Matt on Music: Donald Fagen's 'Sunken Condos'


Of all the “greatest bands of all time,” Steely Dan has always been one of the more bizarre ones. Featuring two core members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and backed by studio musicians, Steely Dan is a jazz-rock band that formed in the ’70s. What differentiates them from most jazz-rock bands is Fagen and Becker’s keen understanding of both jazz and rock, as well as their perfectionist recording style (my favorite Steely Dan album, “Katy Lied,” is famously hated by the two due to its supposedly poor sound quality).

When the band broke up in 1981, Becker began producing records and waited thirteen years to finally record and release a solo album (by the time he finally did, he and Fagen had already started performing together again). Fagen, however, responded by taking a year to record a solo album, 1982’s “The Nightfly,” which is still a fantastic album and has aged as well as the best Steely Dan albums.

Becker’s long period without recording his own stuff was mostly due to personal issues, but, either way, Fagen has always proven to be a superior solo musician. Thus, his new album, “Sunken Condos,” is one that I’ve been highly anticipating.

When I turned on “Sunken Condos” for the first time, I was surprised by how fantastic the opening track, “Slinky Thing,” was. With incredibly funky music, including noticeable double-bass, and Fagen’s signature cynical lyrics (“Went to a party/Everybody stood around/Thinking hey, what’s she doing/With a burned out hippy clown?”), it makes a promise right off the bat that this will be the best solo album he’s released since “The Nightfly.” The rest of the eight songs deliver on that promise.

Throughout the nine songs, Fagen’s obsessive perfectionism is obvious. I’m not a fan of perfection in music myself, and I get a certain amount of joy when I find out that a song I like was recorded in one take. Fagen and Steely Dan are exceptions, though. Recorded between 2010 and 2012, the production credits to “Sunken Condos” contain a large number of studio musicians, all whom have helped make this one of the biggest-sounding albums of the year.

On “Memorabilia,” Fagen places a brilliant pop melody over a slow jazz instrumental. Meanwhile, both “Weather in My Head” (the best song on the album) and “Miss Marlene” feature brilliant guitar work. “Out of the Ghetto,” meanwhile, is an Isaac Hayes cover that tops the original.

These songs all follow the Steely Dan formula, but it’s hard to imagine a new album by the band being nearly this enjoyable. Of course, since no new Steely Dan albums have been released in nine years, it may seem that the acclaim “Sunken Condos” has received is due to the lack of recent material. But, Becker’s second solo album was released four years ago, and it was just as “okay” as his first.

“Sunken Condos” is just a wonderful album overall. It’s addicting enough to make one eager for more, but don’t be. Being eager for new Steely Dan material would just result in years of disappointment.

Key tracks: “Weather in My Head,” “Memorabilia,” “Slinky Thing” and “Miss Marlene.”

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