Review Summary: A very solid album, mixing all sorts of styles into one. Straight up good, unpretentious music.
I really want to give this album a five, but I cannot. It is not a 'Classic' album, but it is a fine recording. It seems that amongst this site, Steely Dan is not well known, which I fell is very unfortunate.
This album, their fifth, is by far my favorite album in their catalogue for a few reasons. Number 1: The music (I'll start with the obvious). The music is very tightly constructed, so that the songs have a lush, seamless sound. Everything is proportionate. The music is not overly noodley, nor is it too caught up with time signatures and changing a rhythm every 2 seconds. It's simple and straight forward to the ear, but it reveals a good deal of subtelty upon closer inspection. 2: The lyrics: It becombes apparent very quickly while listening to this that the lyrics have a bite. The opening song for example, is about a once prosperous drug dealer who is suddenly finding his former clients moving away from him. He becomes alienated realizing that his prime has past and he is now nothing but an outlaw. "Don't Take Me Alive," the third cut, speaks of a man's encounter with a brutal group of policemen, with lyrics like, "Can you hear the Eagle cying? The lies and the laughter.."
The album start with "Kid Charlemagne," which is probably the best song on the album. The entire song has a very down-to-earth, funky sort of vibe to it. The mid-section consists of a jazzy guitar solo done by studio musician Larry Carlton. "The Caves of Altamira" follows, and while it does not compare to "Kid Charlemagne," it is an enjoyable slab. The verses consist of maily piano chording to give it a richer, jazzier texture as opposed to the funk of the preceeding joint. The next wedge is "Don't Take Me Alive," which has some of my favorite lyrics of the entire album: "I'm a bull keeper's son, I don't want to shoot no one. Well, I crossed my old man back in Oregon - Don't take me alive." This song opens up with Larry Carlton again, going for a more blues/rock style, this time. The song combines piano and guitar, but the song is less-riff based in order to let the lyrics shine through. This is a very solid track, it's one of my favorites on the album.
The fourth selection is "Sign in Stranger," a song which is about some utopia in which is visitors are pampered, refering to the newcomer as a "zombie." This song is almost entirely piano, with some very tricky fingerwork going on. A guitar solo crops up at the end, which contrasts the breezy pianowork throught the rest of the song with a slightly more agressive delivery. Next is "The Fez." This song is mostly insturmetal, with a floating sythizer melody over a choppy rhythm section serving as the verse. Gnarled blues guitar parts spring up throught the song. This is not one of my favorites, but it's a decent song.The sixth song "Green Earrings," is another mediocre chuck of music. Like "The Fez," there is nothing particulary bad about it, but it is just less immediate than the previous wedges.
"Haitian Divorce," is a great song that pulls the listener out of a minor slump. Throughout the song, guitar lines and played through a talk-box or something, and the song's rhythm is similar to reggae music. Very cool. "Eyerthing You Did" is again, mediocre. It's a very listenable, tasteful piece of music, moslty piano, with a few synths or keyboards or magical robots that breathe soda in the backround. It's a good song, but not a stand-out. The last slab is the title track, "The Royal Scam." This song has a very plodding, repetitive rhythm, but it is, I think, one of the best tracks on the album. It sounds very minor-key-ish and moody. The and sparse guitar lines are used in a very effective way, so that the point is articulated well, but the song does not become tiresome with repetition. There are also some cool keyboard and saxaphone parts thrown in for good measure.
I conclude that you can't go wrong with Steely Dan. This is an awesome album, and I recommend it to anyone, as Steely Dan's music is a hybrid of several different syles.