Review Summary: If Countdown to Ecstasy was Steely Dan's proof of concept, then Pretzel Logic is the full realization of what that record was aiming for.Part III: The True Way Forward
Ever since Steely Dan’s inception, there’s always been one truism regarding their work: that there’s always gonna be the presence of jazz, whether it’s side dish or the main course. And what makes their discography so fun to revisit is that each record has its own distinct take on the jazz rock sound. Countdown to Ecstasy
had a more dense and prog-inspired variation of it, The Royal Scam
took it in a harder and funkier direction, and so on. Because of this, every album has its own feel and style; combined with the sardonic lyrics of low-lifes and shady city life, it’s almost as if you’re listening to Steely Dan’s own extended universe. But where does Pretzel Logic
fit in? Well, true to the group’s unpredictable shape-shifting ways, they cut back on the longer pieces this time around for a more focused jazz-pop sound. And I think many will agree when I say it’s their best up to this point in their career.
The majority of Pretzel Logic
is populated with sharp little audio vignettes that could last from two to four minutes; this is a perfect length for the songs to get in and get out while still making one hell of an impression on the listener. Of course, this is also the album that got Steely Dan back on the map commercially, mainly due to the strength of lead single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. The two-punch of the subtle latin drum beat and Jeff Baxter’s fantastic guitar work makes for a wonderfully breezy opener to lead things off, and it’s a great indicator of what you’re in for with the rest of the record. The jazz elements of Pretzel Logic
are actually toned down a bit from Countdown to Ecstasy
, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still present. In fact, one of the best tunes in their career “Parker’s Band” finds its way here; the song is a gloriously upbeat rock number filled to the brim with busy drums and wailing saxophones. In fact, while we’re on the topic of drumming, this track was the official studio debut of the legendary Jeff Porcaro on a Dan record; he would eventually become the primary drummer for the band’s next album Katy Lied
. Other highlights in this vein include the fantastic rendition of the classic dixieland number “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, the bluesy swagger and jazz chorus of the title track, and the upbeat yet lyrically dark journey through “Barrytown”.
But let’s briefly zoom out and look at the biggest change Pretzel Logic
exhibits from its predecessors: the lineup. This was the last time we’d get to hear Steely Dan as a full band, as they’d be reduced to the central two-piece of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen starting with Katy Lied
. But you can already tell the change is starting to take place; for instance, Jim Hodder - who had been the full-time drummer up to this point - got replaced by two session drummers and was relegated to being a backup singer. Over 15 session musicians were involved in the making of this record, many of whom would become regular staples in the band’s future records. But I think what really makes Pretzel Logic
stand out so much is the sheer number of horn players in its roster. They really make a profound impact on this record, adding an incredible amount of character and charm to several tunes; this is especially evident on “Night by Night” and “Parker’s Band”, which have incredible arrangements to match the detailed production work. “Night by Night” may be one of the best songs on offer here, a stunning combination of biting hard rock and complex jazz chord changes that’s as intense as it is fun. The only thing holding back the record from being a perfect experience is that the last few songs are a tad less interesting than the previous stunners. After the highly enjoyable title track, the tunes that follow just feel a bit boring and filler-y, as if Becker and Fagen had finally expended their inspiration right before completing the album.
Luckily, the rest of the record anchors these songs just fine. If Countdown to Ecstasy
was Steely Dan's proof of concept, then Pretzel Logic
is the full realization of what that album was going for. It’s a big leap forward in regards to marrying jazz complexity with pop accessibility; while it’s arguably the most easy-going record from the band’s early years, it’s just so damn catchy that these songs will be in your head all week once you’ve heard them. Plus, at only 34 minutes, it’s a damn breeze to get through. If you’re a newcomer to Steely Dan, this is the first album I’d point you to.