Morph The Cat
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/10/2007
I'd always wondered who the dominant partner in the Steely Dan collective was until I heard this disc. Now I wonder what Walter Becker ever contributed.
Donald Fagen's latest solo outing is a Steely Dan disc in all but name. Sardonic lyrics, falsetto vocals, guitar solos reminiscent of "Skunk" Baxter's work on Countdown to Ecstasy, and a general lazy adult contemporary jazz vibe permeate these nine tracks. It sounds a lot like Gaucho or the Dan's two comeback albums earlier this decade.
It's also not really an essential purchase because of that fact. Fagen's gift is that he can blend soul, funk, pop, rock and jazz and then distill it to something less organic than it sounds, like taming the shrew. Katherine had no personality once she gave it up for her husband, and Fagen has taken what could have been exciting and turned it into a marginally interesting, pristinely produced sophisticated album.
Anyone who liked Steely Dan's final albums will like this, as it sounds very similar. "Morph the Cat" features an excellent guitar solo, some good saxophone work and the basic drums 'n' rubbery bass that anchors pretty much every Dan song. "H Gang" is a similar-sounding follow-up; both songs sound great but you could swear you've heard them before. That is, they could fit comfortably on any Steely Dan album ever released, and that's kind of depressing.
Fagen obviously is talented; he makes the complex seem simple and, as said before, can weave disparate styles together. So it's a shame someone so talented relies on the same old formula he's been churning out since 1972. When he and Becker were making music like this back then, it was fresh and exciting. But despite Fagen's boast that "I bring big soul...I'm specially qualified to keep 'em satisfied / It's what I do," on "What I Do," this one fails to follow on that promise.
But it feels like it should. Only two of the songs are under five minutes, with most longer than six, but instead of unwinding in an epic form they repeat simple themes. Not that this is terrible: the spelling-challenged "Brite Nitegown" uses kinetic soulful vocals and jumpy jazz guitar work that nearly forces your foot to tap, while the title track is the best here.
However, "Security Joan" sounds like a much slower version of the prior Dan hit "Cousin Dupree," albeit with a better bass line and more interesting instrumental breaks, and "The Great Pagoda of Funn" is neither great nor funn, sounding like it was rejected from a hospital for being too sterile. The rest just elicits a shrug, which pains me to say because Steely Dan generally can be captivating.
Perhaps what Walter Becker brought to the Becker/Fagen partnership was a sense of excitement, because on Morph the Cat Fagen sounds like he's going through the motions. The music is professional, well played and occasionally interesting, but it finds Fagen in a holding pattern and only makes the listener want to return to the old Steely Dan records, when this kind of music was exciting.