Tag Archives: steely dan

Dan Funk

I used to get sneered or laughed at for professing a love of Steely Dan. They all know. Nothing on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is so redolent of the 1970s-El-Lay-in-a-convertible vibe as “Fragments of Time”—a minor track on a maximalist album—but the approach Tomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo took, which is very much a throwback to the era of studious musicianship, permeates every moment of the album.

The signs are obvious and telling. The presence of session musicians who appeared on Thriller. The endorsement-via-occasional-fretwork from Nile Rodgers—one half of the disco hit machine Chic. The tacit foregrounding of guest stars, such as Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Just as Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew when to defer to the wisdom of the very best jazz musicians of their era, so do the French house duo (goodness, it feels reductive to label them as such anymore) take a backseat role from time to time, watching their creation unfurl like film directors.

It unfurls, and blossoms, and flourishes with a million orgiastic confetti-trails—when it absolutely has to. At other times, the album peddles a pretty relaxed aesthetic, as on much of the opener. “Give Life Back To Music” is a bold manifesto, but the delivery is subdued—bar the occasional guitar-and-synth swell. Daft Punk, and Rodgers, know when a few well-placed chucks of guitar can say just as much as a John Williams-sequence orchestral flourish. When those sweeping, gushing strings do make an entrance, as on “Touch”, they don’t steal from the song’s other engaging components. In the case of the eight-minute centrefold, there are intergalactic squiggles, a children’s choir, and Paul Williams’s elegiac crooning—and they all hold their own.

The other song with a bombastic orchestral arrangement is “Giorgio By Moroder”, and it might be the best song here. As you’ll well know, it features an oral history of the pioneering disco producer, narrated by the great man himself (and with each chapter recorded into a different era’s microphone). Look past the gimmickry of this; even dare to look past the craziness of the song’s structure (in its concluding passage, a drum solo from Omar Hakim does battle with disc-scratching and Guitar Hero-worthy tapping)—this is a song about Daft Punk lionizing the great ‘directors’ of music, who struggled and toiled till, eventually, their genius was appreciated. Moroder slept in the back of his car and borrowed a professor’s Moog modular; Becker and Fagen had to break free from the suburbs, and day-jobs as pop songwriters. So Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had to retire the samples and the drum machines, the cut-up vocals and the sequenced Van Halen. The vocoders remained, but little else.

Given the anticipation, the hype, and the terrifyingly slick marketing assault mounted by Columbia Records, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the wider impact of Random Access Memories. Daft Punk’s first two, iconoclastic albums spawned a thousand imitators, as did their totemic live performances atop a pyramid (consider how they ushered in the era of the globe-trotting, laptop-toting celebrity DJ). In both albums’ cases, the legacy subsumed memories of that which made the original great. Homework was loving pastiche from fanboys in their teenage bedrooms, but it begat monolithic slabs of artless house music. Discovery was delicately glam and nuanced, but what followed quickly grew monotonous and bereft of personality. For better or worse (but ultimately worse) the pop world’s string-pullers slavishly adopted Daft Punk’s poses. In the French pair’s near-six year absence, several banal trends in electronic music captivated pop music. First, there was the formulaic, tiresome dance music best exemplified by Tiesto. Then, there was the ineluctable rise of bro-step. Both are dreary, and don’t merit much description.

At Steely Dan’s zenith, copycats tried to apply the same slick arrangements to lesser material. No one had the wit or charm or chops to ape Becker and Fagen. The same arc will follow Random Access Memories. If it makes Madonna, or some other superstar, or at least their manager, look up and change course, we’ll have much to thank Daft Punk for. As the ubiquity of ”Get Lucky” on mainstream radio stations and at the dying hours of a thousand house-parties has shown, conventional tastes are fickle, sporadic and non-linear. The effect will only be transient, but might heal a few bleeding ears.

Of course, Steely Dan were more grounded in the society they lived in than Bangalter and de H.-C., neither hiding behind masks nor letting their songs escape into orbit. The themes addressed on Random Access Memories are universal—the power of love to overcome, the joy music brings to our lives—rather than socially provocative or analytical. But I challenge listeners to spend very long with the album before returning to its slickness and willingness to engage with genres deemed uncool—the Broadway musical (“Touch”), New Age piano (“Within”), world music (“Motherboard”). It’s in this respect that comparisons with Aja feel appropriate.

The closing track on Random Access Memories, “Contact”, is screamingly portentous, but the way it collapses in on itself rather than building to a colossal finale suggests Daft Punk have a well-cultivated sense of humour that’s sui generis. The first time I heard the song, I thought they were closing a chapter, not just on their career, but on the age of recorded music. It is a terminus, I proposed, after which no further musical journeys are possible. Repeated listens brought greater solace: it’s actually more of a sonic joke; like a shonky electronic experiment by Delia Derbyshire. Daft Punk sit atop the charts, however improbably, but they won’t sell millions—few auteurs do. But the most commercially viable aspects of their new groove will trickle down, in diluted form, to lowest common denominator pop music. And they’ll be chuckling about that, too.


“Put an ocean and a river between everything, yourself and home.” Sometimes, Matt Berninger seems to advise in The National’s “England”, you have to get a little distance between you and the things, and people, dear to you. Paul Haggis’s “Crash” was a clunky metaphor for how Los Angelenos are only brought together by traumatic collisions. Before germ theory found currency, people thought the origin of epidemics lay in ‘bad air’, or, miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter. Continue reading Miasma

Chord changer, life changer

It’s the rule that 80 per cent of what’s written about James Mercer’s The Shins should refer to Natalie Portman’s gushing endorsement in Garden State.

“You gotta hear this one song — it’ll change your life; I swear”,

is what she said in the 2004 film, referring to “New Slang”. But I don’t think The Shins changed too many people’s lives, mainly because Mercer’s creativity seemed to have dried up soon after the release of 2007’s Wincing The Night Away. That album was clearly the work of an auteur and his sometime bandmates—emotionally disenchanted, studio-laden, heavy with storytelling—and the story behind this new comeback album, Port Of Morrow, does little to dispel the prevailing attitude. Very publicly, this time, Mercer shoved away his old band, bringing to bear the idea that they were only ever bit-part players. Very privately, he holed himself up in studios with Greg Kurstin, an old hand who has worked with an array of chart-friendly pop singers, to create a subtle and elegantly understated gem of a record. Continue reading Chord changer, life changer

Field Music — Plumb

Nothing divides opinion like prog. Some lap it up; others despise it; few just “tolerate” it. Field Music, which is a distinctly average name for the partnership of David and Peter Brewis, are often mistaken for prog, but this doesn’t quite hit the mark: prog is dogged, and riffs on the same theme for an extended period of time before veering into a new and sometimes unexciting direction. Field Music may explore a diverse range of instruments and textures and genres in their work but, by contrast, they are restless, skitting from sound to sound like schoolboys let loose in a sweetshop.

The Brewis brothers, who are Sunderland natives and wear their small-town heritage proudly on their sleeves, last released an LP in 2010: Field Music (Measure) was an expansive double album with a second half heavy on bucolic ambience which was sui generis compared with their previous work. The first half was at once more familiar, but also steeped in the shock of the new—more swagger in the guitars on “Each Time Is A New Time”, more seduction in the Princely funk of “Let’s Write A Book”. It was weird, didn’t really work in a live setting, and I loved it.

Seventy minutes versus thirty-five. That’s the first thing that hits you when you look at …Measure’s follow-up, the obtusely titled Plumb. This new release is half the size but bristles with energy, engaging with snippets of moods and scenes across its fifteen songs, which run the gamut between forty-second interludes to three-minute pocket epics. Field Music refuse to settle, as evidenced by their inter-album transformations, and also by the intra-album prevarication which typifies Plumb.

“I want a different idea of what / Better can be that / Doesn’t necessitate having more useless / Shit.”

Lyrically, they’re certainly on more well-worn terrain, exploring the minutiæ of drizzly, transport-laden, indecisive England. There are lyrical sighs on this album which could power entire episodes of Countdown, Antiques Roadshow or Look East. Love is always unrequited, and any anger (“My generation are opting out of choosing sides”, from “Choosing Sides”, is at once fed-up and wistful) quickly dissipates into a wave of deference.

But one mistakes this cosiness for inertia at one’s peril: thematically, there is definite progression from previous Field Music releases. For example, the questioning song-titles (“Who’ll Pay The Bills?”, “Is This The Picture?”, “How Many More Times?”) speak of generational dissatisfaction and a sadness at the age of austerity. It’s not a universal proclamation that “Modern life is rubbish”—in fact, the brothers’ view of society is far more nuanced, and tinged with pleasant anecdotes.

The social commentary may put Plumb in the realm of Gang of Four and XTC, but the scope of styles, tempos, time signatures and textures skated over evades comparison. Compositionally, the album is frequently dazzling and broad. To consider just one exotic pairing, the rousing and punkish final track, “(I Keep Thinking Abou) A New Thing” is preceded by three minutes of bruised krautrock, “Just Like Everyone Else”. Elsewhere, we find homemade found sounds competing against crisp and intricate beats (as in “A New Town”—see top of article) and, in general, there is a great deal more variety than the electric piano fallback of old. The sweetshop analogy rings true, with assiduous selections of stringed instruments, obscure keyboards, and the occasional mournful tuba.

There are also moments of supreme tenderness—as in “A Prelude to Pilgrim Street”, which could have soundtracked one of those awkward scenes in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the stately”So Long Then”—which is not an emotion associated with either post-punk or prog. But tenderness does lie at the heart of what Field Music are really about: sweet pop music, refracted into a thousand disparate pieces.

Duffers are harder to ignore in a thirty-five minute song-cycle, compared with the odyssey that was Field Music (Measure): “From Hide And Seek to Heartache” quickly wears on the listener, for one. But this remains an album of understated brilliance; seldom showy, there is always a treat of a three-part vocal harmony or an elegant string arrangement just around the corner. It might be an album that you initially admire, and eventually love. How long that journey takes is probably an English settlement.

Plumb by Field Music was released on 13th February 2012 by Memphis Industries.

Becker’s band of Brewis brothers

It’s a known fact that I got into Steely Dan through listening to and loving Field Music’s second album, Tones of Town. Criminally underrated at the peak of their powers, Field Music will this month release their fourth album, Plumb—their second since a change of line-up that saw the Brewis brothers augmented by Ian Black and Kevin Dosdale. (You can read my review of this incarnation of Field Music in concert here.)

Nowadays, Field Music sound like a cross between Fleetwood Mac and XTC, but circa Tones of Town there was a delicious interplay between jazz and the baroque in their music, which I recently traced back to a little gem of a song by Steely Dan.

“Through With Buzz”, from 1974’s Pretzel Logic (for a fuller description of that album’s virtues, see here), is a quasi-interlude which sets up the album’s final third. With its crisp piano chords in the first part, yearning strings in the second, and a little foray into Motown in the third, it exemplifies the sophistication in Steely Dan’s arrangements. To see that complexity writ large, listen to its preceding song, “Parker’s Band” (see below).

More to the point, it is flattered by near-emulation in Field Music’s own expository interlude, “A Gap Has Appeared” (see below). The familiar elements are in place: piano-work a lesser listener might compare to Billy Joel; emotive cello; and then a surprisingly vivacious, jazzy drum track.

And that’s how you draw a line from Los Angeles to Tyne & Wear.

The Holy Ghost of Michael McDonald

You might know of my straight-faced love of Steely Dan, a jazzy duo who at their peak relied on the very best session singers and musicians. One such singer was Michael McDonald, whose husky and resonant tones are not that dissimilar from the digitally smeared vocals Karin Dreijer Andersson trickles over her songs as Fever Ray.

McDonald went on to found the Doobie Brothers, but not before he did backup vocals on classics like “Peg” and “I Got The News“. And McDonald’s trademark pipes get around even today, cropping up now and again on other people’s songs. In 2009 he appeared on a B-side version of Grizzly Bear‘s “While You Wait For The Others“, which showcases his distinctive voice in a lead setting. The original version was led by Daniel Rossen, who has a pretty honeyed voice, but McDonald has a beefier go at it, and then tackles the complex vocal arrangement in the song’s final minute, augmenting it with soaring accents.

More recently still, DFA quasi-heirs Holy Ghost! brought in McDonald for the closing song on their eponymous debut, “Some Children“. Like many of the songs on Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest album, “Some Children” has a natty choral arrangement, but Holy Ghost! are totally different in every other way. No intricate baroque pop in sight, they make sleek electro-by-numbers which can come across rather characterless. They know their way round a disco bassline, and the DFA production team gives it the requisite layers of vintage Clavinet and close-miked live drums, but it can veer off into anonymity.

Not so “Some Children”, which is reined in by McDonald’s lead vocals. On this occasion, he makes a sweet song more sultry—his curious phrasing has the effect of virtually slowing the verses down, before unleashing a richly textured extended outro, with his harmonies piercing through the stacked choir. It’s a really lovely, fitting finale which restores my confidence in the band—and pays Michael McDonald’s heating bills.

Why do McDonald’s vocal talents still appeal? He doesn’t have an equivalent in contemporary popular music, which has increasingly become the territory of more polarised singers (dramatic falsetto on the one hand, pained baritone on the other). Moreover, the kind of complex arrangements he specialised in has become the preserve of composers, and not multi-taskers (think of Nico Muhly, for example). So, perhaps when a band goes hunting for a man who can do it all, and add an inimitable personality to a song, it’s unsurprising they alight upon him. If that’s the case, go forth and multiply.

Five weeks; an eternity

I spent most of the summer travelling through three proximate but culturally distinct Central American countries—Mexico (specifically the Yucatán Peninsula), Cuba, and Belize. Not a typical trio to cover in one trip, but like I said, they were next to each other on a map, and like I didn’t say, I wanted to put as much distance between myself and university as possible. So that happened.

Even though the summer is traditionally a Siberian outpost as far as new music is concerned, I got back and felt like I must, surely, have missed out something big. Amy Winehouse had died while I was in Cuba, but that didn’t really count. I wanted there to have been a massive album release or new discovery that I would be forced to retrospectively acclimatise myself to; instead, there was the silly-season mush, with a few glimpses of quality piercing through a fog of festivals. The internet, it seemed, hadn’t taken kindly to my disappearance off the face of the earth (a sample comment posted on my Facebook wall read: “if you could find yourself it would be a great help, we’ve been looking everywhere, under tables, in little bins, nooks and crannies, inside the LSE penguin, google earth, but you are so little you’re not really there”), and had retaliated by sinking into indifference.

I came back and the most significant thing I could think to do, against the backdrop of starting a new job, was tackling another Steely Dan album. (For those who don’t know, several years ago, on a post-Field Music high, I bought the entire Steely Dan discography on iTunes for £7.99. An education.) Previously, I immersed myself in Aja and The Royal Scam. The former was known to be a career highlight, but also the perfect manifestation of the difficult duo at their most arch and pretentious; I loved it. The latter was the album which preceded it, and was less effusively praised; I loved it.

Now, I took on Pretzel Logic—the last album they made as a normal band i.e. the people writing the music also played the music, and then went and toured in support of the music. It’s also the album that is given the most unqualified plaudits, perhaps because the songs on it are economical, relatively conventional in structure, and less inward-looking than the jazzier compositions on Aja. Now that I have heard thoroughly three of Steely Dan’s albums, I can begin to spot their favourite chord progressions as they unravel; the same goes for their preferred guitar tones, and also the stacked harmonies they put to good use in choruses. Listening to three of their albums in reverse chronological order, as I have done (though Katy Lied, which fits in between Pretzel Logic and The Royal Scam, is still to be broken in), is an interested exercise in that it has allowed me to observe their musical hallmarks in a kind of reverse-evolution.

Whereas certain structures in the human body (e.g. the eye) seem irreducibly complex, the aforementioned Steely Dan hallmarks become, if anything, more appealing the simpler they get. So now, having appreciated the band at the apex of their existence as a ‘rock’ band (a misnomer, but it’ll do), I can see why their later albums are less universally admired. Pretzel Logic is a very fine album, with tasteful musicianship but also a more explicit sense of the fun that sometimes got lost in black humour and tricksy rhythms on the other two albums. The songs zip along tidily, and when they are at their most canonical, e.g. the folky “With A Gun”, it is easy to ascribe to the view that so much recent music is essentially derivative—and only occasionally does justice to the source material (see LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Girls).

I shall finish by quoting one of my own tweets: this may be a bad move, but it neatly presages the next few months of this blog.

See you next time.

Field Music — Scala (03/03/10)

Photos: Richard Gray

The Brewis brothers are clearly extremely gifted musicians, who write songs (under the banner of Field Music) which are intricately arranged, structurally complex, and traditionally evoke XTC, Steely Dan and the Beach Boys. None of this makes their music particularly easy to love – though their Geordie voices are thick with region, they rarely let their emotional guards down, hence why some critics have labelled their music cold and mechanical and knowingly tricksy.

None of this can prepare me for witnessing them live – an environment which accentuates their flaws as well as their virtues. Augmented by Ian Black and Kevin Dosdale on bass and guitar respectively, the band launch into Tones of Town opener, “Give It Lose It Take It” amidst found sound, glockenspiels, rousing piano and thoroughly excellent drumming. For a few songs at least, the playfulness is plain to see, and the predominantly Sunderland-bookish crowd rewards them with a whole lotta love.

When the band cut to newer material, taken from the recent Field Music (Measure) double-album, the response is notably muted, because the band have to an extent abandoned the bucolic textures of their earlier work, in favour of a more guitar-based aesthetic that owes much more to Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and, on occasion, Queen. However, bereft of the intense personality bestowed upon these progenitors, the songs sound strangely lurching and mathematical. Though Field Music are, individually, some of the funniest, warmest and most virtuosic musicians, the sum is sadly less than its constituent parts.

All the more infuriating is just how playful and quick-witted the band seem in between songs, where they deal with all manner of obstacles, from troublesome electricals to the bassist’s Hawaiian shirt. The Prince-meets-Sunderland funk of “Let’s Write A Book” is very much the exception to this disappointing revelation – for once, the groove is remarkably simple, and it evinces the band’s personality. For the middle chunk of the performance, songs like “Something Familiar” and “Each Time Is A New Time” are dispatched with maximum skill (replete with tasteful bluesy guitar licks) but less-than satisfactory enjoyment.

I have really loved Field Music for far too long, championing them to my friends when their chips were down. Now, after a three-year hiatus, I find it hard to empathise with their new direction which, though on record comes across as lovingly crafted and “makes sense”, doesn’t work that well on stage. Though the band pad out the pure Field Music work with excerpts from their solo albums, I left with mixed opinions of a band who I thought I had really figured out.

The return of Field Music!

Back in 2007, I got very very obsessed with the sophomore album from Sunderland’s Field Music, a 30-minute progressive punk art rock odyssey into the mundanity of small-town life. In borrowing the least lifestyle elements of Steely Dan and fusing them to a jerkiness that recalled Wire, the then-trio (comprised of the two brothers Brewis, and their friend Andrew Moore) created a masterpiece that provided concise chunks of song that packed in a multitude of musical ideas – from Billy Joel-esque piano, to crisp beatboxing. Tones of Town was magnificent, and its lack of fame was nigh-upon criminal. When the band announced they were going on hiatus, I practically cried myself to sleep.

Well now, via several intriguing side projects, they’re back. And in a more expansive mood, clearly, because their forthcoming third album, entitled Field Music (Measure), is a double album, with twenty songs that aren’t afraid to be less cohesive, in a manner apparently styled after Tusk and The Beatles. Predictably, I’m very excited, especially since the band (now a four piece, sans Moore) are whetting our appetites with two choice cuts from the album.

The first, “Each Time Is A New Time”, cruises in on a liquid bassline and some pretty FM-rock guitar, backed up by typically intricate drumming. When the vocals come in, the way they harmonise and interlock is sophisticated and aurally pleasing. Halfway through, the song cuts to a stripped-down passage that builds back up with insistently mellifluous guitar figures, wordless chanting and military percussion, before breaking straight back to the original riff. And then, in true Field Music style, it’s over.

The second sample, the title track, “Measure”, explodes from a suitably baroque string arrangement into a clanging, rustling, piano-led groove. The band has not lost its knack of combining the ancient with the modern, as the vocal interplay and hand claps (which sit alongside the strings, and some very steely guitar) will testify. The mood is wistful and meandering, interspersed with occasional shouts that recall Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac. As the song fades out to looped strings and a thrumming beat, I can’t help but feel a wave of relief that the band has stretched away from the brilliant style they had previously perfected, in order to explore new ground.

Both songs are little gems, and, wonderfully, both are available for free, from the band’s charming website. Field Music (Measure) is released 16th February 2010, on Memphis Industries, and promises to be one of the year’s most intriguing albums, not only in terms of scope and scale, but also in terms of the fascinating, filigree-like music it will contain.

10.0 albums

Are there any albums that I would award a score of 10.0, Pitchfork style? Well, being a bit more generous in places than Pitchfork, yes. There is still a little bit of overlap between the two sets of albums (the Pitchfork one used to be a group page on Wikipedia, but I think it’s since disappeared), but there are also some fairly substantial differences. Without further ado:

Amon Tobin – Supermodified

Arcade Fire – Funeral

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

David Bowie – Low

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

Gorillaz – Demon Days

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver

Led Zeppelin – IV

Massive Attack – Mezzanine

Modest Mouse – The Moon And Antarctica

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf

Radiohead – OK Computer

Radiohead – Kid A

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun

Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

Steely Dan – Aja

Talking Heads – Remain In Light

Tortoise – TNT

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

The main thing with this list that it overlooks possible faults with individual songs on albums in the pursuit of perfection as a whole. A 10.0 album, in my book, should be cohesive and thematic, without necessarily needing to have every song nailed.