Best Steely Dan Ballads: Steely Dan Sunday

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*** STEELY DAN SUNDAY INDEX ***

One of the unfair criticisms I’ve seen leveled at Steely Dan is that the music is often too soft and snoozy. And yet, when I comb through their catalog for true, bonafide ballads, there are a scant few of them. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen like to groove but when they set their minds on going full-on mellow, they can get lush and meloncholy with the best of them and lose none of their edge in crafting highly refined harmonies. Sentimentality and sometimes biting sarcasm are themes found in this gentler side of Steely Dan that’s married to their usual elite musicianship.

Below is a selection of five of the best of the Steely Dan slow jams. One of these was a top 20 hit, the rest of them coulda been contenders if they had been singles, too. The original, complete discussion of these tunes can be found by clicking on the song titles.


5. Deacon Blues: Seductive sophistication wrapped around a narrative of a loser who fantasizes being an object of desire. There’s a lusty saxophone from Pete Christlieb and tasteful rhythm guitars from LA session guitar champs Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. A lot of good things went into that song but that intro figure is a thing of ageless beauty; mere mortals can’t conceive chord changes like that.

4. Book Of Liars (live version): A romantic, tear-jerking ballad is the last kind of song anyone would expect from Walter Becker. “Book Of Liars” — originally appearing on Becker’s Eleven Tracks of Whack — is a ballad alright, but the other two adjectives don’t apply, not when Becker is telling his subject about what a legendary bullshitter she is. Ballad or not, this is another instance of Becker’s deliciously oblique verses. For the live version found on Alive In America, the original drum machine was replaced by great rim work from Peter Erskine. Warren Berhardt’s elegant solo replaces the jarring solo on the original version. Perhaps the highlight of the song is Bob Sheppard, who literally takes center stage with his soprano sax to begin the song, then switches to his tenor for the middle solo. A great way to highlight this Becker-only composition.

3. Pearl of the Quarter: A country love song delivered without any detectable irony is what follows “My Old School” on Countdown To Ecstasy. The charm of Countdown comes from featuring styles and devices Becker and Fagen never visited again, and this song “Pearl Of The Quarter” that’s both “country” and “lacking irony” qualifies as a rarely used combination their arsenal. Maybe the lyrics might be a tad hokey, especially for skilled wordsmiths like this duo, but the overall sweetness of “Pearl Of The Quarter” wins over even fans of the more urbane SD stuff like me.

2. Any World That I’m Welcome To: Subtle genius is the hallmark of many of Steely Dan’s songs, especially on the low-key songs like this one. For that subtle genius this time they turned to all-time drummer great Hal Blaine. “Any World” is one of many Steely Dan songs where the drumming sounds easy, but that’s only because the drummer is making it sound easy. The verses are muted, but the transition to the chorus is more uptempo and the chorus itself shifts to a fills-laden crescendo and then back again to the gentle gait of the verses. Blaine was able to handle with aplomb all the discreet modulating of cadence and timekeeping the song demanded.

1. Third World Man: This is a lounge ballad at heart that’s made more substantial than what that characterization might suggest by sophisticated arrangements and lyrics — most likely about war veterans dealing with post traumatic stress disorder — that are too direct and serious to ever be called sappy. Larry Carlton’s tasty and discriminating lead guitar work, to be frank, made a good song a great one. In contrast to the times he’s gone in and ripped the roof off of a song with searing solos, Carlton takes on a different tact for “Man,” elongating his notes more and often doubling them to embellish the pain being portrayed in the words. That, plus the poignant lyrics and some really lavish harmonies, makes “Third World Man” the sleeper track on Gaucho.

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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