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What Did I Realize When Listening To Steely Dan’s New Record Store Day Vinyl Release?

Mark Smotroff realizes it really doesn’t mean a thing without some swing…

When Steely Dan put out its first reunion record in 2000 it was a very exciting time. Two Against Nature was their first album since 1980. There was much anticipation and excitement in the air. Indeed, the album won four — count ‘em, 4! — Grammys that year and is generally considered a fine comeback album. I bought the CD and I have enjoyed it over the years. No problems.

I even have the second of the reunion albums — Everything Must Go — on DVD Audio Disc, so I can listen to it in 5.1 surround. 

So when it was announced that Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go were coming out on vinyl for the first time on Record Store Day — actually, in the U.S. I suspect is what they meant as there was apparently a limited run in Europe back in 2000 on a single LP — there was much reason to again rejoice. 

Back cover and record label for 2000 European single LP version

Indeed, anticipation for getting those Steely Dan reunion albums were a big buzz among many when talking with fans waiting in line at Amoeba Music. So much so, that it was difficult to actually get a copy that day. I was only able to buy Two Against Nature and my buddy Frank who was right next to me didn’t get either of them! (Frank later got both at Stranded Records… I still need to get the second one!) 

Now, as I usually do, I went back to the original album for a refresher listen before I dove into the new-and-improved, latest-greatest incarnation. The first thing that jumped out at me when I was listening to the CD — which was the original for me at the time save for the elusive DVD Audio version which I’ve yet to get my hands on — was how straight ahead the drum parts were. 

2021 LP label

Now don’t get me wrong here as basically Two Against Nature sounds great on the new first time LP version. The dark black vinyl pressing is wonderful, 180-grams thick and dead quiet. The recording sounds pretty warm and round too. All those things are in place.  A three-sided LP release, I had to dig down into the original CD booklet and the included insert sheet to be reminded about the source of the curious images of sprinting reindeer etched on to the fourth side of the set. 

I had not listened to Two Against Nature in a while so I re-acquainted myself listening in the car mostly.  The hooks in these songs are more subtle than earlier albums, but they do their thing as most Steely Dan records will do. Little earworms work their way into your brain, across songs like the lyrically creepy “Cousin Dupree,” the classic-Dan-sounding “What A Shame About Me,” the Royal-Scam-flavored “Jack of Speed” and the title track. 

So that is all good…  

But I keep coming back to the ultra-steady drums for some reason. I don’t even remember noticing this detail back in the day but at times this feels like its being played by a sequencer.  I don’t think it is, however. But it raised a question (in my mind at least) of whether a drum beat can be too precise, timingg-wise? 

Questioning my own memory, I went back to listen to earlier Steely Dan albums… And there indeed it was: that sort of simplistic drumming — where the groove is the central focus — dating back to their earliest hits!  

So clearly, that wasn’t the problem. But what was missing for me?

While Aja is a drummer’s dream for soloing and all sorts of mad jazz inspired innovation, there still always seemed to be something absent to my ear in Steely Dan’s recordings from Gaucho onwards. 

And then it hit me what was out of the picture (again, at least for me):  while the newer songs are perfectly in time and sound great and they groove just fine… they don’t really swing.

Yes, swing. 

In 1931 Duke Ellington wrote “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and I think there is some truth to that concept in all forms of popular music even today. One of the reasons I love a group like Tank & The Bangas — who create a wonderful mash up of hip hop, rock, jazz, rap, soul, blues and even spoken word — is that they know how to swing

By 2000 most recording artists were no doubt recording to click tracks and even using samples, so a certain amount of machine-time aesthetic is bound to creep in. I get it. It is part of our musical culture, the flavor of this moment in music production evolution. It isn’t a problem with all of the songs on Two Against Nature but I can’t help but be conscious of these wonderfully relentless grooves that don’t really seem, to my ear, to breathe as much as they might have.

Even on some of the earlier Steely Dan songs with super steady grooves, the drummers would break up the monotony with little fills, a cymbal ting here, a dropped beat there, whatever. And those things do happen here… but in micro-doses… and…somehow the resulting music ultimately feels a bit sleepy at times.

All this does make me wonder if in the archives somewhere there might be an alternate version of these songs with more dynamic drum parts?  Will we ever hear archival Steely Dan sessions getting released for Record Store Day?  We can only hope.

That could be enlightening and even exciting.  

Until then, fortunately we have their amazing catalog of music which they have gifted to the universe and I can always go back to more rocking and swinging albums like my favorites, Katy Lied and Royal Scam

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