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 Amazon.com.