Warner Bros. Records ■ 23696-1
Released October 29, 1982
Engineered by Roger Nichols (Chief), Daniel Lazerus (Overdubs)
Assistant Engineering by Wayne Yurgelun, Mike Morongell, Cheryl Smith, Robin Lane
Mastered by Bob Ludwig
“Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.
- Green Flower Street
- Ruby Baby
- New Frontier
- The Nightfly
- The Goodbye Look
- Walk Between Raindrops
While I definitively eschew any such categorizations as best I possibly can, I remain fascinated with the lines that are drawn around any work or artist to render it “untouchable” by certain groups. A work or an artist may be unmentionable to fit comfortably under the umbrella of “serious music fan” or “metalhead” or any of the other myriad communities associated with music–some very carefully defined, and others so loose as to be questionably meaningful. I like a lot of artists that cross those lines quite heavily–the first albums I ever owned mystify people to this day, and the first mix-tape I ever had made for me (by my father, partly from my requests, and partly from his own insertions) was a slew of Dr. Demento tracks from various decades and styles (“The Martian Hop”, “The Cockroach That ate Cincinnatti”, etc) mixed with Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Cherokee Nation”), the Coasters (“Poison Ivy”, “Mother in Law”, “Yakety Yak”), Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crimson & Clover”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”), and a few odd other tracks I’ll occasionally recall out of the blue.
For a time in and around middle school, my taste remained confined by the distance I kept from my father’s turntable and thus the questionable volume of music available to someone who didn’t look to spend limited allowance-type funds on it. The local library had its share of odds and ends, and I checked some out from them here and there, but two in particular ended up sticking with me for quite a while, as my non-existent owned music meant whatever I had checked out was what I was listening to, short of hitting the radio. Those two albums were–bear with me now, and feel free to look back at other albums I reviewed (and thus own) and drop jaws or shake heads as needed–Billy Joel’s Storm Front and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad. These (and the few albums I would gradually purchase) were strangely important: listening to the same songs from each over and over would have been tiresome with the limited (and tedious) programming capabilities of my cheap (discman-style!) CD player at the time, so I ended up listening to both albums straight through many times.
In some circles, it’s probably desirable to disavow my love for Storm Front
, but that tends to be unsurprising to anyone who has spoken with even mildly devoted music people (though there are, of course, always exceptions). Kamakiriad
fascinates me that much more: Fagen is of course best known for his work with his primary band, that which is defined by co-conspirator Walter Becker–Steely Dan. There are ripples of discontent surrounding the group, even amongst more serious music people, whether it be for the “appropriation” of jazz, the purported sterility of carefully expert and tight production and recordings, or even the “flaccid/soft rock” sensibility many have regarding them (including, if memory serves, George Carlin ¹). It’s strange, really–the band was named for a dildo (!) in the writings of William S. Burroughs (!!), and the lyrics are notoriously clever (maybe even obnoxiously so), often sardonic or dark. Sure–the music tends to be pretty relaxed and “smooth”, and the performances and recordings are
absurdly tight, but the criticism does not easily bear out.
The Nightfly was purchased some years ago, unquestionably, because of my love for Kamakiriad. I had never heard it before, and may or may not have heard any of the songs that were released to radio (and later repeated on “classic rock” stations), and it was only $3 anyway. I listened to it once or twice at the time, but didn’t run out into the streets proselytizing. It wasn’t until it was repackaged (with Kamakiriad, and the much later Morph the Cat) as The Nightfly Trilogy that I stood up and took notice. Then, I had lovingly packaged (CD) versions of each album (in some of my favourite packaging ever) and time and ease to get to know each.
It was because of that time that revisiting this album like I did was both a familiar comfort and a pleasure.
The first thing I ever recognized about the album is how appropriate it is for certain environmental conditions: the first light, chiming tones of “I.G.Y.” (clarified on the inner sleeve as “International Geophysical Year” cannot ever seem to sound as right as they do in a comfortable, dark room. Sitting, alone, together, reclined–it doesn’t matter, it just sets the tone clearly, with a lovely synthetic intro where a backing bed of rising and falling cascading notes sits behind more definitive notes that seem to spike upward from an otherwise smooth surface. It turns to a swinging beat, horns enter, and it becomes a ridiculously catchy tune, marrying Fagen’s voice to a chorus of female backing singers in a wistful, nostalgic chorus. The track is fascinating aurally: it’s perfectly balanced in pitches and tones, yet seems to keep to a narrow range somehow. It’s the ideal energy for the tone of the track–defining the tone of the album as a whole. The fabled pin-point accuracy of both men who lead Steely Dan is apparent–even the parts that aren’t electronic sound as if they could be, but they hold the right warmth and variability that marks them as physically present acoustic instruments.
I always imagine (wrongly) that “Green Flower Street” was one of the album’s singles (instead, “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontiers” hold that honour), and feel that I can be forgiven this–keys tug at the song as hi-hat marks the time to keep it going. Bass dances along the back ground as keys phase and warp from channel to channel, and lightly played, muted guitar notes jump back and forth the same way. The guitar and keys are somewhat odd, a bit cut off, approaching staccato (readily meeting it in the case of the guitar part), acting as the primary hook and melody, but leaving so much space and riding so heavily on repetition that the restless movement of the bass pulls that old trick of really moving the song’s melodic progressions, but does it without being at all obvious. A rather tasty guitar lead is met with the snarled and curly notes of a brief key lead that is reminiscent of the kind of work I personally love in earlier Prince material–dense and funky, wrapped tightly around itself. Dig that sudden exclamation point ending, too.
I’m prone to unnecessary elaboration for sure, but it’s actually quite appropriate that I brought up the Coasters earlier–many of their hits were the writing work of Leiber and Stoller, who also wrote the only cover on this album: “Ruby Baby”. While the note on the inner sleeve points toward reminiscing (as does the cover), Fagen molds the classic hit into his own style, unquestionably, arranging it into more instrumental and drifting, electronic-leaning sound the album runs on, while maintaining the flavour of the original Drifters recording. It becomes extended, playing with improvisational (if probably pre-determined) instrumental stretches, and handclaps and crowd noises that are subtle enough that, on casual listen, they just feed the feeling of the track’s placement as drawn from a time closer to the exclusively live domain of music, rather than seeming like an intended faux-live recording.
Side one closes with “Maxine”, which drops the drum beat to a steady 3/4, warm and slow like I would immediately imagine from many a late night radio would play. It’s relaxed in an album that is innately relaxed, using keys that sound more like known keyboard-based instruments. It’s the breeziest track by far, though it is actually the third shortest, oddly enough.
“New Frontier” was an excellent choice for a single, no question. Reverberating as if underwater, keys thoughtfully and dreamily establish something of the melody, while an electronic beat bounces out cheerfully. Harmonica seems bizarrely out of place–but only if you stop and think: integrated into the whole, it somehow functions. The keyboard lines that introduce the chorus have an excellently suspicious quality about them, as if something is not quite right here, though everything remains as cheerful and enjoyable as they were when they began. That bouncing electronic beat is fascinating: it runs straight through the track, but is lost, almost ignored, as if it’s being followed entirely by accident rather than design. Double-tracking the chorus vocals is a clever touch, and puts just the right kind of tonal “oomph” onto them, to bring them above Fagen’s normally easy tones.
The title track embraces the image on the cover fully, as Fagen takes on the role of “Lester the Nightfly”, WJAZ DJ and host in Baton Rouge. He’s an amalgamation of Fagen’s remembered late night DJs, taking conspiracy calls, talking of his own life, and playing classic jazz tunes–indeed, he describes the show as “with jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mount Belzoni, sweet music, tonight the night is mine, late night ’til the sun comes through the skyline”. Semi-spoken verses are from Lester’s point of view, over steady cowbells and heavily played key chords, that have just enough spin on them to take on a bit of a funky hook. Female vocalists emulate the station’s call sign interstitial, sweet and clear, with a catchy emphasis on rhythm, jumping up and down in pitch sharply, but cleanly. The drums drive the trick in that same background fashion way, but hold themselves more apparent.
“The Goodbye Look” seems slightly out of place as the penultimate track–combined with its predecessor, it might even have turned into a sort of strange conceptual album (as opposed to a thematic one), suggesting the “goodbye look” given to a DJ as a signal that their time is shortly up–whether literal or just for effect. It’s actually a sort of paranoid tale of hiding away on an island instead, with a mention of steel drums that comes through in the unusual choice of synthesized sounds that resemble steel drums, later met with the sound of more distinctly synthesized steel drums, which is a peculiar union to be sure. The relaxed pace of the verses is hurried at its end until the staccato vocalizations of the chorus, which is where the most steel drum-like sounds appear, offsetting that sudden rush of terseness in an interesting way.
Instead, the album closes with “Walk Between Raindrops”, which rides organ-styled keyboards and walking bass through a pretty rapid and upbeat tune, somewhat unexpected after the relaxation of the midsection of side two, especially at the end of the album. It’s a bit slight and peculiar in this place, especially at its call out of Miami (!) that is followed by a smoothed out organ solo. It fits in its way of course–it’s an original song companion to the cover of “Ruby Baby”, recalling the kind of pop tracks that Fagen would’ve enjoyed in his childhood, rather than the actual cover of or reference to them.
The Nightfly‘s rather odd legacy is that of an album that has been used over the years as a test of sound systems thanks to its ultra-clear, clean production and playing. Certainly, this adds a lot of credence to the declaration that Fagen’s music is somewhat sterile, as achieving the status of ideal “index” recording to test a system–a demonstration disc, even.
While a laudable achievement, there’s something else to be said, in that all the subjective assessments of things like emotional content or flavour are difficult to render so complete and definitive: there’s unquestionably emotional content here, it’s just displayed less in the spontaneous burst of unrehearsed or knowingly loose playing, and more in the choice of tones, playstyles, genres, sounds, and all of the other detailed components used to construct it. Maybe it is a more “mechanical” assembly, but that doesn’t preclude creativity or emotion–it simply leaves it with pre-defined places to be assigned and then experienced. Any of that would be theoretical, were it not for this album, which most definitely confirms any of those thoughts has its place in reality: the album’s feel and sound are very engaging on even an emotional level, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the way Fagen puts music together.
¹This is a companion to Bill Hicks’ dismissal of a Judas Priest fan as a “future gas station attendant”–in context, it’s necessary for the joke (which is part of a much larger bit), but is vaguely dumbfounding in the context of a man who was also responsible for saying, “Let’s say that rock and roll is the devil’s music…at least he fuckin’ jams.” Someone who appreciates things that “rock” casually dismissing Priest seems to be drawing pretty arbitrary lines to me. Not that appreciation is necessitated, but–ah, well.