CD Review: Donald Fagen, “Sunken Condos”

I’ll never forget when Donald Fagen’s Kamikiriad came out. I didn’t buy it, but borrowed it from our public library, took it home and listened to it. My brother, whose room was adjacent to mine, asked me roughly an hour later, “Why were you playing the same song over and over for an hour?”

While my impression of that album was not as harsh as his, I do agree that his output from then and beyond has been frustrating; tasteful but hinging on being acts of endurance more than enjoyment. Steely Dan was jazz-rock, Fagen’s The Nightfly was jazz-pop with a heavy lean toward the early-’60s in its DNA rather than the latter-’60s. The PR approach being shuffled out for his latest solo effort, Sunken Condos, states, “From here on out, everything Donald does has to be funky,” so I thought that was an indicator of a new stylistic hybrid — one I could get on board with. And yet I come to recognize there are two distinctly different definitions of the term “funky”: it could indicate a style of bass-heavy music with an emphasis on the groove, or on the smell of something that once had a pulse yet no longer does.

I found myself skipping through the disc more often than I care to while trying to be objective. All the touchstones of Fagen’s oeuvre are there, from the careful arrangements and recording, all meticulous and precise, to the jazz instrumentation; to the background singers who hit their marks with the assurance of a Patek-Phillippe watch; to Fagen’s own voice which, while not being the loopy, swoopy marvel it once was doesn’t sound as weather-beaten as it had for the past few years. But to what end? A lot of the songs do tend to bleed into each other tonally. And just because you cover Isaac Hayes (on “Out Of The Ghetto”) doesn’t automatically make you funky.

As a matter of fact I’ll go out on a limb to say this album is as far from funky as you can go. It is not awful, especially when spread out in very small doses. If you plug this into your iPod or iPhone and turn it to shuffle-mode, you will likely appreciate the songs as the palate-cleanser they can often be. Again, Fagen and crew are professionals and comport themselves as such. But the funk, the true funk, is not as calculating. It is down and dirty. It wallows in the groove as opposed to just flirting with it. It is borderline shambolic, and it don’t give a damn about what you think of it so long as it keeps your butt moving.

Sunken Condos is not butt-moving music. It is flat-out jazz for people who don’t like jazz but want to tell others they do. If you are a die-hard Fagen fan, you will likely disagree with me, but on this one I am adopting the attitude of my brother of more than a decade ago. This feels like the same song for more than an hour.

Sunken Condos is available from

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  • Rob Culverton.

    You’re a musician? I can see why I haven’t heard of you. When you have a 40-year career in music and heralded as one of the greatest musical minds of all time, your opinion will count for something. Your musical vocabulary is SERIOUSLY lacking if you think this music sounds like one long song! You just don’t get it. You really need to save your pennies and buy as much music as you can outside the genre you favor. Until then, you’re just another nobody with a blog that I had to do a random Google search to find and no real musical career to speak of.

  • Jack Feerick

    You don’t have to be a dancer yourself to notice when the ballerina falls flat on her ass, friend.

  • Ted

    Love Steely Dan and Donald Fagen’s music — well, some of his solo work. Okay, I was a fan of “The Nightfly” and that’s about it. But this quote made me laugh: “It is flat-out jazz for people who don’t like jazz but want to tell others they do.”

  • Chris Holmes

    Ah yes, the tried and true “you aren’t a musician therefore can’t evaluate other musicians” bit. This stale argument needs to be a sub-section of Godwin’s Law. That one can be also be found on a Google search.

  • abyssgazer

    If you don’t ♥ Donald Fagen, you’re a fat, jealous, Nazi!

  • Chris Holmes

    For the record, I do disagree with Dunphy’s assessment. While this record doesn’t have the teeth of an album like The Royal Scam, it’s the grittiest (and I use that term in a very relative sense) work I’ve heard from Fagan in some time.

  • mfeldman

    I agree. It was way better and grittier than I expected, and I think, although his lyrics have gotten less obtuse / creative, it far eclipses both Kamakiriad and Morph the Cat in terms of strong melodies. “Memorabilia” has been stuck in my head all week. My only complaint is he borrows just a tad too liberally from some of his past (“Miss Marlene” “IGY” and “Out of the Ghetto” “Tomorrow’s Girls.”) If you’re a Dan-head, this won’t make you forget about anything from 1971-80, but you’ll put this on occasionally.

  • Jay Eric Smith

    no, but when the dancing hippos from Fantasia start criticizing the Bolshoi, the critique may be circumspect…..

  • JMJM

    “This feels like the same song for more than an hour.” This is what people who don’t like jazz say when they hear it. I imagine you and your brother would make the same statment about Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I think what you mean to say but are afraid to is that people who don’t like jazz don’t like Donald Fagen. Time to ‘fess up.