Revinylization #33: 21st Century (Steely) Dan

Steely Dan's last two studio albums, Two Against Nature (2000) and Everything Must Go (2003), are anomalies. The music is stellar, at or near the level of the band's best early work, but it's almost unknown, even among fans. (Back in 2011, one night of a week-long gig at the Beacon in New York City was supposed to highlight songs from these two albums—the program was called "21st-Century Dan"—but the idea was dropped when almost nobody bought advance tickets.)

A shame. Two Against Nature, which marked the return of Steely Dan after a 20-year hiatus and won the Grammy that year for Best Album, starts in where Gaucho left off: a streak of literary sparklers glossing oddball tales, usually about loss, illusion, or unfulfilled dreams, sung by a narrator who's either blithely clueless or self-loathingly aware of his dim prospects, backed by doo-wop backup singers, skylark guitar licks, a hard-slam backbeat, and slick jazz horn charts—too slick for some, but those detractors miss the point: It's the contrast between the polished arrangements and the warbly narrator's cri de coeur that sparks Steely Dan's appeal. And, of course, there's the wit, fashioned by the band's co-founders and composers, Walter Becker (who died in 2017) and Donald Fagen (still going strong), both Bard Lit majors steeped in Tin Pan Alley and junkie Beat poetry, a cool-breeze brew for our dyspeptic times.

Fagen, the lead singer, was the era's cogent troubadour, a successor to Dylan except that Dylan's persona was a rebel who storms off Maggie's farm while Fagen's was, and is, the world-weary Sybarite who sees "the blood orange sky" above the freeway but, feeling too beat for rage, takes refuge in "the long sad Sunday of the early resigned."

Those lines are from two songs on Everything Must Go, which, if people bothered to listen, would reign as the most prophetic pop album of the last two decades. (It hit the bins just as "album-oriented rock" was taking its steep slide.) It begins with "The Last Mall," ends with the title tune (about merrily dissolving a corporation), and, in the interim, covers a wide waterfront from "Things I Miss the Most" (about a dissolute divorcee), "Blues Beach" (the aforementioned "long sad Sunday"), "Godwhacker" (think Shaft meets Nietzsche), "Pixeleen" (a prescient tale of cyber-romance), and "Lunch with Gina" (about being hounded by a crazy girl but loving her anyway).

The backup musicians on both albums are top notch. Chris Potter (sax) was playing with the band for a couple of years around the time of Two Against Nature; his solos jolt the affair with a sizzling jazz vibe. By the time of Everything, Steely Dan had resumed annual summer tours, and a full-time band was locked in place and cooking (though Potter had returned to jazz clubs).

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In the '70s, especially with Aja and Gaucho, Fagen and Becker were notorious for their control-freakish ways in the studio, pushing take after take, dialing the knobs just so on the mixing board, and this obsession persisted when they got back together. (I watched Fagen mixing some tunes on his solo album, Morph the Cat. A typical instruction to the engineer: "Bring up the flute by one-quarter dB.") Two Against Nature was the last album the band recorded in analog, though the overdubs were laid down in digital, and the mix was digital, the latter oversampled at 192kHz. Everything Must Go was recorded digitally, at 24/48, and while it sounds very good—all Dan albums sound at least very good—the format's limits are apparent. Compared with Two Against Nature, the percussion is papery and the horns a bit flat, though only a bit.

Everything appeared on vinyl in Europe shortly after its release, and Rhino put out a 2-LP Two Against Nature (with the fourth side blank) for Record Store Day in 2021. I haven't heard the Euro pressing, but I have the Rhino. The Acoustic Sounds reissue is pressed from the same digital master (by Scott Hull), so its only distinctions are the QRP pressing and 45rpm speed, but that makes a big difference. Fagen's voice is clearer, the guitars are pluckier, the horns are brassier, the drums are more eye-blinkingly smacked, and the rhythm is more coherent. The improvement isn't huge, but it's obvious. (The improvement over the CD is fairly large.) The Rhino LP package is out of print and sells on Discogs for hundreds of dollars, so the Acoustic Sounds package, at $60, is a relative bargain.

Everything Must Go was released on vinyl in Europe, and while it too is better than the CD (I have both), the Analogue Productions reissue, which is mastered by Bernie Grundman, is much better still. Here, too, comparisons are academic, as the Euro LP is out of print and selling for three-digit prices on the secondary markets.

Both albums are also among AP's handsomest productions, with a Tip-on gatefold jacket, lush color reproduction, and dead-quiet 180gm virgin vinyl.

If you missed these albums when they came out, at the start of our century, it's time to catch up, since the times have caught up with them. There's never been a better way to do so.

COMMENTS
MBMax's picture

are terrific sounding. The LPs MUST be great if they are that much better.
IMO, the CD's are certainly worth it (and available at a few bucks used) if you don't want to spring for the LPs.

Rougepierre's picture

The author states that Everything Must Go was recorded digitally, at 24/48
according to Fagen and Becker this was a return to analog recording
Please see their interview at
http://steelydanreader.com/2003/08/01/recording-everything-must-go/

Fred Kaplan's picture

Very strange. My source on the matter was Elliott Scheiner, the engineer. If "Rougepierre" (this would all be more civilized if people used their real names) were right, it wouldn't make sense anyway, as the Dan album before this, "Two Against Nature," WAS recorded in analog, so "Everything Must Go" would not have been a RETURN to analog. In any case, it wasn't

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