Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy – Our Shootout Winner from 2009

xxx

A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock Hall of Fame. 

It’s time for our annual Countdown to Ecstasy — whatever that is — and for 2009 this copy took TOP HONORS with superb sound on both sides! We just finished doing a huge shootout for this album with well over a dozen copies, winnowed down from close to twenty at the start, and the winner and new champion is this very copy — on the yellow label no less!

We had done shootouts in the past in which all the best copies of this album were on the black label, but this time around the yellow labels came out victorious.

As the record grader on this one, I had no idea what copy on what label was playing. I just heard what I heard, and what I heard on this copy was some of the BEST SOUND EVER for Countdown.

This album shares top honors with Katy Lied as the toughest Steely Dan album to get to sound right. So many copies are such sonic let-downs: congested, bass-shy, veiled, compressed and grainy. There’s a good reason we don’t do this album but once a year, and it’s not because of a lack of demand. It’s because so many copies sound so bad.

Both Sides Are Amazing

Dropping the needle on this copy was an entirely different experience — on BOTH sides. From the moment the needle hit the grooves, we were treated to a BIG, WIDE soundfield. The sound went from wall to wall and floor to ceiling — exactly what you want for this music. The vocals were smooth and silky, dramatically different from the grainy, bleached sound we heard on most of the copies we played.

Side one is STUNNING — airy and open up top, wonderfully meaty and punchy down low. The vocals are full-bodied and breathy with wonderful clarity. The overall sound is open, spacious, transparent, and tonally correct from top to bottom. The marimba (played superbly by the one and only Victor Feldman) sounds JUST RIGHT — you can really hear the room around it. We rate side one an A++ – A+++. We heard one copy that had slightly better transients on this side so we took half a plus off the grade. Even with twenty copies to play you will have a hard time finding fault with this side one.

As amazing as side one is, side two is EVEN BETTER! Everything you’d want from a Hot Stamper pressing of this album is here in generous quantities — energy, deep bass, richness, sweetness and more. The clarity and presence of this side is STAGGERING! The transaprency went far beyond our expectations — you can really hear INTO the soundfield on this copy like nothing we’d played before.

The vocals are breathy and full-bodied with the silky quality that drives us wild here at Better Records. The bass is well-defined, the highs fully extend, and the soundfield is gigantic. We rate side two A+++ — Master Tape Sound, As Good As It Gets (AGAIG).

AMG Rave Review

The loud guitars and pronounced backbeat of “Bodhisattva,” “Show Biz Kids,” and “My Old School” camouflage the fact that Countdown is a riskier album, musically speaking, than its predecessor. Each of its eight songs have sophisticated, jazz-inflected interludes, and apart from the bluesy vamps “Bodhisattva” and “Show Biz Kids,” which sound like they were written for the stage, the songs are subtly textured. “Razor Boy,” with its murmuring marimbas, and the hard bop tribute “Your Gold Teeth” reveal Becker and Fagen’s jazz roots, while the country-flavored “Pearl of the Quarter” and the ominous, skittering “King of the World” are both overlooked gems. Countdown to Ecstasy is the only time Steely Dan played it relatively straight, and its eight songs are rich with either musical or lyrical detail that their album rock or art rock contemporaries couldn’t hope to match.


Rolling Stone Review

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were wiseass New York musicians stranded in LA. in the early Seventies, and they poured all the cynicism and paranoia of that circumstance into Steely Dan, the most notorious studio band in the annals of classic rock.

Their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, was the only record by the reclusive duo written for an actual live band, and you can tell— especially on hoo-ha! cuts such as “My Old School,” a catchy little tune about college placement and prostitution, with its pounding, stupidly grinning piano riffs; scorching guitar solos, somehow both showy and unselfconscious; and above all jubilant horn charts.

“The Boston Rag” begins as a sophisticated, jazzy number, but then the band players forget themselves: The solo by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is as nasty, distorted and molten as rock guitar has ever been. The jump and jive of Bodhisattva is so celebratory, it could be the music for a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Smart, conflicted bands from Weezer to the Eels owe Steely Dan big time, not because guys with glasses should stick together, but because on Countdown to Ecstasy, the band was human, not just brainy. Like good stretches of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, this is a record where Steely Dan let slip their extraordinary mask of sarcasm, and could not disguise the joy in these excellent songs, or the fact that they were having a blast playing them.

– Pat Blashill