It’s strange: I like Donald Fagen records for how much they sound like Steely Dan and I like Walter Becker’s records for how they distance themselves from Steely Dan records. That Fagen’s recordings are virtually indistinguishable from his Becker collaborations to the casual listener lends a lot to the idea that he’s the George Michael to Becker’s Andrew Ridgeley. Unlike Ridgeley, thankfully, Becker’s albums are still worthwhile listens years later. And he did bring from Steely Dan to his own music a couple of things Fagen can’t quite match: that coldly acerbic wit and a fearless sense of adventure.
Becker declined to follow up Everything Must Go with his erstwhile partner (for now) but soon got the itch make his own record again. It’s tempting to call Circus Money — as the finished product is titled — an atypical Walter Becker record, except he made only one other. What’s “typical” for him, anyway?
Nonetheless, he went awry of expectations when he enlisted someone else to produce the record, and again when he brought in a non-Fagen collaborator to help write the tunes. And that the person he reached out for both tasks — Larry Klein — is a mirror image of Steely Dan’s jazz-loving bassist, composer and producer.
Joni Mitchell’s ex, though, did help bring about the distinction Becker was surely looking for on the second solo album. Gone is Becker’s ragged, strung-out vocal delivery that marked 11 Tracks of Whack, as Klein smoothed out all those rough edges. And for good measure, the background singers get a prominent role. The engineering and mixing are pristine. The musicians are pretty much the same amazing cast of characters found on Steely Dan’s two comeback records and Fagen’s Morph The Cat.
Did I mention that other distinguishable feature of Circus Money? You know, where most of the songs are played in the dancehall/ska/reggae style? Yes, Walter went on a Caribbean excursion. This is an old love of his — as evidenced by The Royal Scam — with which he finally gets to totally immerse himself.
Regarding the lead track “Door Number Two”: a commentary about pinning ones hopes for fortune on hitting the unlikely jackpot set to a gently swaying island pulse, with flawless execution by Becker (on bass) and his crackerjack crew of musicians. Chris Potter and his tenor saxophone returns after being absent on the last couple of SD-related releases. Aside from Potter’s solo, there’s nothing that really stands out, however. It quickly gets better, starting with cut number two…
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