Pazz and Jop 1974 #11

Linda Ronstadt – Heart Like a Wheel

When you decide, as I have, to put on the record your opinion about something, that opinion had better be right. Not “right” in the sense of true or false (since I believe there is no such thing when it comes to music), but in the sense of being a true expression of what you believe. Because while it is fine to change your mind over time, you should at least be clear about why you had a particular opinion in the first place.

With that in mind, I ask: How many chances should you give an album to win you over? The question matters a lot to me because, tragically, I’m beginning to think I need to listen to “Aqualung” again. For Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel”, after three plays I felt completely lukewarm about it. I was sitting on my couch, writing an earlier version of this post, with the album in the background for a fourth run through, when I unexpectedly found myself singing along. Up to that point, I was certain I was the wrong audience for this record. That’s the best explanation I could come up with for why I found most of it so, well, bland.

I was not a Linda Ronstadt fan growing up, though her music was a regular part of my listening diet in the 1970s thanks to its prevalence on CJCB. It was sort of perfect for that time and place, with a blend of folk and country influences filtered for a pop audience, making it something you could play at any time of the day. “Heart Like a Wheel” produced #1 hits on the pop and country charts, and the artist who could pull that off was catnip for a split format station like CJCB. My feelings about her music weren’t helped by her wussy cover of Elvis Costello’s “Alison” in 1979 (which still sucks), yet a year later I rather liked her turn to a rockier sound with the hits “How Do I Make You” (the songwriter was influenced by “My Sharona”, so I was helpless not to like it) and “Hurt So Bad”.

I never felt compelled to listen to any of her albums, and wouldn’t have now but for the Pazz and Jop showing this one so much love. So, here we are. Which is where?

Here’s the thing: I tend to like music that surprises me the first time I hear it, and I almost never felt surprised by the sound of this record. It’s all very professionally done, with excellent musicianship (shoutout to Andrew Gold especially) and that luscious voice. But I almost never thought, “Huh, I didn’t see that coming” or “That’s an interesting choice” with this record. There are a few of those moments – when JD Souther joins in on “Faithless Love”, the epic soundscape of “The Dark End of the Street”, her attempt to sound like a McGarrigle on Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel” (and the strings on said track), the guitars on “Keep Me From Blowing Away” – but mostly it’s just Linda being Linda, which is pleasing enough to the ear, but did little for my soul.

This situation wasn’t helped by all but one song being a cover, so not only did I already know several of these tunes, but I could also check the others against the originals. (Here’s a playlist of those tracks.) Her “You’re No Good” lacks the impertinence of Dee Dee Warwick’s. James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street” has a sense of danger that is lost when Ronstadt sings it. Even my general lack of interest in southern rock isn’t enough to make me pick her version of “Willin’” over Little Feat’s. You can’t argue with her taste: these are all great songs. I just kept wishing she had done something more daring with them.

But the twist was that the more I listened to the album, the more interesting it got, though it’s an emotional complexity, not a musical one. She imbues “The Dark End of the Street” and its tale of forbidden love with great depth of feeling, and you almost feel the pain of the lost soul in “Keep Me From Blowing Away” (the pedal steel guitar does some heavy lifting here). (Also, check out My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” – the slowed-down opening of that anthem feels like it jumps off from the latter tune.) My favourite is the album’s closer, James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes”, and it feels transcendent when her voice rises on the second line of the chorus. 

It was a roller coaster ride, and what I am left with is a record that I sort of begrudgingly love, or at least a big chunk of it. My adoration of cover versions isn’t without limits: I don’t need Linda’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” when Buddy Holly’s is already perfect. It doesn’t all work, but the parts that do are sort of miraculous in their ability to make your spirit soar. It makes me glad for that fourth listen (and I’ve since added a fifth), even if it means that another date with Jethro Tull probably awaits me.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #10

New York Dolls – In Too Much Too Soon

New York Dolls are what you would get if a band from the late ‘50s was suddenly transported to the early ‘70s, took a look around and decided, “We can work with this”.

I liked their previous album, but it took time for me to warm to it. This one grabbed me right away. It has a cleaner sound, more accessible, but still frenetic. Initially a punked up version of glam, while the punks got dirtier as the ‘70s progressed, the Dolls were getting cleaned up, even looking like a more traditional rock band. There’s a strong rockabilly feel to some of their songs (the American parts of “Stranded in the Jungle”, “Bad Detective” – and, yes, these are very racially problematic tunes), lots of harmonica (with a nice solo in “Don’t Start Me Talking”), and backing vocals out of another time (“Bad Detective” again). They are a band with one foot stuck firmly in the past, and my two favourite tracks reflect this. “Who Are the Mystery Girls?”, with handclaps and those nostalgia inducing backing singers, has the feel of an old fashioned pop song about love and romance (though it’s not clear what they’re actually singing about). And for all the grinding guitars of “(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown”, the song could soundtrack Paul LeMat versus Harrison Ford

At times it feels like a great dance record, with lots of toe tappers, and it’s legitimate to wonder if it’s too poppy to still be punk. David Johansen is a playful frontman, with a sort of yelly singing style in which he over pronounces while slurring at the same time. It comes across as very mannered – Jaggeresque without Mick’s soulfulness. They try hard, from the dirtied up blues riff that opens “Babylon” to the muffled guitars on the closing tracks, but it feels like they never completely let their guard down and just play – they want so badly to be genuine punks, but they’re just a little too talented to go that route. “Human Being” might have the least grit of any gritty song I’ve ever heard, and it’s the closest they get to being unrestrained and messy, in the best way.

I get why a lot of people – including some of the band, apparently – prefer this record to the first. I like the DIY feel of their debut (despite the aid of the estimable Todd Rundgren), which gives it an energy that this one doesn’t have. But as follow ups go, there may not be many better.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #9

Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Boulevard

As a body of work, I’ve never had much interest in Eric Clayton’s music. “Layla” is an all-time great, and I liked some of his singles from the 1970s and 1980s, but I have never once felt compelled to check out his albums, whether solo or with any of the several successful bands he’s been part of. It just wasn’t a sound that I connected with overall, and that’s fine: we all have to make choices.

Then came the tragic death of his son (followed years later by Anthony Jeselnik’s brilliant and completely tasteless joke – I won’t link to it here because it’s very dark, but search “Jeselnik Clapton” on YouTube if you’re curious and have a high tolerance for inappropriate humour), and the absolutely dreadful song that he wrote about this loss. I know that an awful lot of people love “Tears in Heaven”, and I won’t argue with that, but to me it’s just mawkish and, frankly, pandering to sentiment for commercial gain. I respect the need to write it as therapy and a memorial to his child. I just wish he’d stopped there.

Anyway, Clapton is the kind of artist who can force you to decide whether you can still enjoy the art while loathing the artist. Let us never forget that “Layla” was written about a woman who he was trying to steal from her husband, who was supposed to be his friend. More recently, he’s held some really shitty and dangerous beliefs during the COVID pandemic. There’s a past history of horrific substance abuse, and he blamed the former for a racist diatribe from an English stage that not nearly enough people seem to know about. The racism also is in the context of a man who feathered his pockets on the backs of Black blues greats. There is a LOT of evidence that he is something of a douche, at minimum, and a monster at worst.

And yet, there is the music. I came to this album, with my historic disregard for his music and general loathing of his person, ready to dislike it. Alas, it was not to be, because it’s a pretty awesome album.

Recorded after Clapton got off heroin, “461 Ocean Boulevard” (named for the street address of the house he lived in while recording) is a shambling record, completely at ease with itself. I don’t want to say he was taking any risks here, since half the songs are covers of old blues or traditional tunes, but Clapton was also definitely not mailing it in: there is a genuine sense of commitment in almost every track. For a guitar god, he made an album where the guitar is not merely a showcase for his playing. On, for example, “I Can’t Hold Out”, it’s played with finesse, not pyrotechnics: careful, technically precise playing, getting the notes right, making sure it is in service of the song. If any instrument takes centre stage overall, it’s the keyboards: the light ballpark organ of “Give Me Strength” gives the track a Christian spiritual feel, and it is similarly highlighted on “I Can’t Hold Out” and “Mainline Florida”.

He’s playing (lightly) with genre here, with souped-up southern rock on “Motherless Children”, sauntering blues on “Willie and the Hand Jive”, low-key funk on “Get Ready”, reggae-lite on “I Shot the Sheriff”, and barroom blues on “Steady Rollin’ Man”. “Let It Grow” feels like the next-to-closing track on a prog rock album, after the hero’s journey is at an end and he’s summing up what it all means before the hallelujah ending. The only real rocker is “Mainline Florida”, and it’s the track that is the most fun and features Clapton’s best vocal for my money. There’s a disjointed feel to several of the songs (on “Get Ready” in particular), with the instruments finding a weird harmony by competing with each other. These last two are my favourite songs on the album, along with “Give Me Strength” and “Please Be With Me”.

It’s far from a perfect record: some tracks run too long (“Motherless Children” runs out of ideas about 90 seconds into its almost five-minute run time), and most of the lyrics are nothing to get excited about. At its best, the album feels like the peace that comes at the end of a long battle, with the person you love most at your side. I don’t know if Clapton deserves that peace – see above re the racism, substance abuse, vaccination denial and wife stealing – but he definitely earned it. I guess there’s some form of redemption to be found here, though I leave it to others to put in the work to find it: he’s too much of a dick for me to bother.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #8

Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky

I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around the love that critics once had for Jackson Browne, and listening to “Late for the Sky” three times hasn’t gotten me to the point where I’ve solved this particular puzzle. Like most early 1970s soft rock, it makes for a great accompaniment to those mundane tasks of daily living, like laundry or emptying the dishwasher. It rarely challenges you, rarely forces you to listen carefully. It’s background music, and dear lord we certainly need that: the world is just a better place to be in when it has a soundtrack. But other (mostly) White guy bands like Chicago and the Doobie Brothers were also doing a damned fine job of that, and critics weren’t building temples to them. So, why the love for Mr. Browne?

I sometimes like to think of Browne as Eagles-lite, with both frolicking in that same soft rock playpen, and you would think critics, who often seem to be in the business of jerking off their musician friends, would have been all over that band, yet you would be wrong. “Hotel California”, the 118th ranked album of all time in the last Rolling Stone poll and #108 at Acclaimed Music, could not crack the Top 30 of the Pazz and Jop in either 1976, when it was released, or 1977, when it had dominion over our airwaves. I am no fan of the Eagles, but that is just whack. What the fuck were they listening to? A lot of Graham Parker, for one thing and, in 1977, more Jackson Browne.

So, what of this album? There’s a real lethargy to a lot of it, a laid back California cool that lacks the dirty passion of truly great rock. No one here seems to be breaking a sweat: it sounds pristine, the musicianship is sharp and precise, and with every perfectly bland note you can sense the early punks gritting their teeth.

There are two exceptions. “The Road and the Sky” is a honky tonk rocker, and you can almost hear his band saying, “Hell, yes”, as they dive in, with great piano and some slick shredding. But Browne’s heart isn’t really in it: he seems uncomfortable with the pace, his vocal showing no more fire than when he’s singing about another beautiful sunset. He gives the band 3:07 to have some fun, then it’s back to our regular programming. He feels more committed on “Walking Slow”, an almost danceable tune with some funky bass notes, a nice guitar solo and joyful handclaps.

A few of the slower tunes stand out, at least in some of their elements. The title track is lovely, a meditation of sorts with a real sense of loss and wonder, and a tune out of a contemporary western. There is lots of pleasing piano on “The Late Show”, and a melancholy beauty to what I think is fiddle on “For A Dancer” and “Before the Deluge”.

Maybe the fourth listen, or the fifth, will be the one when the light turns on. I’ll be spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast, the sliced up banana and Nutella off to the side, when Browne will sing “When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky” (a lovely line, to be sure), that beautiful fiddle will play us out, and I will stand at the kitchen counter, stunned, while the toast turns cold and dry and the banana ages out of my eating range. I felt that just a tiny bit right now, so I know it can happen. I’m rooting for you to get me there, Jackson.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #7

Roxy Music – Stranded

Every time I listen to early Roxy Music, all I hear is a band that’s trying too hard to – well, what they want to accomplish is the mystery, but it definitely isn’t about entertaining the listener. Yet again, they seem to be trying to straddle a non-existent line between art band and pop band, never realising that the latter is worthy of being art on its own terms. What they end up with manages to accomplish, well, not much worth listening to, for my money.

Oh, it isn’t horrible: they are talented musicians and songwriters, and that has value, but somehow it all just feels horribly flat when the whole package comes together in the grooves. When I look at the track listing, not a single title comes back to me in my imagination. I make notes (because I’m a non-professional, damnit), and from those I can tell you what stood out. But even if my future non-professional music writer status was on the line (it could happen), identifying without prompts what I liked about this album would tax me beyond recovery.

From those notes, I can tell you that Bryan Ferry’s odd vocal style sounds at times like an alien trying in vain to master the local tongue. That the songs are mostly too busy, with jarring tempo shifts and a wilful opposition to allowing anything that pleases the ear to continue unassailed. That a lot of this feels like progressive rock without the label.

As for the individual songs, I like the warped funk opening of “Amazona”, the interplay of drums and piano on “Just Like You”, the piano opening on “Sunset”. Besides these snippets, the powerful “A Song for Europe”, with its “Berlin”-era Lou Reed vibe, beautiful tinkling piano and tempo shifts that are not merely ornamental but increase the song’s drama, is the one track that feels like it finds a balance between whatever artistic statement the band is trying to make and actually giving pleasure to the listener.

I won’t escape Roxy Music anytime soon – two of their albums made the top 20 of the Pazz and Jop in 1975 (a year full of pairs). My hope is that even the embryo of the band that made “Avalon” had shown up by then. Otherwise, I may just recycle this post and change the names where appropriate.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #6

Bob Dylan & The Band – Before the Flood

When I was a boy, like many children of the 1970s, I took cod liver oil in capsule form. An earlier generation had taken the oil straight without the benefit of a digestible jelly hiding the taste. Because I was a boy, and therefore 95% idiot and 5% explorer, I naturally decided one day to bite into the capsule until it popped. My mouth was flooded with a taste of the sea so intense it was like mainlining a fish processing plant. And on that day, I learned that sometimes it’s best not to go below the surface of things: only disappointment – and a lifelong aversion to fish that tastes like, well, fish – will follow.

I don’t want to suggest that Bob Dylan is cod liver oil in this parable. But I also don’t want to not suggest that. My whole life as a consumer of music, and, relatedly, a reader about music, I have been told how great Dylan is. And when something is presented as being good by pretty much everyone, it is very hard to form your own opinion about it. If I like Dylan, am I really just being a sheep and not giving proper consideration to what I’m actually hearing? But if I don’t like him, who the hell am I to reject a Nobel laureate and Academy Award winner? Is it a good idea sometimes to just trust that something is good (for you), rather than have to find out what it tastes like for yourself? It’s the kind of conundrum I grapple with when I offer up these little opinion pieces.

The early 1970s were a (comparatively) fallow period in Dylan’s career, the first such period really, which is why we are now here, over 60 Pazz and Jop pieces in, finally encountering his music. And, man, did I luck out. Because instead of having to assess what I think about a bunch of unfamiliar tunes, I get to dip my toes in with a batch of old hits in a live setting. It completely gets me off the hook: it’s not like I’m going to come up with anything new to say about “Like A Rolling Stone”, and if I did stumble into something new, it wouldn’t be in writing about a live album where he plays a bunch of songs the world already knows.

Or maybe the world doesn’t know them as well as it thinks, because Dylan goes out of his way to twist things up here.The better you think you know a song, the more effort Dylan seems to take in rendering it just a hair unfamiliar. Everything feels fresh, poppier, more contemporary. There is a blues feel to parts of the record, and for a reprobate folkie, this album seriously rocks, although the notion of Dylan as a folk artist should’ve been put to bed long ago.

Dylan has famously pissed off – and existentially on – his audience, so one wonders how some fans responded to some of his reconsiderations on this record. For casual fans such as myself, it’s a revelation. His voice, like Joni Mitchell’s, has always weakened my appreciation of the artistry. But Bob sounds pretty good here. I mean, he’s still Bob, but there’s an energy and passion that is missing from the studio versions of some of these songs. He’s laying it out there, abandoning any notion of cool storytelling detachment. None of these songs are stripped down, with Dylan fully embracing the possibilities that come with having The Band behind him. He’s playing before large crowds, yet the record has the feel of a really dedicated cover band blowing through the middle set – always the best, with the crowd settled in and the band at peak energy, before the end of night lethargy sets in – at a small town bar on a sweaty Friday. The Band acquit themselves well – they were obviously more than a supporting act – but it still feels like Dylan’s show. But when they take centre stage partway through the record, it’s a welcome change of pace.

Favourites are the high energy opener, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, and a bouncy version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, always a powerful song, is richer for having a less ragged vocal, and “Just Like A Woman” likewise benefits from sounding less cynical. Finally, this version of “All Along the Watchtower” leans into ‘60s psychedelic, and feels like a record The Doors would’ve made if they had actually been smart as opposed to trying to sound smart.

One of these days – and I can see it in my headlights – I will have to bite the capsule and find out what I think about a batch of unfamiliar (to me) Dylan tunes. For now, I can enjoy the simple comforts of known truths.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #5

The Rolling Stones – It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll

I’ve never been comfortable with the notion that The Rolling Stones are the greatest rock and roll band in the world. It comes off as nothing but hype, the kind of thing dreamed up to get some press. There is a very good argument to be made that in 1969, when this tag was first given to them by the announcer at the outset of one of their shows (and not immediately disavowed by the band), they weren’t even the best band on their home island: The Beatles were still very much a thing, and The Who and Led Zeppelin were staking their claims to greatness. The arrogance of that moniker, especially in view of the diminishing returns of their 1970s records, contributed to the rise of punk in mid decade. And “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” seems to have played a big part in this.

As I have readily acknowledged previously, I am by no means an authority on The Rolling Stones (or anything, really), so I could be completely off base here, but this feels like the most rock album that I’ve encountered from them so far. It still has bluesy rhythms and the other genre-hopping markers that the band liked to play around with. But there is also a real commitment to pre-power ballads and excessively long songs for no apparent purpose other than to include extended guitar solos. You know – a rock record, as opposed to a more free-wheeling and uncloistered rock ‘n’ roll record.

And that excess and some weird experimentation, it seems, may have been the problem for the folks who were in the vanguard of punk. For them, the Stones weren’t a rock and roll band anymore. They were a rock band, and that signified a bunch of unattractive elements that just called out to be rebelled against. Rock was corporate, and took itself far too seriously: rock and roll was dirtier, and way more fun. And a lot of this album just isn’t much fun.

It sure starts out great, though. “You Can’t Rock Me” explodes out of the gate. It’s a real toe-tapper, with great work from Charlie Watts on the drums, and its failure to be released as a single further convinces me I would have just killed had I been making such decisions in the early ‘70s. The title track is justifiably legendary, even if the guitar sound feels like the shy cousin of Marc Bolan’s chug on “Get It On”. Keith Richard does some fantastic playing heading to the three-minute mark, and the song is a true anthem, with an amped-up country-blues feel. “Dance Little Sister” is another good one, a rollicking stomp with a heavy backbeat, honkytonk piano and a blistering guitar solo.

The forays into non-rock elements show up early, with a funky break 1:30 into the opening track. The sounds of Black artists seem particularly attractive to the lads. They include a cover of “Ain’t Too Proud to Bed” that offers nothing new but scuzz on the guitars and a bit of volume: Mick Jagger is great, but he can’t equal David Ruffin on the original. There’s a bizarre attempt by Mick to sound Jamaican on “Luxury”, they brought in Blue Magic to provide backing vocals on “If You Really Want To Be My Friend”, and “Fingerprint File”, which feels like it belongs on a different record, has a Sly Stone electro-funk vibe with the edges sanded down.

The peaks though are those ballads, highlighted by some all-world piano from Nicky Hopkins. “Til the Next Goodbye” has great cinematic images (“snow swirl around your hair”), pairing delicate beauty with an air of heartbreaking desperation. But it pales next to “Time Waits for No One”, a tale of loss and regret (“hours are like diamonds, don’t let them waste”) which goes on way too long initially then feels like it ends too soon. Hopkins again, subtle until he starts slamming on the keys over the last minute. A consistent, unobtrusive back beat from Watts. Deliciously melancholy guitar from Keith that deepens around 3:00 and becomes virtuosic after 4:00, and our reward for sticking around is Keith playing us out.

It’s a (mostly) good record, but, no, it’s not a fun one. There’s just way too much melancholy, too much self-important seriousness and experimentation for experimentation’s sake to be purely enjoyable. The peaks are marred by some overly long tracks and a few cringe moments (“Short and Curlies” is both), and, again, WTAF is Mick up to on “Luxury”. It feels a bit like a band trying to figure out its future, and relying on trickery to sustain it. That future had one last great record in it, but that was four years away, and the mid ‘70s found the Stones flailing a bit. No wonder the punks felt the crown was theirs for the taking if this was the best the world had to offer.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #4

Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale

The more I play an artist’s music, the closer I get to understanding them, or at least understanding what they are willing to let us see. In the early 1970s, Stevie Wonder, was a very spiritual and socially conscious man, and a true believer in romantic love. And, perhaps most importantly, he knew that sometimes you needed to put aside the seriousness and get down.

I always favour the upbeat Stevie, so the electro funk of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” rank highest from this album. The latter has fuzzy chords and slurred lyrics, paralleling the sexual despair of the narrator, but the pairing with tinkling piano, harmonica (has anyone ever loved a good harmonica solo like Stevie?) and an on-fire tempo make it a feel-good track. The former has a more sluggish beat, fitting for a peppy but far from light tune. Absent of funk but still upbeat is the toe-tapping “Smile Please”, which is very much of its era, conjuring up visions of men in brightly-coloured suits and big hair with wide collars and wider ties spinning women in flowing print dresses cut at mid calf across a lounge room dance floor.

As for romantic and spiritual Stevie, his ballads are too often sunny border­ing on sappy, with an undercurrent of obsession – especially “Creepin’” – and deep insecurity about the love in question. “Too Shy to Say” does a good job of balancing this with the piano in a lower register than Wonder’s voice. The deep vein of spirituality seen on his last few albums is tempered here somewhat, but still significant: “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” feels like a gospel song, and the repeated line – “feel it, feel His spirit” – leaves no room for doubt. The dirge-like piano opening of “They Won’t Go When I Go” soon turns into a hymn of sorts. It’s a beautiful song, but it unfortunately compels some great artists – Kanye and, more sadly because he seems like an awesome guy (and damned funny – check out his SNL bits as a basketball reporter on a new assignment), Chance the Rapper – to think they are singers. (They are not.)

The only real downside to Wonder’s records is that some of the songs begin to have the repetitive sameness of a wallpapered room. Some of this is at least partly a product of his early dabbling with synthesized sounds: on many tracks, the notes seem to blur together, flowing, indistinct. And he has an all-star team of past, present and future hitmakers on backing vocals – Paul Anka, The Jackson 5, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams – but none of them really stand out: it’s Stevie’s show, no matter who (including bass legend James Jamerson) comes along for the ride.

There are few matches in pop music history for the acclaim that Wonder received for his five-album run from 1972 to 1976. Retrospective consideration of those records has defined a clear top 3 – “Songs in the Key of Life” (coming to this blog, at the current rate, sometime in late 2023) with “Innervisions” close behind, then “Talking Book” a distant third – followed, way back, by “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”. I don’t really understand the gap, because this is a damned good album, and well worth a listen or five.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #3

Randy Newman – Good Old Boys

There is nothing at stake here, so I can be brutally honest: this album is sort of boring.

There’s a difficulty at the heart of all of Randy Newman’s work: he writes (mostly) great songs that he then, unfor­tunately, chooses to perform himself, often with little more than his own piano-playing as an accompaniment. His observational lyrics (gently skewered by “Family Guy”) force you to pay attention, but rarely does the music part of the song do the same.

The early part of the album has a sluggish ragtime feel, as if each track should be playing over a sepia-toned title card in a black-and-white silent movie. It’s a fitting style, as much of the lyrical content deals with an ironic longing for the American south of the pre-civil rights era (with some pointed smartassery about northern hypocrisy), but ragtime itself has more variety than these tunes. There are odd moments of excitement that slip in – a country echo in “Birmingham”, the hint of a tropical feel in “Naked Man”, sneaky southern rock forays in bits of “Kingfish” and “Back on My Feet Again” – but these really just highlight the sameness of the rest. Even those clever lyrics become a problem: unless you already understand this going in, it can be challenging to get Newman’s point of view when almost everything is sung sarcastically.

The record is not without its moments. “Marie” is a delicate love song from an unworthy lover, and “Every Man A King” (co-written by Huey Long, the subject of “Kingfish”) is a snappy honkytonk ditty with a rich chorus from Eagles on a daycation. But in its entirety, the album left me with little compelling reason to listen to it again, since, unlike the very best music, I have no expectation of being surprised or brought to joy on any future play. Which is fine – there are lots of records that do that for me already.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #2

Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic

The word that always comes to mind when I listen to Steely Dan is “lush”. The music is complex and perfectly played, the lyrics clever and insightful. Listening, you can’t help but feel a bit more elevated than with the usual pop, with all its messy emotion and histrionics. It can feel downright extravagant to allow yourself to wallow in these songs. It’s music for a concert hall, not a bar or repurposed hockey arena or ballpark.

Yet, for all the richness, it somehow manages to be understated at the same time. Donald Fagen never once seems caught up in what he’s singing about – he is simply the reporter of others’ misadventures, calmly giving you the details. Is it wrong to want something else from them? I know Steely Dan isn’t that kind of band – and I love them for it – but can anything so absent of danger properly be considered rock ‘n’ roll? They seem more of a jazz ensemble playing within the pop idiom, which sounds great, but without the unpredictability that can make jazz so exciting to listen to, there is nothing here to get the heart racing.

To an untrained ear, which definitely includes my pair, it all sort of sounds the same – other than the hits, with their built-in goodwill, very little jumps out and makes you take notice. The band definitely play with genre – the mild salsa feel early in “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”, the funky guitar of “Night by Night”, the bluesy beat of “Pretzel Logic”, the rollicking hillbilly vibe of “With A Gun” (my favourite song on the record) – but it almost always ends up sublimated to the Steely Dan sound. The one strong exception is the goofy old timey feel of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, which would benefit from being a bit ragged – perfectly played, it has a sort of pointless wonderment to it.

In the end, for all its beauty, I felt unmoved by the seemingly effortless cool of “Pretzel Logic”. It is high end background music, the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent doing the laundry, or for when you’re stuck waiting to see a doctor and the magazines are all out of date. Certainly not what the band was aiming for, but worthy nonetheless – we all have unavoidable tasks to get through and they are made more palatable by a pleasing soundtrack.