Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Calling Donald Fagen a singer/songwriter is a somewhat limiting description of what he actually delivers, both as frontman of Steely Dan and on his occasional solo albums. His latest, Sunken Condos, is a typical multi-tasking effort: He not only wrote the songs (with the exception of a sweaty cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Out Of The Ghetto,”) but he also co-produced the record and had a big hand in arranging the rhythms, background vocals, and horns.
Those extracurricular skills have as much to do with the success of the album as anything else. All of the material on Sunken Condos benefits from the combination of Fagen’s meticulous arrangements (which were developed in concert with co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart) and the loose chemistry of the fine musicians he has assembled for the project.
Fagen is still peddling the same amalgam of blues, R&B, jazz, and lite pop that served him well when Steely Dan dominated the 70’s. Indeed, you can be forgiven for thinking a time-warp is in effect when you hear the twitchy rhythms and sly horns that fill out songs like “Miss Marlene” (a dead ringer for his 80’s solo hit “I.G.Y”) and “Planet D’Rhonda.” This is a musical niche that his band filled better than anyone back then, and time hasn’t diminished his skills in that regard.
The subject matter for Fagen’s songs hasn’t changed that much either, although it has evolved slightly in some cases. With Steely Dan, he was an expert at nailing the oily ennui of middle-aged lotharios. As he has aged, these characters have become slightly more desperate in their efforts, as evidenced by the older guys losing their grip on their younger paramours in “Slinky Thing” and “The New Breed.”
Fagen’s fascination with characters on the wrong side of the law goes back to Steely Dan classics like “Kid Charlemagne”; on the new disc, the Prohibition-era crook at the heart of “Good Stuff” can stand up to any of them. In addition, his protagonists often use their sense of humor to mask the pain. On the excellent blues workout “Weather In My Head,” the narrator’s malaise is summed up by this so-funny-it-hurts snapshot: “Four old hippies drivin’ in the rain/I asked for a lift-they said/Get used to the pain.”
There may not be anything here that can hang with Steely Dan’s best (although “Weather in My Head” comes real close,) but that’s an admittedly high bar for anyone to reach. Sunken Condos is a smooth collection that insinuates deeper feelings through the head-bobbing rhythms and offbeat humor. In other words, it’s Donald Fagen doing what he does best, which is always good enough.