Steely Dan Sunday, “Gaslighting Abbie” (2000)

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

The Nineties brought many surprising events that delighted long-suffering Steely Dan fans who’ve had nearly no new output from either Becker or Fagen since 1982’s The Nightfly. Fagen’s New York Rock ‘n’ Soul Revue, essentially an all-star band playing classic oldies, got the formerly stage-shy lead singer to finally warm up to the idea of performing in front of audiences. After the band’s three-year stint wrapped up in ’92, Fagen finally went to work on that follow up to Nightfly and Kamakiriad appeared the following year. The previously silent Becker released his first solo album the year after that and in-between, the two formed a working band and hit the road for the first time in nineteen years. Two years of touring culminated in the most unlikely of SD records in ‘95, a live album.

Becker and Fagen worked together on all of these projects, but they didn’t yet do what fans craved the most: a full rekindling of their songwriting partnership, with the product lovingly crafted into a meticulously produced album. However, it was just a matter of time. The two toured one more time, in ’96, which by that time they developed a cache of songs to bring to the studio. After more than three years of their legendary fussing, Two Against Nature became Steely Dan’s first studio release since Gaucho, breaking a two decade drought.

On most days, Two Against Nature isn’t even my fourth favorite Steely Dan album, but its middling ranking in a oeuvre where even their weak stuff is damned good qualifies the album as one of the most successful comebacks in rock history. The album reached #6 in the Billboard 200, became the surprise winner of Album of the Year at the 2001 Grammys and cemented the duo’s status as rock legends, giving them that final nudge into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also in 2001.

Being out of the record-making game for so long presents a dilemma for well-known acts like Steely Dan: do they make a record like they did back in their glory days or do they overtly adapt to the times and try to update their sound twenty years in one fell swoop? 2vN solves the conundrum by ignoring it; this is an album that is easy to envision them making had they never took such a long break. This is also an album that could not be made by anyone else but Steely Dan, but it doesn’t overtly ape any of their prior releases. Over the next nine Sundays, we’ll dig into the details song by song that, put together, makes clear why Two Against Nature has that old SD mojo in a fresh new way.

Oh, and insofar as lyrics go, this is their best album.


When I eagerly cued up Two Against Nature back in the winter of 2000 and heard the first strains of “Gaslighting Abbie,” my first impression was that this was a rewritten “Trans-Island Skyway,” but like most SD songs, they’re not always what they seem to be at first. Yes, both songs groove in roughly the same way, but the similarities end there. “Abbie” grooves better, it’s their funkiest song since “Night By Night,” in no small part due to Becker’s active rhythm guitar and Fagan’s syncopating clavinet. Subject matter wise, it’s a song about playing head games with a poor damsel until she’s driven out of her mind:

Let’s keep it light — we’ll do a fright night
With blood and everything
Some punky laughter from the kitchen
And then — a nice relaxing hand of solitaire

The craftsmanship on the recording shows up everywhere, not just in the groove construction. The boys from Bard have stepped up their production game, this is much tighter than the two 90s solo forays. Horn arrangements are discreetly deployed (trumpeter Michael Leonhart begins a long and fruitful association with the band), and backup vocal arrangements are, too: check how they lag Fagen’s lead vocal by half a measure in the second verse.

The climax comes not on Becker’s one-note guitar solo but that way-out, Mingus-slick bass clarinet/Rhodes/bass unison figure that comes right before it. In the realm of mainstream music, it’s one of those magical moments that only Steely Dan is capable of conjuring up. Chris Potter’s sax solo carries on the sultry sax tradition of such solos on SD records, but we’ll expound on Potter’s 2vN contributions on another Sunday.

The giddiness from listening to some fresh-baked Steely Dan at the turn of the millennium hadn’t subsided much at all whenever the perky, smart “Gaslighting Abbie” is playing. It’s a luscious invention, alright.

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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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