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Steely Dan - Two Against Nature
(Giant/Reprise)

Still perverts after all these years.

And thank Heavens. Moreover, thankfully they're also still perverts with a penchant for chord changes most improbable in a pop idiom and hooks so huge Erykah Badu could hang her headwrap on them. Yes, the first new batch of Steely Dan songs in 20 years really does pick up where they left off with Gaucho. And like cornbread, there ain't nothing wrong with that.

Sure, there are no real "rock" tracks on Two Against Nature; one longs for just one searing, fast-paced burst of rock energy like "Black Friday" or "Rose Darling." The tempos here are mostly loping, the beats per minute counts rather low. But Messrs. Fagen and Becker specialize in creating songs that are exciting and cool—always, always indescribably cool—and come off as so off-handed, yet clearly take massive honing, planning, refining. The jazz chords in songs like "Negative Girl" and "West Of Hollywood" don't fall out of the sky and into pop songs.

It's a testament to Steely Dan's genius that the songs on such a meticulously planned album come off sounding natural, spontaneous, very much of-the-moment. Every note here is deliberate. Yet, amazingly, none of it sounds the least bit forced, none of it could ever be duplicated with precise accuracy. And considering the jazz mindset from which it springs, nor would it be appropriate to try to exactly match these recordings live or in any setting. The band's tradition of employing different musicians for specific songs is played to the hilt here, with no fewer than six different men playing drums on the album's nine tracks. With Fagen, Becker, and trumpet player Michael Leonhart spearheading the arrangements that include tons of tasty horns, keyboards, jazzy harmony vocals, and the occasional bursts of guitar—check out Becker's simple, elegant solo on perhaps the most quintessentially Dan-sounding song on the record, "Jack Of Speed." There are moments in which the sound veers perilously close to a "smooth jazz" groove, but, again, each such potential tragedy is avoided by the musicians' and arrangers' careful navigation.

Then there are the lyrics which Fagen drapes over these complex tunes with his soulful deadpan hipster rasp. The portraits of excess, wasted glamour, desperate people on the run (yes, there's gas in the car), and mildly creepy perversion that does retain a genuine sexiness are all still present on the roll call. If anything, the fact that the songwriters are now 20 years on since we last heard from them lends an even more excessive, wasted, desperate, creepy edge to their tales of grabbing a piece of something that they think is going to last—preferably a much younger, innocent but corruptible female piece of something. One's own cousin, if necessary. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Well, yeah, but the most debatable of the three is the rock and roll. Wine, women, and song? Certainly. Disproves Dr. Evil's maxim that "There's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster." Dan, you are still a champion in our eyes.

YEAH YEAH YEAH, 2000