Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos

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One advantage of having a thin voice amidst a limited vocal range is that, at 64, Donald Fagen with a little computer wizardry can sound like his old self.  His old self is in abundance on Sunken Condos, his 4th solo release. 

The album sounds immediately familiar – the jazzy groove where guitars, bass, drums, saxes, keyboards and horns go snap, crackle and squirk in all the right places.  Oh, and very tasteful harmonica.  And don’t forget the female background singers... 

Everything is in its right place, including extended space for some of the instrumentalists to stretch out and play, most notably lead guitarist Jon Herington who shapes sounds and chops to add punch to the funky smoothness that largely defines the record.

One might say that you’ve heard everything here before.  I said that to myself.  But it’s not quite true.  Musically, there’s a much more relaxed feel than on Fagen’s previous recordings, as opposed to a bitter feel on others.

Lyrically, though, familiar themes are found.  “Slinky Thing” picks up 32 years after “Hey Nineteen” from Steely Dan’s Gaucho.  If she didn’t know Aretha Franklin then, what does he relate to a 19 year old now?

We went to a party
Everybody stood around”
Thinkin’: Hey what’s she doin’
With a burned out hippie clown
Young dudes were grinnin’
I can’t say it didn’t sting
Some punk says: Pops you better
Hold onto that slinky thing

Kudos to Fagen for consistently writing from his age.  I wish other artists were as brave (McCartney, Bono, Springsteen, Jagger).  The only thing missing on this particular song is the hook.  It tries, but falls just short.

“I”m Not the Same Without You” is a great love song, surprisingly devoid of Fagen’s usual sexual overtones.  “Memorabilia” carries a groove, and while it might have added another shade to aging, it manages only to prove how difficult it is use the word in a chorus.  It’s a listenable miss amongst the whole.

The best song is “Weather in My Head,” which equates global warming and weather catastrophes with a broken relationship.   The song also breaks from Fagen’s rather even vocal delivery with some attitude and carries with it a memorable tune.  Given the title of the CD, this is as close as Fagen gets to a snarky comment about the world today, which is too bad.

I haven’t researched Fagen’s personal life, but I can’t help but think aging rock stars perpetually seek Hey Nineteens.  In “The New Breed” Fagen faces competition from an IT type:

You the new breed alright
I guess you’re what she wants now
You’re young and strong
And you own the night
Good luck to you both
I’ll get along somehow

I get it  - you look at me and think
He’s ready for Jurassic Park
He’s sweet – but it’s time to fine a keener spark

Bad for Fagen, but funny as hell for me.

A cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto” provides a jump start from the smoothness, and it’s a lyrical kin to Fagen’s own songs.   “Miss Marlene” is comfort food, something heard many times before from Fagen.  “Good Stuff” follows takes Fagen’s distinctive narratives in a different direction, this time taking a warm, funky groove for celebrating Mafia jobs.

“Planet D’Rhonda” is an entertaining floozy story, but it drags along musically, ending the CD with one step back after several steps forward.

Overall, Sunken Condos is a good listen, but too much of it fades into aural obscurity.

Recommended Songs: “Slinky Thing,” “Weather in My Head,” “Miss Marlene”

3 of 5 STARS

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