- This copy is guaranteed to handily beat any pressing of Gaucho you have ever played, especially the awful Ron McMaster Heavy Vinyl LP
- This superb pressing has three-dimensional ambience, tubey richness, you-are-there immediacy, tight bass, clear guitar transients, silky highs, and truckloads of analog magic on every track
- 4 stars in the AMG, 4 1/2 in Rolling Stone, and one of this exceptionally well recorded band’s Three Best Sounding Albums – a true Must Own
- “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.” New York Times
- If you’re a Steely Dan fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1980 is surely a Must Own
- The complete list of titles from 1980 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.
Every instrument taking part in this complex, richly imagined sonic tapestry sits perfectly in its own place, and, more importantly for we audiophiles, its own SPACE.
The average pressing we auditioned was somewhat opaque and compressed, throwing a veil over the vocals and setting them further back on the stage.
Not this copy – the transparency and dynamics are superb, highlighting Donald Fagen’s moody, emotive singing while his ensemble of Hand-Picked Studio Cats wails away behind him with abandon (but not too much abandon; can’t lose our Steely Dan cool don’t you know).
Add a handful of Oh-So-Sultry Female Vocalists to sex it up and you have one transcendent musical experience.
What The Best Sides Of Gaucho Have To Offer Is Not Hard To Hear
- The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
- The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes even as late as 1980
- Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
- Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments (and effects!) having the correct timbre
- Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space
No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.
What We’re Listening For On Gaucho
- Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
- The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
- Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks for the guitars, keyboards and drums, not the smear and thickness common to most LPs.
- Tight, note-like bass with clear fingering — which ties in with good transient information, as well as the issue of frequency extension further down.
- Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the players.
- Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, way behind the speakers. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt — Elliot Scheiner and Roger Nichols in this case — would have put them.
- Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.
A Special Feeling
Few copies are capable of giving us the feeling we got from this LP — that ethereal illusion of being in the room while the band is playing. 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 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!
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.
The first two albums can sound very good, 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.
Mint Minus Minus is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)
Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of other pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful recordings.
If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.
The Tracklist below will take you to a select song breakdown for each side, with plenty of What to Listen For advice. Other records with track breakdowns can be found here.
The tom intro is a great test for transparency. On most copies those opening drums are flat and lackluster. When it’s done right, you can hear the room around the drums, and that’s a mighty fine sounding room!
Also, pay attention to the bell in the left channel at the beginning of the song – if it’s sharp and doesn’t really sustain, you’re probably dealing with the typical extension-challenged copy. If it’s shimmery with a natural sounding decay you may very well be in store for some great sound.
On most copies the saxophone that intermittently pokes its head out will get smoothed over, losing its bite and getting lost in the mix. Much the same can be said for the background singers — they can easily sound veiled and get lost in the mix.
From the time they start singing “Babylon sisters” until they reach the final “shake it!”, there should be a growing crescendo of volume and intensity.
Probably the most memorable track on the album, and consistently the best sound as well. This track is a great test for low end and bass definition. The average copy is usually punchy but more often than not lacks any real weight.
Somewhat better copies may have a full low end but fall short in terms of definition on the bass guitar.
The best copies have it all going on: a meaty bottom with all the intricacies of Walter Becker’s bassline clearly audible.
Another classic Fagen/Becker track with a powerful sax intro. Not unlike the aforementioned sax in “Babylon Sisters,” the standard copy fails to convey the horn’s texture and dynamic subtleties. If such is the case, it will come back to haunt you by the time the vocals come in, as they are often compressed and spitty.
Please note the piano right before the first verse starts. Our best copies allow it to be both delicate and full-bodied, as opposed to the usual honky tonk clanker some pressings present you with.
Time Out of Mind
Michael McDonald is the man! Just thought I’d throw that out there.
Third World Man
Note that Larry Carlton’s signature sound is all over this track. He’s got that great high-gain, feedbacky guitar tone that works so well for this angular music. You may remember him from a record called Aja… Played a lot of the solos on Royal Scam too as I recall. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from Larry again in the not-too-distant future…
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.