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

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

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.
’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


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