Review Summary: Steely Dan have arguably released better, more diverse stuff since, but to see they started so well, with a rock classic, is very impressive.
Before Donald Fagen
and Walter Becker
took over the reigns of Steely Dan
in the mid-70s, the group was very band oriented. The band's first album, 'Can't Buy A Thrill', featured only 9 musicians over the entire piece (by comparison, 2000's 'Two Against Nature' had 28), which meant that the album felt coherent. This is in spite of the abundance of jazz, latin and rock influences that might've cluttered the album with styles.
The album is predominantly feelgood, toe-tapping jazz rock. "Do It Again" kicks off the album, giving a 6 minute taster for the rest of the album. Understated yet intricate, there are lots of instruments and sounds to hear, which mould into a well rounded listening experience, aided by superb production that sounds clearer than most modern albums, which would lose the different layers into the mix.
"Reelin' In The Years" kicks off with a 30 second guitar solo that echoes Jimmy Page, another icon of the early '70s. Not content with starting the song with a now-legendary solo, the rest of the vocals give way to Elliot Randall's guitar twice more. Little wonder the song is #40 in Guitar World's Greatest Solos of All Time. Is there too much showy guitar playing? Probably. It's annoying when artists try and crowbar unnecessary solos into songs, but here they fit much better than, for example, "Jump" by 'Van Halen
which is a terrible example of knowing what's required.
Rock music has been missing piano playing for far too long, and this album is strong evidence for having the instrument as an integral part of the setup. If there's one track that should encourage would-be bands to hire a pianist, it's 'Fire In The Hole'. From the intro to the oh-so-impressive solo, Fagen hits the keys with no restraint, knowing exactly what the track deserves.
Still fairly young, the band show wisdom and appreciation for different styles beyond their years, a byproduct of being extensively trained musicians. "Only A Fool Could Say That" is a latin-influenced pop number with added jazzy guitar licks that accompany the vocals sweetly. "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" bounces from style to style with a popping bassline, sustaining the listener's interest with a fun funk/soul groove.
"Fire In The Hole"'s outro guitar solo feels underwhelming, as though the track deserves more than to fade to silence. Such is the case for many of the other songs. It's a small gripe, but songs this good deserve a conclusion. Most tracks have the same feel; quick, inoffensive and catchy but as a whole it falls just short of being totally satisfying. Diversity isn't something bands often think about on a first album, and this is no different.
Lyrically, the album is as strong as anything else the band has released since. Fagen possesses a great ability to roll off sarcastic and often cynical lines that provide the listener with a greater belief in the characters described, such as the gambling addict from "Do It Again", "Now you swear and kick and beg us, that you're not a gamblin' man, Then you find you're back in Vegas, with a handle in your hand". It's not personal to the writers, but it's a good story regardless.
The band achieved pop hits with the tracks "Do It Again" and "Reelin' In The Years" and although it was 35 years ago, it's plain to see why. The songs are accessible and poppy, and that seems part of the key as to why Steely Dan are a favourite of so many; they appeal to the mainstream because they play bouncy, cheerful tunes, and to the musos because they are so technically and creatively gifted.
'Can't Buy A Thrill' is a must for fans of classic rock, though, one suspects, they've probably already got it. Way back, before rock was a minefield of genres and labels, albums like this were what music fans listened to. And it's timeless, still fresh from 1972.