Review Summary: "It's your game; the rules are your own, win or lose."
Much like Florence and the Machine or post-Spiritual Healing
Chuck Schuldiner, Steely Dan’s two founding members eventually decided to ditch the band format altogether and instead use a revolving door of session musicians. 1975’s Katy Lied
was the first record to be released in this format, and it really helps it stand out from their previous albums. Ever since Can’t But a Thrill
, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had been slowly incorporating more and more jazz elements into their rock sound; around this point in their career, it’s about a 50/50 split of both jazz and rock. And quite impressively, songs as jazzy and progressive as “Your Gold Teeth II” and “Doctor Wu” co-exist with pop rock tunes like “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “Black Friday” more easily than you’d think.
In fact, it might make for the band’s most balanced and consistent recording overall. It still retains that slick, city-like “nightlife” atmosphere that defines most Steely Dan works, primarily influenced by the duo’s time spent in Los Angeles during the recording sessions. Combined with an increasing emphasis on jazz influences and techniques, there’s a really chilled-out vibe to most of Katy Lied
. This is especially apparent on the second half, which features such moments as the swingin’ blues rock of “Chain Lightning” and the light jazz swing of “Your Gold Teeth II”, the latter of which sounds like it could have been taken straight out of A Charlie Brown Christmas
(especially the verses). Meanwhile, the duo manage to expand the scope of their influences with the light latin feel of “Any World”’s verses and the complex mood swings of the fusion-meets-soft-rock album closer “Throw Back the Little Ones”. And if I had to pick out the best blend of the complex and the poppy, it would have to be fan favorite “Doctor Wu,” mixing progressive piano arrangements with straightforward rhythms to relate a surprisingly dark story of intense drug abuse.
Considering this is the first Steely Dan to feature a whole cast of guest musicians, the list the band compiled is really impressive. The names were pretty much the who’s who of that era of rock music: legendary guitarist Rick Derringer, Denny Dias, The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald, the late drumming virtuoso Jeff Porcaro, and the list goes on. The fact that Fagen and Becker could find so many great players so early into their career is a testament to how quickly they’d earned respect from their peers, and it isn’t without reason. Even with all the extra talent to lend a hand, it has to be emphasized that the duo themselves are the only writers of the songs found on Katy Lied
. There’s a sophistication on this record that you don’t often find in pop rock; even simpler numbers like “Black Friday” and “Rose Darling” have chord changes and mood shifts that, while natural and well-placed, use subtle hints of jazz to add a little more depth and quirkiness to the rockin’ riffs. The former’s chorus is a perfect example, as layered vocal harmonies and strange descending piano chords meet each other for a really cool moment together.
While The Royal Scam
might technically be jazzier and less poppy than Katy Lied
, the latter is still the Steely Dan album I come back to the most. Something about the track flow, the near-perfect mix of jazz and pop rock, the atmosphere… it all just works so well. The list of guest musicians is top-notch, and they really help flesh out the vision of the joint songwriters (just check out the incredible guitar work from Denny Dias on “Your Gold Teeth II”). And at only 35 minutes, nothing really feels like filler. If you enjoy laid-back pop rock, jazz fusion, or even progressive rock, I can’t recommend Katy Lied