Saturday, October 14, 2006

Liner Notables #1 - Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill

Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out of focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits...

"The superlatives commonly found in liner notes are often as empty as the music they applaud. This is not the case on your new Steely Dan album."

Congratulations on your purchase. But how is one to ultimately construe this hyperbolic, damning-with-faint-praise insinuation from the liner notes of Can’t Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album? Judging from a closer reading of the blurbal essence on the cover -- surely, any caveat emptor inapplicability strictly related to books, right? -- the PR-putsch as advertised is not as vacuous as the end product it heralds.

Whichever way your promotional bread is buttered, we’re not exactly talking high praise here, and some mischievous or misguided copywriter must certainly be out of a job. How do you ask such a question and still come out not smelling like it’s not all a ruse?

With the jazz-rock group Steely Dan, you don’t. These sly words, written by an apparent unknown and unusual suspect named Tristan Fabriani, are dubious in more ways than one. For one thing, it’s 1972 we‘re talking about, largely a time of liner note limbo. We’ve got a ways to go before the advent of the compact disc wreaks compacted squinty-eyed visual havoc with attempts in trying to decipher on a CD the credits and song titles, let alone any frills and flourishes.

And we’re beyond the ‘50s and mid-‘60s heyday of hoopla and hucksterism in which liner notes graced, or disgraced, albums with inartistic overstatement, a far commercial cry from today’s more subdued incarnation in artist commentary, usually on anthologies and retrospectives.

So when the expressed “crisp and exacting music of Steely Dan” was released during a transition from one promo-less era to another -- from one of late-'60s concept albums and overly-serious post-Sgt. Pepper pomposity, to faceless and polished corporate rock seen in groups like Journey and Foreigner (who didn’t even put group photographs on their albums' front covers), record buyers took notice. The sudden and audacious appearance of crassly and overtly promotional prose on their release of the up and coming pop-rock purveyors of “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years,” stuck out like T. Rex at a tea party.

The parodic tip off for all but the most cursory skimmer of record text might be the first line in the liner notes which states, “It has been said many times and in many ways that what the world needs now is another rock and roll band. This could very well be the one of which the pundits spoke.”

If the gullible or careless came through that conundrum intact, thinking it matter of fact, he or she may cluelessly wade through the what seems to be standard if slightly awry (the “illustrious ‘Ultimate Spinach,’” anyone?) group member introductions and credits, including those of the core founders and mainstays, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

Then there’s this stone wall of a not-too-idle boast, antithetical to the previous claim of anonymity: “As is so rarely the case, the whole of Steely Dan is greater than the sum of its parts, and the newly formed amalgam threatens to undermine the foundations of the rock power elite.”

Oh my. Pretty arrogant for a group we've never heard of before, and one with just Thrill barely in the record bins. Moreoever, because “tradition and experimentation reign side by side,” Steely Dan’s versatility, as the off-kilter commentary continues, tends “to run the gamut of musical expression” from “pastoral lyricism” to "urban Sturm and Drang" to “frank, industrial-grade polish.” “And so on,” of course.

Promises all executed with such aptitude, too -- but you can just about feel about your own tongue lodge in-cheek with the eyes-wide-open exclamation, “dig those startling high-register bass effects on the final cadence of ‘Heartbeat!’”

"Thus treads heavily the titanic Steely Dan, casting a long shadow upon the contemporary rock wasteland," concludes the over-the-top remarks, nonetheless topping all that came before, "aspiring to spill its seed on barren ground, and at the same time, struggling to make sense out of the flotsam and jetsam of its eclectic musical heritage. With a solid first album under its belt, and with an ever-expanding reputation as a dynamic performing group, it would appear that the Dan's place on the American musical scene is assured."

Well, that's how it turned out to some extent, save the expectations as a performing group, dynamic or not  And it also turned out that Tristan Fabriani, the liner notes' writer -- or better yet, perpetrator -- was Fagen himself, using a pseudonym from his days as backup musician for Jay and the Americans in the '60s (Becker was Gustav Mahler). He and Becker still aren't averse to raising a little fuss and ruckus when opportunity breaks down the door, as shown recently on Steely Dan’s website by some facetious allegations against a new movie.  Sometimes you just can't pass up those thrills.


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