Review Summary: An absolute blast to listen to; if you enjoy funk, jazz fusion, hard rock, or progressive rock, I can’t give The Royal Scam a higher recommendation.Part V: When "Refined" Meets "Funky"
“Kid Charlemagne”, the opening track off The Royal Scam
, accomplishes more in its 4:38 runtime than many progressive rock epics do in 20 minutes. Marrying jazz rock with a slick funk sound, the track manages to be both ornately detailed and catchy as hell at the same time. And despite the fact that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote the tune, it’s guitarist Larry Carlton who leads the charge here. His lead parts - capped off with a truly showstopping solo - make for one of the most complex and impressive performances you’ll find in a pop rock song. And in just four minutes, we as the audience know what sound Steely Dan were aiming for this time around.
The Royal Scam
is affectionately referred to by fans as the duo’s “guitar album”, and for damn good reason. As with previous Steely Dan releases, this one shows yet another facet of their core jazz-rock sound: guitar-driven funk. Prior records had their funky moments as well, but they were never featured quite as prominently as they were here. More importantly, as is the case with funk rock in general, the chemistry between the guitar and the rhythm section is crucial to the quality of these songs. Luckily, the lineup of guitarists featured on The Royal Scam
is absolutely fantastic. There’s Larry Carlton as I previously stated, but there’s also the return of legendary Steely Dan alumni Denny Dias, Elliott Randall (remember that amazing guitar work on “Reelin’ in the Years”?), and Dean Parks. Add Walter Becker himself to the mix and you’ve got an amazing all-star cast.
But of course, they’re all used in the service of these amazing tunes. “Kid Charlemagne” might be an incredible opener, but what it really does is give us a taste of just how eclectic and crazy this record really is. Despite being more funky in nature, this might also be one of the most diverse tracklists the group ever put out; jazz, pop, funk, hard rock, progressive rock, and a hint of blues can all be found on the album. In fact, just after the opener, we get a complete change of pace with the horn-driven number “The Caves of Altamira”; the song marries a story about the genesis of creativity and expression with an arrangement that only gets more complex as it goes on. Lots of jazz, of course, but also a hint of R&B in the verses and some prog in each post-chorus. Meanwhile, “Don’t Take Me Alive” might just be one of the most hard-rockin’ Steely Dan numbers; Larry Carlton’s lead guitar work absolutely tears it up on this fast-paced number, perfectly complimenting the dark lyrics about a criminal who’s killed his own father and wants the cops to shoot him. How pleasant!
And the stylistic contrasts continue. But it’s not like any of this detracts from the cohesion and focus of the record. If anything, each song is like its own unique extension of the Steely Dan style while still very much being in
the Steely Dan style. This is perhaps best represented in some of the album’s deeper cuts, most notably “Haitian Divorce” and “The Fez”. The former is a song that I never would have expected to enjoy; I’m not much of a reggae fan as it is, so I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of a Steely Dan song using rhythms and guitar leads reminiscent of the genre. And yet, it somehow works! I think the band’s infusion of jazz into the mix, as well as the haunting and melancholic chorus, are really what pull it through in the end. Those backing vocals in the chorus are just lovely, and they only make the song even darker and more atmospheric than it already was. “The Fez”, however, is an interesting experiment for the duo as well. The music covers pretty familiar funk rock rock territory, but the lyrics are quite minimalistic. “No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on; oh no!” is repeated as if it were a mantra, while the strings in the background make you feel as though you’re in a 70s cop show. Honestly, it’s fun as hell. And it culminates in the beautiful jazzy harmonies that make up the chorus.
If I had to give a label to The Royal Scam
, I'd say it’s probably Steely Dan’s most “fun” album. The energetic funk-inspired sound is just a blast, and the incredible roster of amazing guitarists just makes it even more exciting. Additionally, with the lens of hindsight, you can definitely tell that it was the immediate precursor to Aja
. While it’s a lot funkier and more fast-paced than its successor, The Royal Scam
was even more drenched in jazz influence than its predecessors and paved the way for songs like “Black Cow” and “I Got the News”. Simply put, this album absolutely rocks and I can’t give it a higher recommendation. But if you put it on, just make sure to turn down The Eagles; the neighbors are listening!