April 7, 2005

The Pretty Toney Column

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For a band that possesses a completely harmless sound, and whose primary fanbase consists of graying suburban baby boomers, Steely Dan is surprisingly polarizing. On one hand, you’ve got people like the friend of mine who refers to group co-founders Walter “Steely” Becker and Donald “Dan” Fagen simply as “The Geniuses.” And on the other you have people like me who have always (oftentimes incorrectly) associated them with a certain type of mindless, finger-snapping music meant to be played in the background while cooking dinner, doing your taxes or completing any other menial task that can be classified as a bothersome but necessary requirement of adulthood.

Part of the reason I’ve always felt this way is due to a personal distaste for Fagen’s voice, which I suppose the band can’t be blamed for. But I’ve yet to hear a proper explanation for the rampant cheesiness of songs like “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” I was forced to listen to these songs so many times during my childhood that I had no choice other than to hate them. But over the years I heard about enough fellow music aficionados who came to love Steely Dan after once hating them that I wondered if perhaps it was time to rethink my long-held opinions.

Listening to their albums now, I certainly appreciate some of Steely Dan’s finer aspects much more than I once did, but I’d hesitate to call myself a fan overall. Clearly, Steely Dan was never short on skilled musicianship, and their fluid incorporation of elements from a multitude of genres gave them a unique and unmistakable sound (I particularly enjoy when they delve into country, on songs like “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” and “Pearl of the Quarter”).

But most songs leave me feeling conflicted. “Bodhisattva,” from their second album Countdown to Ecstasy, basically exemplifies my current feelings for Steely Dan as a whole. The music itself is impressive –throughout the majority of the song the band sounds like an amplified jazz ensemble, with intricate guitar-work from Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter as the centerpiece. Regardless, the overall swingin’ and jivin’ nature of the song does little for me. Instead of tapping my toes, I find myself shrugging my shoulders.

Regardless, the days when I fume over the group placing 57th in VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Rock & Roll countdown are long gone. But I won’t be grooving to “Deacon Blues” while I repair household appliances anytime soon either.

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Sun Staff Writer