Steely Dan Sunday, “Morph The Cat/Morph The Cat (Reprise)” (2006)

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The momentum Steely Dan generated by their comeback album Two Against Nature carried over into one more album, Everything Must Go, and no further. But Donald Fagen was on a roll, so after the EMG tour concluded, he set about to create the final installment of his so-called “Nightfly Trilogy.”

Morph The Cat came a “mere” three years later and in several ways, it’s a direct continuation of EMG. Fagen carried over most of the personnel from the Steely Dan album, save for Becker, of course. Guitarist Jon Herington and other strong performers like Keith Carlock (drums), Freddie Washington (bass), Ted Baker(piano), Hugh McCracken (guitar) and Walt Weiskopf (sax) bolster the continuity and are joined by additional crack session players like Wayne Krantz (guitar).

Thematically, Morph is roughly set in Post-911 New York, casting itself in the time that immediately followed the turn-of-millennia tech bust of EMG, but, as is typical of Fagen, it’s much more personal. Fagen had recently got hit with the loss of two of his most important inspirations, his mother Elinor Fagen and RnB godfather Ray Charles. Fagen himself was staring at sixty right in the face while his beloved Big Apple was still trying to figuratively emerge from the rubble of the Twin Towers, so taken all together, these things caused him to face up to his own mortality. Like all the best songwriting musicians, he channeled these emotions effectively into song. More accurately, a series of coherent compositions that doesn’t match The Nightfly but gets pretty damned close. It’s only lacking Babe Ruth home runs like “I.G.Y.” and “The New Frontier.”

Fagen finds comfort not in a God, but rather, a spiritual being he calls “Morph the Cat.” Fagen describes Morph as a “vast, ghostly cat-thing [that] descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of rapture.” As an album, Morph delivers the right measure of sentiment; it might be personal, but not too much so that he doesn’t allow happy, easily embraceable grooves, and there are plenty of them, even when the subject matter turns deadly serious, which he undertakes with intimate but terse narratives.

The titular track that both kicks off and concludes Morph is one of those chipper moods and Washington’s creeping bass line running counterpoint to the beat is one of those tough, tight grooves that’s a Fagen hallmark no matter if it’s Porcaro or Carlock; Miller or Washington. Layers of guitars — four in all — are glopped on top of the groove and a sax/trumpet section swirling around the harmony. Weiskopf has a lead turn as does Herington, who we finally hear on a SD-related record what a badassed soloist all Dan concertgoers already know that he is.

Fagen leads the chorus male vocals that break open into harmony splendor in the chorus and the whole arrangement has almost as many moving parts as a symphony orchestra, at times stopping just short of overkill. But the piles of brawny guitars and urbane brass are itself a metaphor for the “Manhattan town” that he loves so much. Revel in the complexity and world-class vibe, or get left behind. The former choice is much more fun, and the ride is just beginning.

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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  • Louis

    Hi Victor,

    I’ve read most, if not all, of your “Steely Dan Sunday” reviews and have come to the conclusion that you have to be as big a fanatic as I when it comes to anything Fagen. Once again you’ve nailed the feel of this great album with words; something I am not as good at doing but I sure know the feeling I get when listening. To me, writing about this music is like trying to explain love or any other powerful emotion and I just can’t seem to find the words to adequately express my feelings the way you do. So many reviews are as Zappa once said “(m)ost rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read” or maybe even more accurately in this case “(m)ost people wouldn’t know good music if it came up and bit them on the ass.” You do not fall into either category (BIG SMILE) . Keep up the great work, Victor, and have a happy “Black Friday.”

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