Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos – Reprise Records 532287 180-gram audiophile stereo double vinyl, 44:07 ****½:
(Donald Fagen – piano, keyboards, vocals, arrangements; Michael Leonhart – keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion, arrangements; Earle Cooke Jr. – drums; Jon Herrington – guitar; plus many others)
Donald Fagen (and Steely Dan) fans appreciate his complicated, precise musical arrangements, aloof lyrics and trademark sound. His unique brand of jazz-inflected, soulful pop is catchy, and represents a high standard of studio musicianship. While a co-partner in Steely Dan (with Walter Becker), Fagen established a unique persona, described by Rolling Stone as a musical “anti-hero”, chronicling a hipster world of drugs, crime and urban shenanigans. This group hit an apex with the release of Aja in 1977. Creating a sonic mosaic, the sessions were renowned for utilizing several different groups of musicians, including top-flight jazz players. This incredible attention to detail followed on Gaucho (1980), when the duo used 42 musicians and 11 engineers.
Fagen established a solo career with his debut, Nightfly that yielded two charting singles, I.G.Y and New Frontier. Two subsequent albums (Kamakiriad and Morph The Cat) delighted fans, despite the twenty-year span of time. This was observed by some to be the completion of a Nightfly trilogy. There have been occasional reunions and tours with Steely Dan. Additionally, Fagen has toured with Dukes Of September Rhythm Revue that included Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.
Fagen has released a new solo venture, Sunken Condos. Recorded on three (four is totally blank) vinyl sides, this is a generous portion of soulful, jazzy pop. The customary, meticulous arrangements frame the songs, but there is a decidedly looser vibe. Also, Fagen has a core group of band members. Still vintage Fagen, Side One opens with a vampy guitar/synthesizer introduction. Then sly unctuous vocals tell a troubling May-September romantic connection (“Slinky Thing”). Co-producer Michael Leonhart adds some atmosphere on vibraphone and the signature relaxed groove takes hold. “I’m Not The Same Without You” struts a propulsive late-seventies jam with horn accents, key changes and a soulful vocal chorus. Fagen’s nostalgic ruminations are captured on a mellow finger-snapping ode (“Memorabilia”) that is graced with idiosyncratic imagery (“…The souvenirs of perfect doom in the back of Louis Dakine’s backroom”). All the vocals texts are printed with the album.
Surrounding these compositions are layered horn charts, a wide array of keyboards and tight rhythm sections. The flow of the music is consistently melodic. “Weather In My Head” injects humor in a blues construct that has a descending chord progression and a B.B. King-like guitar riff. The self-deprecating narrative continues on “The New Breed”. This album does not try to re-invent Fagen. But his cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out Of The Ghetto” stands out with “honeydrippin’” elan, aided by Leonhart on clavinet. Side Three’s “Marlene” could be a track on Aja, loaded with chorus key manipulations and a strange context to bowling. Again exotic, instrumental touches like bass clarinet, flugelhorn and bass flute underscore the intricacy of Sunken Condos. “Planet D’Rhonda” is a suitable finale as the singer contends with another younger female (although this time, she is between “nineteen and thirty-eight”) who seems to be wearing him out.
On 180-gram vinyl, this album is an aural treat. The full, lush instrumentals are represented with pristine clarity, avoiding unnecessary density. Vocals (both Fagen and backup singers) are mellow and blend effortlessly with the band. The clear uncolored vinyl should please any audiophile collector. Sunken Condos might be predictable, but in a great way! [Also shows that the standard labels can keep up the quality with the high-priced audiophile reissuers if they want to!…Ed.]
Side One: Slinky Thing; I’m Not The Same Without You; Memorabilia
Side Two: Weather In My Head; The New Breed: Out Of The Ghetto
Side Three: Miss Marlene; Good Stuff; Planet D’Rhonda