Review Summary: It might be uneven in spots, but Can't Buy a Thrill is an incredibly strong launching pad for one of the most unique rock bands of the 70s.Part I: Laying the Groundwork
It’s a bit strange to imagine a period in Steely Dan’s career in which they were actually a full-fledged band, but that era does indeed exist. Prior to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s transition to full-time studio experimentation, their first three records had a solid lineup of musicians to record and tour with. But even in this early phase, their perfectionist tendencies led to members leaving left and right; some of them, such as singer David Palmer, only had one stint with the duo because of clashing personalities and simply not fitting in stylistically. Hey, even back then Becker and Fagen knew what they wanted out of their musicians! In hindsight, it’s no wonder they eventually stuck with only session players. But if you want to hear an aural snapshot of the time Steely Dan were the closest to being an actual band, Can’t Buy a Thrill
will provide just that.
As debut albums go, this one is surprisingly accomplished. Although it tends to be much poppier and softer than future records, the jazz influences and cynical lyricism still surface pretty prominently. If you’re a casual Steely Dan listener, you probably at least know “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years”; they still get tons of airplay to this day, and it’s not without reason. The former’s latin flavor and sitar-esque guitar work result in instant memorability, while the latter matches rich vocal harmonies with a sunshine pop atmosphere to great effect. Not to mention, you’ve got Elliott Randall’s amazing lead guitar work in that tune, which frequently graces several “best guitar solo” lists even today. But what makes Can’t Buy a Thrill
so interesting is the experimentation found in several of the deep cuts. This may actually be the most diverse Steely Dan album, despite still maintaining the level of focus that usually goes into their songwriting. Elements of pop, soft rock, folk, and even country creep into their usual jazz rock sound; this level of variety really makes the album’s runtime fly by, as it ensures the tracklist doesn’t get homogeneous.
Let’s get into those deeper cuts, shall we? I’ll break it down by genre. To represent the pop and soft rock elements, we’ve got “Dirty Work”, “Only a Fool Would Say That”, “Midnite Cruiser”, and “Change of the Guard”. Can’t Buy a Thrill
is probably Steely Dan’s most easygoing record, and it’s mostly due to these cuts; with that said, there’s still some really solid songwriting here. “Dirty Work” and “Midnite Cruiser” are two of the only songs that aren’t sung by Fagen - they’re sung by Palmer and drummer Jim Hodder respectively - and it’s interesting to hear how their voices blend with Becker and Fagen’s musical/lyrical aesthetic. The former is particularly noteworthy as Palmer’s soft, warm voice contrasts wonderfully with the song’s harsh lyrics about having an affair; you can tell the band’s penchant for being subversive and witty was already being established here. Meanwhile, the folk rock side has the smooth slide guitar of the country-influenced “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” and the wonderful three-part vocal harmonies of closer “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”. Both go a long way in making the record a more multifaceted experience, though perhaps “Brooklyn” sounds a bit cheesy and dated by today’s standards.
Finally, the jazz rock sound would be represented by the likes of “Do It Again”, “Kings”, “Reelin’ in the Years”, and “Fire in the Hole”. Now that might seem like a small number of jazz-based tunes compared to what’s found on later efforts, and that’s because it is. And while “Kings” and “Fire in the Hole” are fantastic efforts that demonstrate Fagen’s underrated piano skills, one wishes that more of these types of songs were on the record. The album’s diversity is to be admired, but the whole thing still feels quite embryonic compared to the sound and aesthetic the main songwriting duo would perfect in the future. Still, Can’t Buy a Thrill
is a strikingly solid launching pad for what would become one of the most unique and fascinating bands to grace the 70s. Interestingly enough, Becker and Fagen both called the record a rush job despite putting in several months of writing and recording before its release. I suppose it’s a testament to how dedicated they were to crafting just
the right sound and style, something that would become more evident with every passing album. But if Can’t Buy a Thrill
is considered a “rush job”, then I wish more rush jobs were this good.