How does an artist go from seeming lame and cheesy, to something worth listening to? As a constant explorer of rock music’s rich past, this is a question that I’ve often asked myself. Because when I step back and look at it, some of my absolute favorite artists were once designated to the cheesy/lame category (Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Randy Newman). Yet somehow, they were able to completely transcend that at some point.
I think this kind of turnaround from hate to great is usually a gradual process, made up of several key reference points. A line in a Judd Apatow movie; a certain friend’s strange infatuation with the song “Peg”; the realization that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were basically the original rock nerds; the final revelation brought on by Random Access Memories that studio-manufactured pop-rock isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All of these moments combined are what recently convinced me to get in to Steely Dan, a band that I once dismissed as being totally second tier classic rock, mainly on the grounds that they barely rocked.
Now that I’ve delved a bit further in to the Dan’s discography, I might go as far as to argue that Steely Dan were one of the more consistently solid bands of the ‘70s. And that’s what makes Pretzel Logic such a quintessential Steely Dan album — it’s just a great example of their impeccable solidness. I wouldn’t even say it’s their best album (that distinction would probably go to the silky smoothness of 1977’s Aja), but it finds them in that sweet spot of transitioning from pop-rockers with a faint interest in jazz, to pop-rockers with a noticeable interest in jazz. It’s also a transitional album in that for the first time it saw Donald Fagen and Walter Becker starting to swap out their own band members for seasoned studio musicians. This seems like kind of a dick move, but I suppose when you’re going for the kind of pop perfectionism that Fagen and Becker were chasing, it only makes sense to try to get the best sound possible.
I’ll be honest. I always thought that whenever Dan fans (Daniacs? Danatics?) cited the jazz element of Steely Dan’s music, they were just trying to rationalize their adoration for a somewhat saccharine pop group. But the jazz is definitely there, especially in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, one of the band’s signature tunes and probably the only time anyone ever managed to build a hit single out of a riff lifted from jazz pianist Horace Silver. And sure, you can try to intellectualize Steely Dan all you want, but I’ve found it impossible to deny that their albums were great because they dared to churn out slick, infectious, and vehemently uncool pop music — which also happens to be why I once disliked them. But I suppose that’s what should make a formerly derided artist click for you: learning to no longer recoil from their most distinctive qualities, but to embrace them.
Favorite Tracks: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Barrytown”, “Parker’s Band”