Five Essential Steely Dan Solos by Walter Becker

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Living hard will take its toll” sang the backup vocalists on Steely Dan’s Glamour Profession on the group’s (first) farewell album Gaucho.  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker knew this all too well; as the Glimmer Twins’ nerdy, jazzy alter egos, the duo’s profligacy ran rampant across the 1970s before impelling the group into dissolution in 1981.  After several reformations and breakups over the next three decades and an undeniably storied career, it was announced on September 3rd that Walter Becker had passed away.  And though Becker’s website refrains from listing the cause of death, one can only imagine that his past addictions played a hand in his untimely passing.

Fronting a revolving door of accomplished musicians, Fagen and Becker were long recognized as the two-headed chieftain behind Steely Dan’s inimitable sound.  But with Becker relegated primarily to bass guitar and background vocals, it’s easy to dismiss him as the Art Garfunkel of ‘70s jazz rock.

On the contrary, Walter Becker was just as instrumental in the Steelies’ musical identity as Fagen, co-penning lyrics that both limned drugged-out low-lives as persecuted heroes and created the occasional inroads to the beau monde.  More aloof onstage than his lead vocalist counterpart, Becker never had to vie for the spotlight, as his role in the band was always well understood.  And as Dan’s career progressed, his presence became increasingly salient, as evidenced by his indispensable guitar work on the following songs.

  1. Pretzel LogicPretzel Logic (1974)

Becker’s first documented solo in the group, his musicianship seems deceptively tentative on those first couple bars.  Initially slow and unassuming, it’s clear this is not the work of lead guitarist Jeff Baxter.  But as the song swells to accommodate Becker’s bluesy noodling, his prowess becomes indisputable.  Featuring one sour note on the song’s outro, Pretzel Logic is a document of perhaps the band’s only mistake in the studio, but it remains one of Steely Dan’s most memorable solos.

  1. Black FridayKaty Lied (1975)

Cutting through the sheen of the rest of the band’s polished production, Becker’s fuzzed-out guitar-god riffing immediately takes command of the song upon its first appearance.  Languid, confident, and absolutely electric, the song stands out as one of the group’s most engaging blues indulgences, due in no small part to Walter Becker’s nonpareil guitar sound.

  1. Bad SneakersKaty Lied (1975)

In spite of a chorus featuring an almost Zappa-esque lyrical phrasing that all but alters its time signature, Bad Sneakers’s warm R&B piano on its verses and the lugubrious Michael McDonald vocals on the second pre-chorus establishes the song as a work of sympathy rather than cynicism.  Over the bridge’s two-chord progression, Becker exhibits a stentorian sound that not only complements the pathos of the song, but also documents Becker at his jazziest.

  1. The FezThe Royal Scam (1976)

The Royal Scam introduced funk into Steely Dan’s palette when it was released in 1976.  And on The Fez, the band’s PSA for safe sex (which starkly contrasted the lifestyle Fagen and Becker led at the time), Becker yet again showcases his predilection for guitar distortion while creating a sound consistent with the rest of his bandmates.  He seems to be dueling with the keyboard that appears intermittently during this solo, yet by the time the song’s main riff reemerges, the entire ensemble yields to Becker and his sleek/jagged guitar enigma.

  1. JosieAja (1977)

Boasting what is perhaps the Steelies’ sexiest riff, Josie is one of the band’s most memorable album closers.  With its laser-precision funk rhythm guitar, an ethereal synth that instantly merges with the song’s brass section, and lyrics that indefatigably praise its titular heroine, Josie proves a quintessential Steely Dan song.  Becker’s guitar solo on the track begins with a repetition of Fagen’s vocal melody, but soon careens into far more beguiling territory that effectively distills his love of blues, rock, and jazz into one shimmering gestalt.

There isn’t anything outwardly cool about Steely Dan, despite their dark sunglasses and super rad long hair.  Even in the ‘70s as stadium rock dominated the zeitgeist, the jazz-rock ensemble avoided anything resembling youth culture and effectively alienated themselves from the most voracious (and profitable) consumer demographic.  It’s telling that John Mulaney’s and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello Broadway show about two curmudgeonly septuagenarian New Yorkers constantly reiterates the fact that its stars are huge Dan fans.  Steely Dan’s music was mature, it was opaque, and thanks to the presence of Walter Becker, it was completely electrifying.





Album Review: The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

The War on Drugs occupy enigmatic territory in rock music.  Their synth-laden take on roots rock is theoretically incongruous and unsound—on paper, the group veer dangerously close to the formerly divisive, but now canonized heartland pop of Born in the USA—but long hair majordomo Adam Granduciel and his (mostly) faithful aides-de-camp have been effectively crafting heartening, singular indie fodder for the past nearly ten years.  Almost revisionist in their intent, the Philadelphia ensemble at times seem to be rewriting the rock landscape of the 1980s; reimagining the decade’s synthetic indulgences by aging rockers like Dylan or Harrison, whose attempts to stay hip fluctuate between sweetly naive and wholly needless, The War on Drugs re-contextualize synth-rock as a calculated effort to merge electronic and rock music and build off the tension therein.  But the group transcend gimmickry by virtue of Granduciel’s passionate lyricism.  Detailing personal strife, doomed and triumphant romances, and the overall perils of the human experience, The War on Drugs subvert their nostalgic aesthetic in favour of universal empathy, and on A Deeper Understanding, the band achieve one of their most fruitful excavations into the human psyche.

Opening with a flagrant admission of ignorance, “I don’t know, I’ve been away,” the album establishes immediately Granduciel’s vexations on Up All Night.  Here, he’s the ostracized derelict, the spurned acolyte forever cursed to harbor paranoia and malaise even as he “[steps] out into the world” after a symbolic rainstorm.  And halfway through the second track Pain, the singer makes clear his desire: “Give me a deeper understanding of who I am.”  So begins his venture into self-rediscovery, one marked by false respites (Strangest Thing), pleas for transitory comfort (“Hold me underneath your shadow once before I get erased” on Nothing to Find) and the periodic revelation, such as on Thinking of a Place (“There’s a darkness over there, but we ain’t going”).  By the album’s closing song You Don’t Have to Go, Granduciel has finally granted credence to the untenability of love, declaring, “Love is a bird I can’t even see.”  His Other Half may be gone now, but her absence isn’t the result of his own mistakes, it’s now understood as fait accompli, that which he cannot nor could not ever change.  With love as his foremost preoccupation, it’s fitting that the frontman should reach a new maturity following the dissolution of his relationship.

Although he spends most of the album pining for his old flame, Granduciel knows full well a reunion won’t end his woes.  By his understanding, romance isn’t an undertaking to be valiantly consummated—he knows he won’t find atonement in her embrace, even after this fraught voyage to self-realization.  Instead, Granduciel conceives of romance as something to be preserved: as the old adages goes, it’s a journey, not a destination.  As such, distance, both physical and temporal, is his greatest foil.  He’s racked with worry that while he’s away from his paramour, she’s forgotten him, and despite his best efforts, patience can no longer afford him reprieve, only more of the same consternation: “I’d been up all night/ Is it life and we’re just living it?”  For Granduciel, love is a lightyear and a lifetime away.

Accommodating the melancholia of their lead singer, the rest of the group provide airy, dreamy instrumentation to bolster Granduciel’s pained musings.  Never vying for the spotlight, each carefully selected synth and guitar sound plays into the other, often appearing from out of the ether and settling into its place in the mix without any fuss or ostentation.  On high energy numbers like Up All Night and Nothing to Find, just as on the slower songs, the music never distracts from the vocals, maintaining an aural dais on which Granduciel delivers his dirges.  As a safeguard to his lyrics, this sonic bubble is rarely pierced, save for the guitar solos on Pain and Thinking of a Place, whose freeform noodling hearkens back to acid rockers like Country Joe’s Barry Melton.  The overall effect of the group’s sound, however, is one of encompassing warmth and organic exploration.

Much like their previous releases, however, The War on Drugs revel too often in the long jam.  With just one of the ten songs clocking in at under five minutes, the album would benefit greatly from an editor who could scale back some of the more indulgent moments of the album and reduce its run time to under an hour.  True, the hypnotic nature of their musical meandering makes it easy to fall under the longer cuts’ spells, but after six or so minutes, the charm wears off.

Nevertheless, A Deeper Understanding serves as the latest in a string of hits by The War on Drugs.  Fully realised and deeply personal, the care put into this album is self-evident and marks another step forward in the maturation of Adam Granduciel’s songwriting.  The farther the group traverse the murky territory of the mind, the more things become illuminated.  As the lyric on Strangest Thing reveals: “I ain’t got everything I need/ If I’m living in the space between beauty and pain.”


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Track Review: Kesha – Praying

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Am I dead or is this one of those dreams, those horrible dreams?” asks Kesha at the beginning of the video for Praying, her first single since 2013’s Crazy Kids.  As she bemoans her existence and questions her faith lying afloat the decrepit remains of a dinghy in an Ingmar Bergmanian moment of introspection, she entreats for death.  “Being alive hurts too much.”

            Kesha Rose Sebert’s legal strife has been highly publicized (yet only sporadically discussed) over the past few years, with journalists and fellow artists almost unanimously siding with her over much-maligned producer Dr. Luke.  In light of her allegations of his sexual and emotional abuse, it’s impossible not to read Praying as a response to the tribulations Sebert has incurred since the lawsuit’s inception in late 2014.  But the track isn’t a gesture of submission and wound-licking, it’s a song of survival and resilience.  This is Kesha’s Lust for Life.

            The singer’s supplication for her life to end is a necessary valley; only at her nadir can she summon the strength to “fight for [her]self” and attain inner peace.  As such, we see Kesha taking the high road here.  While she can be caustic toward Dr. Luke (“When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”), her overall message is one of forgiveness: “I hope your soul is changing, changing/ I hope you find your peace.” 

            Praying is a marked departure from her previous singles.  Eschewing former themes of prurience and hedonism, Kesha displays a seldom seen openness in the form of a sobering, contemplative ballad.  Stentorianly sung over dour piano chords, Kesha’s affirmations may border clichéd at times (“some things only God can forgive”), but they never lose their cogency.  This has always been a talent of Sebert’s—her ability to convey a particular sentiment or construct a specific scene in her music often allows for the inclusion of well-worn turns of phrase, but never to detrimental effect. 

            Per the iridescent text at the end of the music video, Praying is a new beginning for Kesha, a second act following the years-long adversity pervading her professional life.  Whether it was out of maturity or catharsis (or both) that the song was written, Kesha effectively distances herself from a pernicious past without indulging in needless self-pity or petty invective against her adversary.  If the last three years have been “one of those horrible dreams,” then Praying is Kesha’s much-needed awakening.     






Album Review: Big Thief – Capacity

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Despite existing on seemingly disparate musical strata, hip-hop and indie rock share more common ground than one might presume. Both genres, generally speaking, tend to feature lyrics that serve to perpetuate distinct personae for their respective artists, with hip-hop espousing delusions of grandeur and indie rock false humility and overzealous self-deprecation.  Artists from either camp who indulge too blithely in these tropes tend to catch flak from audiences and critics alike; materialistic, hyper-masculine rappers are written off as tacky or contrived while lugubrious rock singers are dismissed as unconvincing and unnecessary.  

Though Brooklyn-based Big Thief fall into the latter category, their self-effacement is hardly disingenuous and their keen lyrics suggest a kinship with some of hip-hop’s more inspired songwriters.  On Capacity, Big Thief’s sophomore LP, the group deliver a reassuring continuation of the sound that so frequently impressed on their debut Masterpiece and refines the poetic lyricism of front-woman Adrianne Lenker, which effortlessly conflated unyielding sincerity with gut-wrenching viscera.   

            Similarly to Masterpiece, Capacity meshes together the warm guitar sound of late-‘60s/early-‘70s roots rock and garage music’s characteristically unpolished veneer.  “Shark Smile,” a Springsteenian tale of geographical travel and personal travail, incorporates a CCR-inspired chord progression to quell the disquiet of the song’s paroxysmal intro. On more subdued tracks like “Black Diamonds,” the lightly-distorted instrumentation butters up the otherwise dry album’s even-tempered musicianship (thanks to unsung heroes Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia). But that’s not to say that the quieter songs falter without this roughness.  The record’s opener “Pretty Things,” with its gentle finger-picked guitar arpeggios, would be perfectly in place as a McCartney or Lennon ballad on The White Album but for its inimitable lyrical content courtesy of Lenker.  Soft or loud, Big Thief can sustain an intensity that lesser bands could only hope to achieve.

            As a lyricist, Lenker places the listener just outside of the intimacy of her songs’ characters.  Her words conversational and personal, Lenker’s songs sounds like private interactions we’ve entered in on, yet from which we haven’t been shooed.  Take “Haley” for example, whose lines “Just like how it used to be, Haley/ Kicking around, burying letters we wrote” capture the sanguine nostalgia of childhood friendship despite the distinct non-universality of the scene.  Even if the memory isn’t accessible to everyone, the bond between these two characters is. 

            Perhaps Capacity’s most pored-over song is “Mythological Beauty” due to its reportedly autobiographical third verse, but the verse preceding this highly-discussed stanza truly bespeaks Lenker’s talent for crafting lyrics.  Referring to her mother’s venture into young parenthood, the line “Seventeen, you took his cum and you gave birth to your first life” evinces Lenker’s aptitude for writing lyrics that are frank without becoming crass, personal but not indulgent.  In this regard, she’s like Frank Ocean, another songwriter who may similarly speak bluntly in his songs, yet remain stoic enough not to render a line licentious or trite.  Lenker’s air of aloofness is facilitated in part by her Karen Carpenter-like penchant for keeping an even-tempered voice throughout these songs in spite of the sensationalist subject matter therein.  Singing the affirmation “I am a beautiful bird, fluttered and floating” on the album’s title track, Lenker barely rises above the song’s mix, opting instead for a more furtive tone in her vocals. Her voice may be meek, but her ideas aren’t.

            Thematically, much of the album deals with the confrontation (or lack thereof) of trauma; “You can wake up now, Mama/ From your protective coma,” Lenker sings on “Coma,” describing the harrowing situation of a woman feigning sleep to withstand a (presumably sexual) assault.  “I can feel the numbness accompanying my plight,” from “Mary,” likewise describes the employment of unhealthy disengagement as a transitory coping mechanism for abjection.  Other times, the band depict intrepidness as a means of conquering distress, as in the line “Kissing on the vampire, Kissing on the werewolf/ We have no enemies” from “Objects.”  Singing in the first or second person, Lenker explores with adept laconicism highly personal accounts of tragedy, far beyond the lightweight clichés of unrequited love and perennial ennui that’s become well-trod territory in the indie rock community.  As such, a more apt lyrical comparison might be to Earl Sweatshirt, whose ever-increasing terseness also explores personal issues (alcoholism, drug addiction, parental abandonment) with unflinching honesty and a proclivity for astute self-reflection.

            Though Capacity never loses focus or control of its larger narrative, it suffers the pitfalls of a group whose musical identity is such that significant deviation would jar listeners, leaving it rooted in a fully developed, yet oft-repeated sound that lags in places on the album’s latter half.  The rustic instrumentation of “Haley,” while appropriate among the song’s bucolic imagery, fails to keep the track afloat and instead marks it as nondescript.  The same is true of “Black Diamonds” inasmuch as its tried and true guitar/bass/drums paradigm reduces the closing track to a modest gesture rather than a grand statement more apropos of the album’s previous heart-rending content.  

To be sure, there are no bad songs on Capacity; the album is a warm, ruminative exploration of personal strife and triumph with far more successes than failures, yet its musical consistency at times stymies it from achieving notability on each cut.  Still, Big Thief are perceptive and intuitive enough to compensate for these minor shortcomings, and Capacity serves as a confirmation that the brilliance they displayed on Masterpiece wasn’t just beginner’s luck.