by Josef Woodard
STORIED POP-SMART BOMBS: It’s tempting to view Donald Fagen’s upcoming show at the Arlington on Friday as a poetically-just matchup of artist/venue. With its faux Spanish village interior, our beloved kitschy theater seems to house untold stories, ghosts, and imagined characters, lurking in those bogus rooms and lairs behind the facade. And so it goes with the unique songspinning of Fagen, half of the braintrust behind Steely Dan. The work of a former literature student, Fagen’s fab new solo album, Morph the Cat, is richly populated by characters and elliptical narrative threads, like unfinished short stories cleverly tucked into pop song structures.
For those of us who view Fagen and the Dan as belonging to the short list of great pop bands — alongside the Beatles, Radiohead, and few others — any in-town appearance is cause for great celebration (and cerebration). The added bonus here is the remarkable fact that this is Fagen’s virgin voyage as a solo artist. The time is right and ripe: The once reluctant singer/frontman has honed his chops and screwed up his stage courage during the last several years of band touring, including a highly memorable visit to the Santa Barbara Bowl a few years ago.
Dan’s tours, like Fagen’s own current tour, have been elaborate little big-band affairs, capturing the sophisticated tapestries of their sound. Expect a horn section, background singers, and the best guitarists the band’s reputation can lure (getting the Dan gig is like an actor getting the call from Woody Allen).
Surprise, surprise: Fagen’s album is decidedly in keeping — texturally, production-wise, and attitudinally — with the last two Steely Dan albums, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go — instant classics, both. Morph the Cat is more of the good stuff we expect. He views it as part of a trilogy, including his nostalgic debut The Nightfly, his sci-fi “concept album” Kamakiriad — an inverse reflection on present tensions — and now this playfully apocalyptic edition.
The first single, “H Gang,” a cryptic tale of rock band turf wars, is a typically catchy ditty with newer and deeper meanings once you focus on the lyrics. Fagen knows you can get away with murder, or at least high cultural adventure, if you give listeners a good groove and infectious hooks. That concept prevails throughout Morph the Cat.
His tribute to Ray Charles, “What I Do,” seems too moody/minor mode-ish for such a satirical homage, but “Brite Nightgown” is a tidy little masterpiece. Inspired by W.C. Fields’s reference to death as “the fellow in the bright nightgown,” the song lays out tales of near-death while singers cheerfully intone the title over a seductive one-chord vamp (although tricky bridge chords betray Fagen’s love of weird jazz chord changes). Death never sounded so sweet. I want my life to end with a cool guitar solo like Wayne Krantz plays here, in a long, slow fade into oblivion.
The finest example of Fagen’s sardonic romanticism is the lustrous love ballad, “The Great Pagoda of Funn.” He paints the picture of love as a place of escape, a safe haven in a Manhattan apartment above the wreckage of the real world. Up there, lovers detach from a harsh world of “severed heads … psycho-moms … and dirty bombs.” Listeners unburdened by English fluency will have a different, abstract impression of this song than those of us for whom the phrase “severed heads” conjures up visions of slasher flicks and Iraq iniquity.
Speaking of Krantz (who once played at the glorious music-driven dive Joseppi’s on lower State Street with his trio), he also lends his own distinctive muted intensity in a solo over the long coda on “The Great Pagoda,” taking his place among guitarists (and saxists) who have done some of their finest work in the Fagen/Dan factory. The Fagen-Becker love of a cool, intelligent solo and emotional-yet-subversive songcraft has also put smart pop into the public’s space and face. Note to Fagen: Keep those songs and characters coming. (Got e? Email firstname.lastname@example.org)