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Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan

ABC 808
Released: March 1974
Chart Peak: #8
Weeks Charted: 36
Certified Gold: 5/14/74

Steely Dan is the most improbable hit-singles band to emerge in ages. On its three albums, the group has developed an impressionistic approach to rock & roll that all but abandons many musical conventions and literal lyrics for an unpredictable, free-roving style. While the group considered the first album, Can't Buy a Thrill, a compromise for the sake of accessibility, and the second, Countdown To Ecstasy, to emphasize extended instrumental work, the new Pretzel Logic is an attempt to make complete musical statements within the narrow borders of the three-minute pop-song format.

Like the earlier LPs, Pretzel Logic makes its own kind of sense: On a typical track, rhythmic patterns that might have worked for Astrud Gilberto, elegant pop piano, double lead guitars, and nasal harmony voices singing obscure phrases converge into a coherent expression. When the band doesn't undulate to samba rhythms (as it did on "Do It Again," its first Top Ten single), it pushes itself to a full gallop (as it did on "Reelin' in the Years," its second). These two rhythmic preferences persist and sometimes intermingle, as on "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which jumps in mid-chorus from "Hernando's Hideaway" into "Honky Tonk Women." Great transition.

Steely Dan's five musicians seem to play single-mindedly, like freelancers, but each is actually contributing to a wonderfully fluid ensemble sound that has no obvious antecedent in pop. These five are so imaginative that their mistakes generally result from too much clever detail. This band is never conventional, never bland.

And neither is its material. Despite the almost arrogant impenetrability of the lyrics (co-written by the group's songwriting team, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker), the words create an emotionally charged atmosphere, and the best are quite affecting. While it's disconcerting to be stirred by language that resists comprehension, it's still difficult not to admire the open-ended ambiguity of the lyrics.

But along with Pretzel Logic's private-joke obscurities (like the made-up jargon on "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" and "Through With Buzz"), there are concessions to the literal: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" makes sense as a conventional lover's plea, while "Barrytown" takes a satirical look at class prejudice. But each has an emotional cutting edge that can't be attributed directly to its viewpoint or story. As writers, Fagen and Becker may be calculating, but they aren't cold.

As the group's two foremost members, Fagen sings, plays keyboards and leads the band; Jeff Baxter, a brilliant musician on guitar, pedal steel and hand drums, powers it.

As a vocalist, Fagen (who looks like a rock & roll version of Montgomery Clift) is as effective as he is unusual. With a peculiar nasal voice that seems richer at the top of its range than in the middle, Fagen stresses meter as well as sense, so much so that his singing becomes another of the group's interlocked rhythmic elements. At the same time, there's a plaintive aspect to his singing that expands the impact of even his most opaque lines.

Baxter, an expert electric guitarist with a broad background in rock & roll and jazz, draws on these influences with pragmatic shrewdness. Even on these short tracks he's impressive. On one of the band's more conventional songs, "Pretzel Logic" (a modified blues), he improvises on the standard patterns without referring to a single ready-made blues. And he does things with pedal steel that have nothing to do with country music. At one point -- in the vintage "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" -- he duplicates note-for-note a ragtime mute-trombone solo. His command of technique is impressive, but it's his use of technique to heighten the dynamic and emotional range of the group's songs that makes him Steely Dan's central instrumental force.

When Fagen, Baxter and the rest can't give a track the right touch, they send out for it. The exotic percussion, violin sections, bells and horns that augment certain cuts are woven tightly into the arrangements, each with a clear function. Producer Gary Katz provides a sound that's vibrant without seeming artificial. The band uses additional instrumentation in its live sets as well as on record, traveling with a different array each time they tour. For the current one, they've added a second drummer, a second pianist (who also sings) and a vocalist, so that now there are four singers and every instrument but bass is doubled. I don't think any of their records can equal this band on a good night.

While Steely Dan for the most part succeeds in its efforts to force its character into the strict limitations of the short pop song, the music would benefit from more elaboration. Here they can only begin to convey the moods and textures that made Countdown To Ecstasy their most impressive album. But at the very least, "Rikki ...," "Any Major Dude ...," "Barrytown" and "Through With Buzz" are fine oddball pop songs, any of which would make a terrific single.

In a short time, Steely Dan has turned into one of the best American bands, and surely one of the most original. Their only problem is the lack of a visual identity to go with their musical one -- as pop personalities, they're practically anonymous. But with music as accessible and sophisticated as Steely Dan's, no one should care.

- Bud Scoppa, Rolling Stone, 5/23/74.

* Correcting the RS review. Steely Dan was a studio band on Pretzel Logic. Jim Gordon and Jeff Porcaro were the drummers. Chuck Rainey handled bass. Walter Becker played guitar on "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and the title track.

- John Lawler, College Station, Tex.

Bonus Reviews!

I much admired Steely Dan's last album, mostly for a tune called "Pearl of the Quarter." There isn't another stunner this time around, but the band is still one of the most marvelously inventive to appear since rock took a nosedive some four years ago.

The trouble with the effort here is that most of the tunes seem to be working prototypes. Maybe an idea used in one of them will result in a gem two or three albums hence, but for the moment Steely Dan is treading water. I listen to the instrumental performances and the colorful arrangements and I'm impressed. But the lyrics baffle me; maybe they know what they're talking about, but I can't get a clue.

There are, however, two songs well worth hearing. One is "Parker's Band," which at first sounds like another of those dammed rock-and-roll sieg heils to get-it-on-and-boogie-down but on second listening is a nice historical piece, set in the Forties, urging other musicians to hurry to Birdland so they can sit in with the great Charlie Parker. The other is an entirely charming version of Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," taken at a jaunty tempo with the wah-wah guitar imitating Miley's muted trumpet solo and a country steel guitar playing the bridge. The pianist comes in for a chorus and plays very much like Fats Waller. At the end, the drummer hits the biggest cymbal he can find, á la J. Arthur Rank, in cute mimicry of Ellington's "jungle sound" of the Twenties and Thirties. Steely Dan's musical joke is in the best of taste. Though they are treading water, I would rather hear Steely Dan do that than hear most bands at full stroke.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 8/74.

The band's rock'n'rolI is a tribute to its efforts to remain distinctively different. Take "Barrytown" with its superb rollicking rhythmic feel, its straight ahead melodic mix, its haunting vocal approach. It's a fun track. If there's one way of describing the band's sound, it's crisp: crisp drumming, crisp guitar work, sharp and crisp vocals. But the songs here are unfortunitely weak lyrically and that cuts the band's artistic ability.

- Billboard, 1974.

This album sums up their chewy perversity as aptly as its title -- all I could ask is a lyric sheet. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" blends into AM radio with an intro appropriated from Horace Silver, while the other side-opener builds a joyous melody of Bird riffs underneath a lyric that invites one and all to "take a piece of Mr. Parker's band." The solos are functional rather than personal or expressive, locked into the workings of the music. And even when Donald Fagen's voice dominates as it comes out of the speakers it tends to sink into the mix in the mind's ear -- recollected in tranquility, the vocals seem like the golden mean of pop ensemble singing, stripped of histrionics and displays of technique, almost... sincere, modest. Yeah, sure. A+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

On Pretzel Logic Steely Dan most successfully synthesized their love for jazz into their dense pop/rock sound. The grooves were funky ("Night by Night," "Monkey in Your Soul") and the arrangements sophisticated ("Parker's Band," "Through with Buzz"). "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," featuring an incredibly lyrical guitar solo by Jeff Baxter, became Dan's biggest hit at number four. The title track and "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" are more highlights. * * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Pretzel Logic has some of Steely Dan's best songs ("Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Any Major Dude Will Tell You") as well as early steps towards jazz fusion such as "Parker's Band" and the title track. * * * * 1/2

- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Here Steely Dan makes their love of jazz explicit, covering Duke Ellington and copping the intro of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" from hard-bop pianist Horace Silver. The guitars on their third album are dialed back, for a sound that's slick and airtight without being cold. And the lyrics? As twisted as ever.

Pretzel Logic was chosen as the 385th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Before Donald Fagen and Walter Becker became the songwriting duo behind Steely Dan, they were tunesmiths at ABC, penning hits for such notables as Barbra Streisand. After carving their own sound with Can't Buy A Thrill and taking it further with Countdown To Ecstasy, the pair returned to Tin Pan Alley. Using three-minute pop as a framework, they decided to play ironic games with style and genre. The result was the platinum-selling Pretzel Logic.

The opening track typifies the album. "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is an affecting story of unrequited love, which switches between light samba and piano ballad, until Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's beautifully phrased guitar solo shoots a thread of California country rock straight through the middle. Broadly in the same vein, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" is illuminated by beams of Orange County sunshine.

But the group had not forgotten how to bite, either -- "Monkey In Your Soul," which somehow crosses Noël Coward with Stax, is a wonderfully bitchy poison-pen letter, while the wounded petulance of envy is given darkly comic treatment in "Through With Buzz."

The third element of the album is witty pastiche. The defiance of the lonely man is given cop-show dynamism in "Night By Night," while the bungled homicide of "With A Gun" should be made into a Coen Brothers movie. "East St Louis Toodle-Oo" is playtime for the band and notable for introducing pedal steel guitar to the ragtime genre if nothing else.

- Jamie Dickson, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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