Walter Becker’s 11 Tracks Of Whack took chances Steely Dan never did

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Any album of the same vintage of Walter Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack, like a fine wine, can ferment gracefully or go sour.

First, a little background on the album, released on September 27, 1994. After Steely Dan went dark in 1981, Becker spent the 1980s moving to Hawaii and doing some production work, most notably for China Crisis, Michael Franks and Rickie Lee Jones. Other than that, not much is known of the extent of his activities. Somewhere around 1992, he and his old partner Donald Fagen started working together again and when Fagen decided to record his long-awaited follow up to The Nightfly, he chose Walter Becker to produce it, provide some guitar work, and even co-write one tune (“Snowbound”).

The resulting Kamakiriad (1993) didn’t garner much critical acclaim, but it was the first step toward a full bore Steely Dan reunion that culminated with Two Against Nature seven years later. Right after Kamakiriad, though, Becker was ready to record his own album and asked Fagen to return the favor and produce it.

That Walter Becker would make a solo record seemed to be a odd proposition at that time, since he never really sang and it was assumed that Fagen was the major songwriting talent of the two. After all, The Nightfly was every bit as good as almost any Steely Dan album and Becker was nowhere to be found on it.

With 11 Tracks of Whack, Walter Becker showed that he could carry a tune, even if Donald Fagen had the better pipes for Steely Dan. Becker dispelled every other notion about him being the junior partner in the band. On the contrary, he is responsible for much of the smartass drollery behind some of Steely Dan’s clever lyrics — and while the two share a love for jazz, it’s Becker’s blues and rock personalities that balance out Fagen’s penchant for classic soul.

These and many other inspirations come together in a delightfully peculiar album. Not peculiar in the unlistenable sense, mind you, but just strange enough to set it apart from mainstream rock and just sophisticated enough to set it apart from alt-rock. I mean, how many rock records have things like medieval incantations at the end of one song and a Eric Dolphy-esque bass clarinet solo right in the middle of another one? Not thematic in the least, 11 Tracks of Whack finds Walter Becker covering a lot of bases. The lyrics are as cryptic as what you’d expect from his prior work, but not so obscure that the astute listener can’t pick up the gist of the story.

“Down in the Bottom” is a great introduction tune, with a insistent, mid-tempo beat and Becker’s well worn warble introduced to most of the world for the first time. The Neil Young-soundalike “Junkie Girl” is a sparse, harrowing folk-rock ode to a strung out hooker. “Surf And/Go Die,” a sly requiem to a friend who perished in a hang glider accident, is underpinned by a energetic beat and a funky bass. With Becker reciting the vocals as much as he’s singing them David Byrne style, it has all the earmarks for a classic Talking Heads tune.

“Book of Liars” is a softer, jazzier number that sounds perhaps most Steely Dan-like, showcasing a Becker’s rarely seen ballad side. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a live rendition of this cut found it’s way on Steely Dan’s Alive In America the following year. “Lucky Henry” is a rollicking rocker in the verses, contrasted with a jazzier bridge. Dean Parks and Adam Rogers trade guitar solos, stealing from the playbook of Steely Dan’s first two or three albums.

Broken relationships are looked at with measured humor as in the bottom heavy faux-calypso of the self-mocking “Hard Up Case,” followed by the slick Nashville sound of “Cringemaker” and the Hall & Oates plastic-soul of “Girlfriend.” In the first two tracks, Becker’s distinctive bluesy noodling can be heard in the instrumental breaks; nothing fancy, but it fits the mood.

Unfortunately, 11 Tracks of Whack begins to run out of gas toward the end. “My Waterloo” is reggae-lite that foreshadows much of Becker’s subsequent Circus Money, as are “This Moody Bastard” and the aimless “Hat Too Flat.” The album redeems itself right at the end with a charming, Hawaiian-flavor ditty called “Little Kawai.”

As for the aging process, well, all that electronic percussion is a bit dated (often sounding more like 1989 than 1994), the synths are cheesy-sounding on some songs and the recording comes across awfully compressed. That seemed to be characteristic of that era for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen as Kamikiriad suffered some from similar flaws.

More often than not, Walter Becker’s risk-taking shone through all that. It’s exactly Becker’s gambling and carefree attitude, rarely seen on most Steely Dan records, that ultimately makes 11 Tracks of Whack such a neglected minor treasure today.

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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  • Harvey Wallbanger

    Nice article on a forgotten album. Actually Fagen and Becker reunited earlier than 1992, having both played on Rosie Vela’s Zazu LP from 1986

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