn arrangements on Steely Dan’s Grammy winner Two Against Nature (2000), and Leonhart has handled other instrumental parts (including guitar and bass), on his and other people’s records. For Sunken Condos, he even filled in the huge shoes of The Immortal Roger Nichols, as co-engineer. However, he was clearly ready for this task.
No, there’s no concept this time, but there’s plenty of coherency. Mostly dwelling on themes of romance gained, maintained and lost, with just a touch of that Steely Dan absurdist humor and plenty of well-hidden jokes (most of which I’ve still yet to figure out, but that’s half the fun), Fagen is working in familiar territory with no erosion of his songcrafting mojo. He remains masterful at the mid-tempo groove, fully realized bridges, and will jump on any opportunity to add an extra, enriching chord or two to keep the progressions from getting too predictable.
Fagen and Leonhart constructed an album that borrows some from the Aja/Gaucho/The Nightfly template, but also reaches back to Pretzel Logic and even Countdown To Ecstasy. Remember the cool acoustic bass and vibraphone combination of “Razor Boy”? It’s back, on “Slinky Thing,” which could have very well referred to the groove, and not the hot young chick at the arm of some “burned-out hippie clown.” Or, consider that fuzzy urban blues of “Pretzel Logic” coming back in another life as another excellent rendering of the 12-bar form, “Weather In My Head.” The lone cover, Isaac Hayes’ “Out Of Ghetto,” won’t recall much of anything Fagen has done before, and the Blaxploitation funk number “Good Stuff” owes more to Hayes than to Steely Dan, too.
Even on the songs that do hearken back to the classic trio of albums, there’s vitality to these songs that doesn’t get suppressed by the overpursuit of sterile production. “Miss Marlene,” a buoyant jazzy shuffle about a teenaged bowling queen that could had been a last minute cut from Aja; nonetheless it has a lighter feel than that meticulously constructed album. The advance single “I’m Not The Same Without You” has already drawn many favorable comparisons to various tracks on The Nightfly, but here he sings with a looseness that — for everything we love about that album — simply didn’t have.
From a production standpoint, that comparison gets to the heart of what sets Sunken Condos from the prior three Fagen ventures. Sure, there are the requisite layers of backup singers, guitar and horn charts, but the core instrumentation, all done by Fagen and Leonhart, has a more organic, handmade feel that’s pervasive. Technology was leveraged — ProTools, anyone? — but the two put it to work toward sculpting natural, analog-y sounds.
Steely Dan mainstay Jon Herington plays the role of The Royal Scam Larry Carlton, applying his versatile skills on guitar to add wah-wah sass to “Slinky Thing,” Carlton-like precise articulations on “Miss Marlene” and hot (but not overdone) blues licks on “Weather In My Head.” Save for keyboardist Jim Beard and drummer Keith Carlock, everyone else from the Steely Dan road band is present on this album, too.
Some of Leonhart’s old cohorts from the NYC jazz scene make spot appearances: Joe Martin assumed Ray Brown bass duties for “Slinky,” and Kurt Rosenwinkel’s ultra-tasty guitar solo on “Planet D’Rhonda” alone makes the song worth hearing. Leonhart himself goes Bubber Miley with the plunger muted trumpet on “Memorabilia,” making an oddly groovy combination with the spooky organ (also played by Leonhart). His timekeeping is precise enough, but I miss the spunk of Carlock. Three other Leonharts show up on this record, as well: background vocalists Carolyn and Jamie, and acoustic bassist Jay.
If Donald Fagen had gone out and instead made an album that closely followed the pre-established Fagen/Steely Dan conventions, it would likely still be a very good album. This time around, he turned those conventions into broad guidelines and set out to make a damned fine, solid rock ‘n soul record that conjures Steely Dan but alongside other rock ‘n soul sources of inspiration. Perhaps the best thing about Sunken Condos is that it presents an artist with nothing left to prove who, forty years after Can’t Buy A Thrill, is still evolving.