Countdown To Ecstasy
Released: July 1973
Chart Peak: #35
Weeks Charted: 34
Certified Gold: 3/2/78
Steely Dan 1972. Five jaded guys from Gotham City going west to find the American Dream, only to find Los Angeles, where, as they say, you can't buy a thrill. Lo and behold, what do they find there in the promised land but two smash singles, a gold album and (drum roll) SUCCESS.
Steely Dan 1973. Countdown to Ecstasy is upon us with another dose of mainstream rock & roll, restating the basic themes of Can't Buy a Thrill, but this time concentrating a bit more on the rocking side of their style, best exemplified by "Reelin' in the Years." Kicking off with "Bodhisattva," they move out. A hard-driving guitar exchanging leads with Donald Fagen's straightforward keyboards on top of a pulsating bass -- it's honest to beejeevies rock & roll!! Two rather nondescript ditties follow and then they rock on for 7:30 on "Your Golden Teeth." This time, with the mildly Latino beat of "Do It Again," the Steelies strike gold and really boogie; nothing too original, but they combine a wealth of mid-Sixties rock influences in a palatable way.
Side two opens with an absolutely insane chorale called "Show Biz Kids." The chorus is similar to the hypnotic chants from Nilsson's "Put the Lime in the Coconut," and this effort is every bit as successful, as its lyrical inanity is completely overwhelmed by the sheer enthusiasm put forth by the players and singers. "My Old School" is another exuberant exercise in the toe-tappin' and foot-stompin' that just sees to be the natural by-product of this group. Though their playing is hardly unique and their singing is occasionally hampered by patently ridiculous lyrics, they exhibit a control of the basic rock format that is refreshing and that bodes well for the group's long-term success.
In fact, it is this ability to play four- to five-minute rock songs in a jaunty, up-tempo fashion without becoming redundant or superfluous that may well make Steely Dan the American dance-band alternative to Slade. Countdown to Ecstasy is far from an ambitious statement of a progressive musical philosophy; in fact, one could perhaps argue that the Steelies have found a formula and are exploiting it. Well, for my part, if it takes exploitation of a formula to get the dilettantes and the glitter boys back to playing rock & roll, then I'll go back, Jack, and do it again, with Steely Dan.
- David Logan, Rolling Stone, 8/16/73.
There are many rewarding things about Steely Dan and this album: the arrangements are witty and tasteful, the performances are winning, and the songs are of high quality. And you get the sense that this group is going to get better as it goes along, that here is promise of something more to look forward to.
Whatever credit I have accumulated in heaven I would gladly use in behalf of Messrs. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the writers among the players who are responsible for a cultured pearl of a tune called "Pearl of the Quarter," a song about a happy businesslike New Orleans Cajun lady and one of her overwhelmed clients, which is simply marvelous. It is the standout of an album that contains such achievements as "Show Biz Kids," and evaluation of the Los Angeles life-style, and "King of the World," a study of a fellow who is the sole survivor of an atomic blast. Steely Dan's mixture of rock, jazz, and pop is potent and persuasive, and this is a really excellent album. Encore.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 11/73.
Steely Dan displayed a new rock competence in the early Seventies. Matching obscurantist lyrics with inventive melodies, cunning instrumental virtuosity and a willingness (nay keeness) to plunder the musical past, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's band bloomed with Countdown to Ecstasy.
CD remastering has given an added "spine" to the cutting criticism of gurus in "Bodhisattva" yet lets songs like "Pearl of the Quarter" through with a new delicacy. Specifically the frequency extremes have come up newly scrubbed with a tightened and weightier bass for Becker's electric and jazzman Ray Brown's acoustic instruments. Vic Feldman's vibes and Jeff Baxter's superb pedal steel playing find more air too in the upper reaches of this CD.
Perhaps the most important gain in having "middle period" Steely Dan on CD is, in the continued absence of published lyric sheets, to be able to discern each twist and turn in Fagen and Becker's elliptical lyrics.
The slightly denser recording of Countdown to Ecstasy doesn't quite have the same dynamic grace as Can't Buy a Thrill.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
Compared to their debut, Countdown to Ecstasy was a commercial failure (rocketing up and down the charts in three weeks) once it became apparent that this wasn't Reelin' in the Years - Part II. The melodies and arrangements were more subtle and the lyrics a little more impenetrable. Nevertheless, this is the album that initially hooked many hardcore Dan fans. "Show Biz Kids" and "My Old School" became moderate hits. Other standouts include the jazzy rocker "Bodhisattva" and "King of the World." * * * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were wiseass New York musician nerds stranded in L.A. in the early Seventies, and they poured all the cynicism and paranoia of that circumstance into Steely Dan, the most notorious studio band in the annals of classic rock. Their second album, Countdown to Ecstasy, was the only record by the reclusive duo writen for an actual live band, and you can tell -- especially on hoo-ha! cuts such as "My Old School," a catchy little tune about college placement and prostitution, with its pounding, stupidly grinning piano riffs; scorching guitar solos, somehow both showy and unselfconscious; and above all, jubilant horn charts. "The Boston Rag" begins as a sophisticated, jazzy number, but then the band players forget themselves: The solo by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter is as nasty, distorted and molten as rock guitar has ever been. The jump and jive of "Bodhisattva" is so celebratory, it could be the music for a Looney Tunes cartoon. Smart, conflicted bands from Weezer to the Eels owe Steely Dan big time, not because guys with glasses should stick together, but because on Countdown to Ecstasy, the band was human, not just brainy. Like good stretches of the Stones' Exile on Main Street, this is a record where Steely Dan let slip their extraordinary mask of sarcasm, and could not disguise the joy in these excellent songs, or the fact that they were having a blast playing them. * * * * *
- Pat Blashill, Rolling Stone, 10/30/03.
After the million-selling success of their debut album Can't Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan had a lineup change, with Donald Fagen taking over vocal duties. It marked the start of the "classic" Dan sound.
With a hit behind them, it was time to expand the scope of the band's material. Countdown... introduces more of the jazz influences and oblique lyrics that define their later work, while the impressionist cover art hints at this bolder agenda.
The opener "Bodhisattva" is a beauty. A satirical blast at karma-conscious California, the song plays like high-IQ rockabilly, the highlight an outrageous lead-guitar duel between Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and New York jazz shredder Denny Dias.
"Your Gold Teeth" employs Dias again but in more tangential style -- telling the story of a jaded female grifter who lives off her looks and cunning, the song is like an Elmore Leonard novel in miniature. The verse is given glacial cool by Victor Felman's vibes and the edgy electric piano of Fagen, while the solo section visits strange psychotropic regions. No such ambiguity haunts "My Old School," their straightahead rock number about collegiate misdeeds, barbed with guitar hooks from "Skunk" Baxter.
Harder in tone than their debut, Countdown To Ecstasy presages the themes of their later work with acerbic style.
- Jamie Dickson, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
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