3 CD COLLECTION OF THE FINEST AVALABLE LIVE STEELY DAN RECORDINGS As extraordinary as the music of Steely Dan remains, the how and why of it all coming about is stranger still. The joining forces of two nerdy students - one an English Lit. major, the other a musical prodigy in the late 1960s could hardly be seen as the most promising recipe for success, nevermind a springboard for the creation of perhaps the most unique, creative, musically adventurous, enormously listenable and downright joyous run of albums in the entire history of pop music. But despite it all that was what the mighty Dan achieved during the 1970s and beyond, and as those records continue to inspire just about everyone who hears them, the mystery remains.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were remarkable craftsmen from the start, as Steely Dan's debut, Can't Buy a Thrill, illustrates. Each song is tightly constructed, with interlocking chords and gracefully interwoven melodies, buoyed by clever, cryptic lyrics. All of these are hallmarks of Steely Dan's signature sound, but what is most remarkable about the record is the way it differs from their later albums. Of course, one of the most notable differences is the presence of vocalist David Palmer, a professional blue-eyed soul vocalist who oversings the handful of tracks where he takes the lead. Palmer's very presence signals the one major flaw with the album – in an attempt to appeal to a wide audience…
A portrait of the artist as a young man, The Nightfly is a wonderfully evocative reminiscence of Kennedy-era American life; in the liner notes, Donald Fagen describes the songs as representative of the kinds of fantasies he entertained as an adolescent during the late '50s/early '60s, and he conveys the tenor of the times with some of his most personal and least obtuse material to date. Continuing in the smooth pop-jazz mode favored on the final Steely Dan records, The Nightfly is lush and shimmering, produced with cinematic flair by Gary Katz; romanticized but never sentimental, the songs are slices of suburbanite soap opera, tales of space-age hopes (the hit "I.G.Y.") and Cold War fears (the wonderful "The New Frontier," a memoir of fallout-shelter love) crafted with impeccable style and sophistication.
It's not surprising that Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker's debut solo album sounds like a Steely Dan record. What is a little surprising, though, is that, in his lead singing debut, he sounds so much like his erstwhile partner, Donald Fagen. Not that you'd mistake the two (Fagen projects more and is slightly grittier), but they sing in the same register with the same sly phrasing and the same accent. Other differences from the Dan are equally subtle: Becker adopts a sparer musical approach, for one thing, the missing element being the prominence of Fagen's keyboards (although Fagen does play on the record and co-produced it). Nothing gets in the way of Becker's voice, and he proves to be a less ornate lyricist than Fagen, restricting himself largely to tales of romantic dislocation. On the whole, this album sounds like what you'd expect – one half of Steely Dan.
Released to Top Ten success in the Netherlands, Collected is a triple-disc compilation of Steely Dan highlights from 1972 to 1980. It's not technically a greatest-hits collection because Steely Dan never scored many hit singles (for instance, only three of their singles ever reached the Top Ten in the U.S.), yet all of the 47 tracks compiled here are great, starting with the band's 1972 breakout hit "Do It Again."