Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Best Steely Dan Album

Steely Dan always played to the beat of a different drummer.

In a musical era that was dominated by hard rock, soft rock and disco, Steely Dan stood out as one of the few truly unique bands of the 1970s, which was kind of ironic given that it wasn't until "Katy Lied," the album that was released in March of 1975, that Steely Dan began working primarily with studio musicians.

"Usually, such a studied recording method would drain the life out of each song," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine for, "but that's not the case with Katy Lied, which actually benefits from the duo's perfectionist tendencies."

That is true.

Erlewine wrote that "Katy Lied" was a "smoother version" of the album that preceded it, "Pretzel Logic," which contained what was arguably Steely Dan's signature hit, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."

There weren't any songs on "Katy Lied" that had that kind of commercial stature. Oh, there were hits. There were always hits on Steely Dan albums. "Black Friday" was the biggest, rising to #37, and "Bad Sneakers" was released as a single but didn't sell nearly as well. (Personally, I thought it had more of Steely Dan's sound, kind of a jazz–blues–rock fusion, than "Black Friday" did.)

I would never call myself an expert on Steely Dan — although I had some of their albums on vinyl and have several on CD today — but I would be inclined to name "Katy Lied" as the band's best album.

It doesn't have my favorite Steely Dan song, and I'm sure most people would agree with me. But judge it as an album. The music and the lyrics by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are consistently good, and the album is designed so that no mood is allowed to linger past the end of that recording.

The album had a lot to live up to, but it made changes that worked for Steely Dan, especially the dependence on studio musicians. It gave the music a tight, sophisticated sound. The album followed "Pretzel Logic," a complex album by anyone's standards; "Katy Lied" was, indeed, like a smoother version of "Pretzel Logic," more palatable to the more casual listener.

My personal favorite from the album was "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More." I don't think it ever got much airplay, but it was my favorite.

There was always a cerebral quality to Steely Dan that I appreciated. In this case, it could be seen in the name of the album. Unlike many albums by other artists, the title wasn't taken from a song that was on it. It was, rather a play on the name of a particular kind of cricket — katydid. (Did you happen to notice that the cover art is a picture of a katydid?)

There is no song on "Katy Lied" that is called "Katy Lied," but in the song "Doctor Wu," you can hear lyrics that say things like "Katy tried; I was halfway crucified" and "Katy lies; you can see it in her eyes."

"Katy Lied" was also the first appearance of Michael McDonald on a Steely Dan album. McDonald, of course, became known for his work with the Doobie Brothers, but he continued to record with Steely Dan, appearing on "The Royal Scam," "Aja" and "Gaucho."