Two Against Nature

Steely Dan

Warner Brothers Records, 2000

http://www.steelydan.com

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/03/2000

It's been a long time since Steely Dan released a new album. Donald Fagen solo albums don't count (though those don't exactly fall off trees either). Neither do live albums or various and sundry greatest hits repackagings. How long has it been?

Well, let's take a look at the music world that was around us when Gaucho hit the record stores… no MTV, no compact discs, Led Zeppelin still intact, John Lennon and disco both just barely alive, Britney Spears just barely not yet, and the record stores that Gaucho hit really were record stores. That, my friends, is a long time. And while there are no official statistics, it would not be far off to proclaim this 20-year hiatus as the longest stretch between albums for any artist in the rock era.

And it is only appropriate this honor should belong to the band (well, sort of a band, really only two people and whoever they invite along) that even in their heyday of releasing new material every year and a half were considered slow on the new record front. That would be downright prolific these days, however, and it's quite amazing how meticulous and un-dated the Dan's '70s music still sounds. The real question most probably have in mind now is whether this new album is a lazy attempt at recapturing past glory, or a legitimate comeback by an important and oft-underappreciated artist.

Well, it certainly isn't lazy. The production is still every bit as meticulous, the musicianship is flawless, from the quintessential Steely Dan dense horn sections, down to multi-layered percussion sections that for all we know could be played by an ensemble of Energizer Bunnies. Singer and principal songwriter Donald Fagen still delivers his oblique tales with that combination of cool detachment and slightly disturbing wit of which only he is capable.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Musically, it's what you expect. Now that the '70s are back in vogue and have been for some time, there's no reason for any beefed-up electronic arrangements; Steely Dan have always been about restraint, and they do it admirably. "Almost Gothic" has a tasty, swirling keyboard sound along with a vintage Rhodes piano and a loping beat reminiscent of "Deacon Blues." "What A Shame About Me" is their classic poppy side, with a multi-voice sing-along chorus like "Green Flower Street" or "Babylon Sisters." Overall, the disc feels more like Gaucho and the two Fagen solo discs than like the earlier Steely Dan.

But therein lies the main problem. Although there's a lot more life on this album than on Fagen's professional-but-boring 1993 release Kamakiriad, one still can't help but long for something with a little more bite. Of course, even the bitingest Steely Dan albums usually have one or two let's-take-a-breather-before-we-get-back-into-the-heavy-stuff tracks ("Chain Lightning," "With A Gun," or "Pearl Of The Quarter" for example). But on Two Against Nature, there isn't any heavy stuff to get back into. There are too many songs that would be at home on grocery store P.A. systems.

The most major exception is the bluesy, sarcastic ode to incest "Cousin Dupree," an obvious Becker contribution, and easily grittier than anything else on this album. It's nice, for a change, to hear a Steely Dan song that you don't have to figure out what the heck they're singing about. After that, the most energetic it gets is on "Jack Of Speed," which has a crazy horn riff, and one of the best Fagenisms on the album ("That right wing hooey sure stunk up the joint") but isn't really any more intense than "Everyone's Gone To The Movies." Customer service to aisle nine!

All right, this is probably a shortsighted observation, because the less melodic Steely Dan songs have a knack for growing on you gradually. I can see "Negative Girl" doing that in time, with its hot-summer-night feel and atmospheric-yet-insistent coda. The same goes for the opener "Gaslighting Abbie," which is very awkward upon first listen.

This is one of those CDs that you think is deep and complex, but after it's all over you can't really remember how any of the songs go. Whether that changes over time will ultimately decide whether Two Against Nature will hold its own in the Steely Dan canon with the classics. As for right now, it's good to have them back, and even if they don't do anything better than this, that still puts them leagues ahead over most of what's out there. Let's just hope it doesn't take until MTV turns 39 (and I turn 48! Yikes!) for the next one.

Rating: B+

User Rating: A-


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© 2000 Mark Feldman and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.