Saturday, September 27, 2008

Saturday Classic Rock: Steely Dan, 'Babylon Sisters'

Throughout the Seventies Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wove a elaborate fabric of jazz-inflected breezy rock with wry, and sometimes acidly cynical lyrics that had the tendency to illuminate dark corners not usually delved into by mainstream songwriters. The obsessive detail of their work habits has become legendary, for every musical shading an army of session musicians were traipsed through the studio in the quest for some sort of audio ambrosia.

The music could so easily have descended into an aural mush but thankfully the pair had the requisite nous to make every record exude spontaneity like the sound of musicians playing a relaxed jam at a Californian pool-side. The album ‘Gaucho’ sounds like a world-weary band teetering on the brink of collapse but achieves a peerless burned out elegance. Becker was literally on the edge of physical and mental collapse after the exertions of the previous decade, while Fagan comes across as a man who is in imminent danger of having his soul devoured by L.A., all the while feeling compelled to document the episodes of moral decay.

It’s one of those great contradictions the band was capable of, that the instrumentation on ‘Babylon Sisters’ is so polished while the lyrics are so tarnished. The intro is a thing of rare beauty, a sun bleached piano that seems to drop like warm cream from the clouds supported by a deliberate, almost frighteningly stark beat and guitar line so minimalist in execution that it allows those liquid keys to luxuriate all over the space between. They didn’t follow this for 20 years, perhaps awestruck by the intensity of their creation.

Where to find: Gaucho (1980)

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