Plenty of things change over a 40-plus-year career in music. Tastes mature. Trends come and go. But Donald Fagen is a man of tradition. A man who believes it’s important to hold true to the groundwork laid down by the legends of Jazz, R&B and soul. Maybe that’s why his albums have such lasting power.
Listening to a Donald Fagen album is like a cinematic experience, where the stories and the music blend together beautifully to create an engaging narrative. Each song is like a short film, complete with in-depth character development and intricate plot lines. This has been true from his first solo release, The Nightfly (1982), all the way through his latest album entitled, Sunken Condos.
Sunken Condos, released under Reprise Records, is another masterful record by Fagen. At 65 years old, the jazz/rockmaestro sounds as smooth and funky as ever. The album features 8 new original tunes, as well as a cover of Isaac Hayes’ classic soul number, “Out of the Ghetto.” Which stands out as the only real departure from the timeless “Fagen sound.”
The first track immediately grabs your attention. A thumping upright bass line and hip-hop snare drum cracks lead the way for a funky clavinet melody and interspersed guitar licks. “Slinky Thing” sets the tone for the album and quickly introduces the playful nature of Fagen’s lyrics. The tune describes an older man who finds himself spending time with a much younger woman.
“Today we were strolling by the reptile age. I’m thinking ‘Does she need somebody who’s closer to her own age?’ Try not to worry what tomorrow may bring. I’m just going to do my best to hold on to that slinky thing.”
As the album continues, Fagen tells stories about overcoming lost love, a sassy young bowling queen and a bank heist crew, all of which possess their own little twists and satirical references. Not to mention elements of blues, jazz, funk and soul. All the best ingredients.
Aside from the talents Fagen brings to the table, his band lifts the tunes to another level. Sweeping guitar solos, tasteful horn arrangements, soulful harmonies and a locked-down rhythm section add an unwavering pulse to this album. A primary contributor to the sound was Fagen’s co-producer, Michael Leonhart, who is also the touring trumpeter for Steely Dan. Fagen not only had confidence in Leonhart behind the board, but also entrusted him to compose all of the horn arrangements. Leonhart also played many instruments on the album, including handling the drum duties on every track. In fact, with Fagen and Leonhart playing so much on the record, the two had some fun with linear notes and created the pseudonyms Earl Cooke, Jr. (Leonhart) on drums and Harlan Post (Fagen) on bass. The multi-talented Leonhart added considerable musicianship to every tune, and is a certain rising star in the jazz world.
At age sixty-five, it’s hard to say how much more performing or writing Donald Fagen will do. But if Sunken Condos is nothing else, it’s a testament to his musical longevity and an indicator that he can continue to create beautiful, meaningful, groovin’ music.
Written by Ryan Engelbert
OurVinyl | Contributor