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Donald Fagen on love, death, homeland security

Stewart Oksenhorn
Donald Fagen, singer-keyboardist of Steely Dan, has released his third solo album, "Morph the Cat." (Danny Clinch)
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Here are some current CD reviews:Donald Fagen, “Morph the Cat”produced by Fagen (Reprise)A couple of years ago, on a trip to upstate New York, I visited Bard College – made slightly famous in pop music as the subject of Steely Dan’s “My Old School.” By the entrance to the campus was a sign, pointing down a road that seemed to lead nowhere in particular, that read “Barrytown” – the name of one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes. At long last, a clue. It wasn’t that seeing the name “Barrytown” unlocked the mysteries to the song-writing of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. But knowing that there was a Barrytown somewhere in their past gave me comfort that, if I lived to a thousand, I might stumble on a sufficient number of pieces that I would have a small grasp on the puzzle that are Steely Dan lyrics.Fagen is at it again with “Morph the Cat.” His third solo CD – along with 1982’s “The Nightfly” and 1993’s “Kamakiriad” – is, according to the press notes, “just your average soulful and sexy masterpiece about love, death and homeland security.” Elsewhere, Fagen mentions death, mortality, endings and the apocalypse as themes. For those without publicity notes, Fagen has been kind enough to provide a sentence or two of insight to each song in the liner notes.

Together, it all goes about an inch toward actually penetrating the intention of songs like “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” about, as Fagen says, a “thuggish cult” taking over America, although it’s not clear if this is conspiracy paranoia or commentary on actual events. “H Gang,” literally about an imagined touring band, also has hints of terrorism (“that freaking cell … ready to make a big noise”) and our all-too-real current administration. And there are the sentiments of an aging body: “What I Do” posits a conversation with the ghost of Ray Charles. (As with many Steely/Fagen lyrics, this one has sex bubbling just under the cover.) “Brite Nightgown” takes its title from W.C. Fields, who referred to death as “the fellow in the bright nightgown.”Of course, there are other reasons to listen to Fagen than stories you can get your head around. On “Morph the Cat,” Fagen raises the level of the jazz-flecked rock, wrapped in a slick black cloak, he has had a stranglehold on for three decades. It’s a great backdrop if you’re planning to spend hours untangling the lyrics.The Derek Trucks Band, “Songlines”produced by Jay Joyce (Columbia)After a disastrous tour early in their careers, Steely Dan left the road – a break that would last some two decades – and bolted themselves to recording studio chairs. Guitarist Derek Trucks has had the opposite approach: While touring like a maniac, both in his own band and as an Allman Brother, he has become a stranger to the recording process. It was four years between his last studio album, “Joyful Noise,” and the new “Songlines.”

Trucks, however, said in an interview with The Aspen Times last year that he was ready to stop treating the studio as “just another stop on the tour.” With producer Jay Joyce, Trucks and his long-running quartet spent virtually all of last June in Tragedy/Tragedy, a Nashville studio, trying to update the meticulously crafted soul albums of Stevie Wonder and Donnie Hathaway.Trucks and Co. will get a studio sound like Steely Dan’s about the same time I get a grasp on Steely Dan’s lyrics. Still, “Songlines” is a giant step toward reining in the band’s wanderings. Vocalist Mike Mattison gets roughly equal prominence as his boss, and he shines on a blues like “Sailing On,” which is peppered with overdubs and studio flourishes. Tacking Trucks’ affinity for Pakistani qwaali music and jazz fusion (here, they cover saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) onto the soul base makes “Songlines” one of the more satisfying attempts to squeeze a jam band into the studio.Cassandra Wilson, “Thunderbird”produced by T-Bone Burnett (Blue Note)Sonya Kitchell, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter who makes her Aspen debut tonight (see cover story in this section) would be wise to keep her eye on Cassandra Wilson. Kitchell expresses interest in keeping her artistic options open and her music developing; Wilson, at 50, continues to break ground with each new album, and never more so than with the spectacular “Thunderbird.”

Teaming with producer T-Bone Burnett (another fine model for the expansive musician), Wilson adds an experimental, electronic sensibility to her song-making – to go with the soft blues, jazz and pop that have always been in her arsenal. The instrumental settings, featuring guitarists Keb’ Mo’ and Mark Ribot and four different percussionists, engage in a dialogue with Wilson’s singing that goes from hushed to explosive. On “Thunderbird,” you never know what’s coming next – acid jazz, Delta blues, arty noise, even a Latin vibe on “Go to Mexico” – but you never worry that it won’t be good.Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, “Howl”produced by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (RCA)The San Francisco trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club became known for its garage-style, fuzzy guitar sound (a description which accounts for why I never sought out their first two CDs). On “Howl,” B.R.M.C. might still be in the garage; the sound here is hazy and eight steps removed from “Morph the Cat” or even “Songlines.” But the amps are turned down as the band channels the spirits of mid-’60s Dylan with the Band, and acoustic Rolling Stones. The tightest comparison, however, is to their contemporaries in Wilco. Like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the B.R.M.C. trio take old, folk-inspired rock, and take it for a spin through the narcotic night. The ambition shows in how “Howl” fuses a gospel chorus into “Devil’s Waiting,” or reworks Delta blues on “Ain’t No Easy Way.” I hope the Black Rebels continue on this track. At the same time, “Howl” is good enough that I want to get my ears on their earlier work.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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