More of the Music of Steely Dan
Reviews and Commentaries for Gaucho
Years ago we did a shootout and found a copy that we described this way:
No other copy gave us the feeling we got from this pressing — the indescribable illusion of being in the room while the band is playing. This is what we refer to as Master Tape Sound. Once you’ve experienced it you’re never the same. Read some of our testimonials. People really go crazy over this kind of sound. Records like this are few and far between, but when you find one, the effect it can have on you may make you go a little overboard too.
You might even feel the need to write us a letter. It’s the kind of experience that compels you to find some way to share it with the world. The problem there is that those reading your letter don’t have a copy with the kind of sound you have, and they therefore can’t experience the music the way you can. If they haven’t heard it for themselves, it’s all just talk, the kind of crap you can read on any internet forum about any piece-of-junk record ever made.
That’s why we love to hear from people who’ve actually played the very same record we did. We know why they’ve flipped out. We flipped out too.
When you drop the needle on a record this good, you feel like you just threaded up the master tape and hit play. You quickly become so totally IMMERSED in the musical experience that you soon forget you’re listening to a record. You’re hearing the music exactly the way the musicians intended it to sound. You can’t ask for more than that. Records like that get the Triple Plus.
A Big Group of Musicians Needs This Kind of Space
One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.
Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.
And most of the time those very special pressings are just plain more involving. When you hear a copy that does all that — a copy like this one — it’s an entirely different listening experience.
Three Demo Discs
Of all the great albums Steely Dan made, and that means their seven original albums and nothing that came after, there are only three in our opinion that actually support their reputation as studio wizards and recording geniuses. Chronologically they are Pretzel Logic, Aja, and Gaucho.
Every sound captured on these albums is so carefully crafted and considered that it practically brings one to tears to contemplate what the defective DBX noise reduction system did to the work of genius that is Katy Lied, their best album and the worst sounding. (Those cymbal crashes can really mess with your mind if you let them. To get a better picture of the DBX sound just bang two trash can lids together as close to your head as possible.)
The first two albums can sound very good, as can Royal Scam, but none of those can compete with The Big Three mentioned above for sonics. A Hot Stamper copy of any of them would be a serious DEMO DISC on anyone’s system system.
By STEPHEN HOLDEN / January, 1981
Nearly three years in the making, Steely Dan’s ”Gaucho” is as refined as pop music can get without becoming too esoteric for a mass audience. Though it consists of only two men, Steely Dan must be counted one of the most influential rock ”groups” of the past decade. Founded by the songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen eight years ago, they started out as a touring sextet. With Mr. Becker, the lead vocalist and bassist, and Mr. Fagen on keyboards, the group had a string of hits including ”Do It Again,” ”Reeling in the Years,” and ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
After 1974, they stopped performing and made the recording studio their artistic base, using a shifting array of session musicians instead of fixed personnel. Over the course of seven albums, they’ve evolved an unusually subtle and literate brand of pop-rock that blends modal jazz harmonies, fusion instrumentation and funk-tinged polyrhythms within extended pop structures.
Though other rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago have enjoyed commercial success blending jazz and pop, none has come close to matching Steely Dan in sophistication and taste. They helped inspire rock singers like Joni Mitchell to explore jazz and paved the way for the Doobie Brothers’ brand of pop-funk. Even stylistically unrelated groups like the Eagles were influenced by Steely Dan’s carefully blocked arranging style.
But more than their studio craftsmanship, what distinguishes Steely Dan is their songwriting. Mr. Becker’s and Mr. Fagen’s specialty is the cryptically sardonic vignette. ”Gaucho’s” seven extended studio set pieces are also interrelated short stories. The main characters are would-be hipsters who define themselves in terms of style rather than feelings or ideas. Steely Dan’s sour-sweet pop-jazz style with its modal harmonics and dips into polytonality illustrates both the comedy and the pathos of trying to keep your cool in even the most dire circumstances. Though the melodies are always heading toward sentimental resolutions, somewhere along the way they get short-circuited. And the painstaking construction of the arrangements mirrors the characters’ desperate maintenance of appearances.
Gaucho is a word for Latin-American cowboy, but Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker also use it as a pun on the French word gauche. All seven songs on the new album puncture cultivated mystiques. The ”bodacious cowboy” of the title song wears a spangled leather poncho and is a social embarrassment to the friend who brings him to a party at the mysterious ”Custerdome.”
The narrator of ”Glamour Profession” is a cocaine dealer who wears Brut cologne and boasts about the telephone in his Chrysler. In ”Hey, Nineteen,” a thirtyish man dating a teen-ager realizes that they have nothing in common beyond the booze and dope that will make the evening ”wonderful.” ”Babylon Sisters,” ”Time Out of Mind,” ”My Rival,’ and ”Third World Man,” look askance at swingers, gurus and sexual and political paranoia.
”Gaucho’s” satire is so oblique that the songs avoid sounding snidely hip in the manner of Frank Zappa, one of Steely Dan’s obvious influences. Their humor is compassionate, for they see the struggle to stay cool as noble in addition to farcical. Instead of delivering broadsides, they sidle up to the scenes they describe and pick out oddly telling details. Their perspective is at once far-sighted and clinically fascinated. It’s also emotionally double-edged, for despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, ”Gaucho” contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.