Monday, July 22, 2013

40 Year Itch: California Tumbles Into the Sea

"There is a substantial body of opinion which holds that Countdown was the best Steely Dan album, bar none. Generally speaking, the type of person who typically holds this position is not the sort of individual you want sitting across the table from you at a dinner party, especially one where alcoholic beverages are being served. Nor would you be well advised to give one of these guys your email address or (gasp) your phone number. Should it happen that such a fan gets a hold of your street address or place of employment, you may as well call the police stalking squad straightway, before the situation deteriorates any further. You get, we trust, the general idea."
--Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, liner notes for 1998 re-issue

In the Summer of '73 Steely Dan followed up their critically acclaimed Top 20 debut with Countdown to Ecstasy. The band enjoyed more critical acclaim ( Robert Christgau praised the band's "studio slickness -perfect licks that crackle and buzz when you listen hard")" but not as many sales, thanks to the lack of a single on the scale of Can't Buy A Thrill's "Do It Again" and "Reeling in the Years".

   It's not a popular opinion but to these ears Countdown to Ecstasy is a bit of a sophmore slump. "The Boston Rag", "Pearl of the Quarter" and "King of the World" can't hold my interest and I'm just annoyed by "Bodhisattva" despite the dueling lead guitars of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias.

And, right there,  I've just disparaged half the album's eight songs.

That leaves four classics though: the singles "My Old School" and "Showbiz Kids" still get plenty of FM radio play ( Rickie Lee Jones does a super cover of 'Showbiz Kids' on 2000's  It's Like This) and "Your Gold Teeth" and "Razor Boy" are bold exciting explorations into the places where jazz and rock meet. Lyrically, you have to appreciate these cynical and sarcastic East Coasters fuming about having to live in phony Los Angeles where show biz kids are making movies about themselves "you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else".

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