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Old 04-24-2010, 06:12 PM   #10 (permalink)
OctaneHugo
Goes back & does it again
 
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Can't Buy a Thrill
1972
Debut Album


I heavily advise against becoming used to what you see and hear on Can't Buy a Thrill. For one thing, they're an "actual band" here: that will end after the next album. Second, there's two vocalists: Fa‎gen and a fellow named David Palmer, whose musical career adds up to mainly behind-the-scenes stuff. Third, there's only a few session musicians here, most of them for background vocals. Oh, and the music is quite a bit different from what would come next.


Note: It's a song-by-song review so it's not as ridiculously overwhelming as it seems.

Side One
"Do It Again" (5:56)

The album leads off with the immortal "Do It Again". This pretty much sets the bar for the rest of the discography; it's odd, it's skillfully played, and hell if you know what the lyrics are about. However, it does deviate from this in one way: it nailed 6 on the charts. I've no idea how this happened, but it did, and it's behind only one other single in the entire discography in terms of chart position. Guess that keeps with the "odd" theme.

So, how is the song odd? Well, it opens with a one minute instrumental opening consisted of scattered sitar runs, a catchy keyboard rhythm, some strange percussion and something that I think might be a washboard but I honestly have no idea what it is playing early on. There's also a nifty bass line that fits in tremendously well with everything else; if you don't listen for it, you won't hear it. Oh, and there's some odd-sounding chimes at the end of this segment as well.

And then the vocals start and it's all about gunning in the morning for water thieves and hangmen not hanging and mourners singing and dragging and oh god what is this. The vocals, in my opinion, are the best part of the song except maybe the sitar solo - and I really stress the maybe. I love the vocal work here. Fa‎‎gen mispronounces words so they rhyme and provides a vivid-yet-vague picture of what's going on and oh they're just wonderful. I think I could write this whole review about this song. Hell, the whole thing about the first verse. The sitar solo. Maybe I should break this into parts?

Enough of that! More oddness follows the first verse and the chorus (another thing I could write a 42 page paper on) and more singing and then we reach the sitar solo! Quite a long one, too, and it's eye-popping. The player is Denny Dias, who'd appear on most Dan albums of this era, and boy is he on fire. Tears it up. I could listen to this thing just looped over and over.

But then the organ solo starts. Ah, the organ solo. Fa‎‎gen uses a technique called "pitch-shifting" and as much as I'd love to say I know stuff about keyboards and organs and pianos I honestly don't! It's a neat effect though, and it's certainly odd as well.

Then there's another long outro with more great sitar and keyboards and bass and all that. There's also some very, VERY understated sitar runs going down during the verses as well, and you really have to hear them when you give the song a listen. Brilliant stuff.

"Dirty Work" (3:08)
The odd stuff continues with "Dirty Work"; well, it's odd for Steely Dan. Palmer sings lead here and he is a smooth singing guy...but his voice doesn't really fit with Steely Dan at all(when I try to imagine him singing stuff like "Do It Again" I cringe and have to cry myself to sleep). The two are stylistically exclusive; Band and Palmer together isn't a good combination. The song itself is OK, though, but it does get on one's nerves after repeated listens. Repetitive in a bad way, and the lyrics aren't particularly deep or memorable (nowhere near as fantastic as "Do It Again"'s). Nothing interesting done with the instruments here, either; sure, the horns are all well and good at first, but then they just get that "ick" feeling and the keyboard-drum combo that goes down during the verses combines with Palmer's voice to create the musical equivalent of Ambien.

The chorus, though. Ooh, the chorus. I love it. So much. I could sing it all day. Steely D sure know how to make the sweetest hooks ever; and this album is straight up pop/RnB, especially when compared to their other albums, so it's particularly infectious here, especially in this song. III don't waaaaanna doooo yo-ahr dirteh work, a-no mooooore....

"Kings" (3:46)
Now THIS is a fun song! Leads off with a brilliantly simple piano hook, then some filthy guitar and more keyboards, and then Fa‎‎gen starts wailing away and you know it's gonna be a fun ride. The verses have a crazy-great call-back sort-of thing going on between some high-pitched piano chords and Fa‎‎gen's singing. The guitar keeps going on and it's just fantastic; Elliot Randall: session musician, ladies and gentlemen. He has a fantastic solo that starts around 2:15 and it makes you want to jump up and air guitar and dance and cure cancer all at the same time. As per usual with Dan's early stuff, Becker's bass is going at it in the background - if you can get a handle on it (you'll only ever catch some passing glimpses of it; it's like a unicorn!) you'll adore it and realize how great a player he really is.

The lyrics here are about as brilliant as it gets on the album, which is tremendously brilliant. The tale of King Richard and Good King John and sad old men who run this town laying down their bodies and the starving people sarcastically raising glasses and remembering the blue blood and rain and IT'S ABOUT NIXON! OK, so it might be about Nixon, or at least it's a popular theory (that's about as good as you're going to get with Dan's lyrics: a popular theory. Run with it) "King Richard" certainly fits, though I'm not sure if "King John" refers to any specific person; it could be the collective Nixon Administration (excluding Nixon himself) or it might just be tossed in because, hey, it's a song. It's really a great song; the solo is just more show-offy stuff from Steely Dan. I like to think songs like this and "Do It Again" are just on here so they can display that they're damn good at writing songs and playing their instruments and they're going to be around a while. Well, 2 of them are, anyway (sort of 3).

"Midnight Cruiser" (4:08)
This is one sung by Jim Hodder, who was lead drummer this album. Hell if I know why he sang this; either Fa‎gen had an extreme case of stage fright and couldn't even sing too much in the studio, or if money was involved (probably), or maybe if Becker was supposed to sing this but was too hopped up on amphetamines (pretty out there, but might have happened) - I'm not really sure. I know it's a pretty good song with a...choppy opening. There's some crashing of the cymbals and a piano, but then it messily segues into a really cool bass-piano-guitar thing that leads into the verse. I love the last part, but the very opening just doesn't seem to fit. I don't like it.

The bass is strangely prevalent here. You can pretty much here it the whole time, especially during the chorus. It sounds almost Who-like, but The Who when they made Quadrophenia and such. Maybe. I can't quite put my finger on where I've heard it before. The keyboard work is pretty ace here (as it always is), and the guitar is sort of...crammed in. The opening section I mentioned that they repeat a couple of times is good, but overall it seems like an afterthought. Even the solo is kind of sad, especially compared to the ones present on the other songs - I just spent 25 minutes talking about "King"'s fantastic solo, and then this one comes on. It starts off pretty slow then does a cool little thing near the end that it repeats way too much, then does that crappy screeching-off-into-the-chorus effect I detest, and it's just all meh.

I like Hodder's vocals. If he made a band and was lead singer I'd be cool with it. I love his voice during the verses; it's kind of sneery, but not like Fa‎gen's. At the same time it's also very soothing. It's almost like someone combined Palmer's and Fa‎gen's voice boxes and this was the result. I like it. It's not annoying like Palmer's and it's got the good qualities of Fa‎gen's. It fits well with the song. I really like it overall, though the chorus seems a little too much like a "Come on audience, sing along with us!" thing. Like that was the effect they were aiming for when they recorded it. The verses are perfect, though.

The lyrics are alright. I'm fairly sure it's about drugs; "Felonius" is an old friend and the narrator welcomes him in. Then there's talk of madness running together and streets unseen found somehow, and bounties of fortune and fame and gentlemen losers and Harlem. Then the last verse gets even darker and more depressing about smiles long gone and time passing. Strong conflict to the upbeat-yet-at-the-same-time-depressing rhythm of the whole thing.

Also, what's with the 14 second fadeout? It's annoying. There's cool drum work at the end that I can barely hear because of it. Go away, long fadeout. You are not welcome here.
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