December 2021 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Steely Dan Live: Northeast Corridor
Donald Fagen: The Nightfly Live
Donald Fagen, vocals, Fender Rhodes, melodica; Keith Carlock, drums; Jon Herington, Connor Kennedy, guitar; Freddie Washington, bass; Jim Beard, piano; Michael Leonhart, trumpet; Jim Pugh, trombone; Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenberg, sax; Carolyn Leonhart, Catherine Russell, La Tanya Hall, Jamie Leonhart, vocals, percussion.
UM (Steely Dan, CD/2LP; Fagen, CD/LP). Patrick Dillett, Fagen, prod.; Michael Conner, eng.; Dillett, mix; Bernie Grundman, mastering.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

It's been nearly a half-century since Steely Dan burst onto the scene, infusing pop music with jazz rhythms, knotty harmonies, and wry lyrics jammed with cryptic ironies. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the song-writing duo that created and led the band, put out nine studio albums and regularly went on tour, except during a midcareer breakup that lasted 15 years. Becker died in 2017, but Fagen kept concertizing, one result of which is this pair of live albums recorded in the fall of 2019. One is an assortment of Dan classics; the other a rendering of Fagen's masterpiece solo album, The Nightfly.

Steely Dan made one previous live album, Alive in America, back in 1995, when they got back together. But the two new albums, which feature a completely different band from in the old days, are much better. Alive was more a reverie of pop nostalgia. Northeast Corridor and The Nightfly Live are blazing rock'n'roll albums: more slam, speed, and zest but also tighter and more complex. It's music for dancing in your head and in the aisles.


I've seen Fagen and Steely Dan play live several times, usually at the Beacon in New York City. (I was at the concert where six of the eight tracks on Nightfly Live were recorded; two of the 12 tracks on Northeast were laid down at the same concert.) It's always a fun show. Fagen is in good voice; now in his 70s, he's a bit more strained but he uses his limits to rhythmic effect. The band is hot. Jon Herington doesn't quite match Becker's incendiary guitar licks, but he comes close. Drummer Keith Carlock outdoes all priors with a tireless backbeat accented by rollicking polyrhythms. The horns are skilled jazz musicians; they improvise a lot more than the Steely Dan crew of yore. And, maybe because they would otherwise get bored silly, they slap more variations on the music—a Latin tinge on "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," a wilder frenzy to "Bodhisattva," more uneven syncopation on "Kid Charlemagne."

Fagen and mixing engineer Patrick Dillett seem to have spent much of the pandemic's quarantine going through the tapes from 16 concerts—recorded mainly in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia—picking the best tracks from each. Steely Dan's studio albums are known for their pristine obsessiveness. (I once watched Fagen mix a track. Typical instruction to the engineer: "Take the flute up a tenth of a dB.") You don't get that with a live album; you don't get it with a live concert either.

The new albums, recorded in 24/96 digital, capture the spirit and drive of a live concert. The mix, on an analog console, has brought Fagen's voice up front; I can hear his lyrics and subtle inflections much more clearly than I could from good seats at the Beacon. Bernie Grundman mastered the files with no further EQ or compression, so there's a seamless stretch across the octaves and vast dynamic range.

There's one peculiarity: On Nightfly Live (but not on Northeast Corridor), the treble is a bit brighter (not in a bad way) on the LP, or another way to put it, the treble is a bit dampened on the CD. Not a big deal. On all formats, the soundstage could be a bit wider. Again, not a big deal. All in all, the LPs sound better than the CDs in the usual ways: more 3D, airier ambience, richer, warmer.—Fred Kaplan

Saint Etienne: I've Been Trying to Tell You
Heavenly Recordings. HVNLP196CD (CD). 2021. Augustin Bousfield, Pete Wiggs, Saint Etienne, prods.; Sam Kelly, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Three-piece London band Saint Etienne has been consistently producing great pop for the 30 years of its existence, mixing dance with indie with a splash of the '60s. The emphasis has varied over time. I've Been Trying to Tell You leans electronic, but it's not a dance record. It has a mellow feel, almost acoustic at times, with a dreamy, relaxed sound. The vibe is that of the end of a glorious summer, of chilling out and reflecting on happy times spent in the sun but with an undercurrent of regret that it has passed. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs on keyboards create the ambient mood, sampling from such feel-good, end-of-the-20th-century artists as Lighthouse Family and Lightning Seeds. Floating through and over the music are Sarah Cracknell's gentle vocals. Three of the songs are instrumental; others are barely more than a chorus—indeed, they're barely songs as such.

The opening track, "Music Again," is one of the most beautiful songs I've heard in a long time, and that quality is sustained for the whole album. The equally wonderful closing track, "Broad River," is a fitting way to finish. It's mostly an ominous-sounding instrumental, but Cracknell quietly joins in late, hauntingly repeating the mantra "A love like this" until finally she almost whispers "Again." Sublime. Sometimes, less is more. It's a microcosm of the whole set, which uses simplicity to a hypnotic effect. I've Been Trying to Tell You radiates positivity amongst tinges of melancholy; in times like these, that's just what we need. A truly uplifting album.

Rumors say this is their final album. I hope not, but if so, they've ended with a modern classic.—Phil Brett


Adia Victoria: A Southern Gothic
Atlantic (16-bit/44.1kHz streaming on Qobuz). 2021. T Bone Burnett, prod.; Mason Hickman, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Adia Victoria does not like to be called an Americana artist; she prefers "blues singer." And while she draws from many aspects of traditional American and indie music, blues is at the root of every track on her third full-length album, A Southern Gothic.

The South Carolina native started work on the album in Paris, her favorite city, armed with ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax's field recordings of imprisoned Black men's songs. Victoria captures their Southern pain and homesickness while never becoming overly dramatic or performative.

Producer T Bone Burnett imbues the album with the kind of raw sonic energy he brought to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. "You Was Born to Die" even includes rhythmic crunching representing the chain-gang hammers on O Brother's first track. Special guest Jason Isbell twangs out shimmering, bluesy guitar, while Kyshona Armstrong and Margo Price contribute rich backing vocals.

Mason Hickman lays down a bassline somewhere between rockabilly and funk, pulling Victoria through "Troubled Mind." She's not kidding when she sings "These times are strange, Lord/Like nothing before, Lord." Her understated delivery and the simple arrangement give the lyrics and guitar line extra punch.

"Far from Dixie" has an alt-country sheen, complete with gently distorted vocals, swirling strings and synths. And Victoria knows how to write a melody: Her breathy, earthy voice sails on the tune of "South for the Winter," her duet with The National's lead singer Matt Berninger. Victoria may identify as a blues singer, but she has a wide and genuine swath of country in her musical constitution.—Anne E. Johnson

PeterG's picture

Great to see the Steely Dan coverage! I've been over a dozen times, including both Boston and New York on their last tour. Agreed these albums are terrific additions, but I'd also recommend the lesser known 1993 Live and Fagen's Feelin Groovy as even better live takes.

Separate issue--Walter is immortal, but Herrington has always had the better solos. Let's hope we can all debate this in person at the Beacon soon!

Thom Jarvis's picture

I ordered a copy (CD), of Steely Dan's Northeast Corridor after reading the review from the December issue. I'm glad I did. Played it last night and was very impressed. An exceptional album with a very tight group of musicians. Fagan's voice is now showing his age, which to me makes the album even better and more real. Nightfly live is now on the way.

shawnwes's picture

Can't get past it that there's a best before date for most singers. The music is great but I'll pass and live with the earlier stuff.