Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Old Masters Return

Donald Fagen albums, it must be admitted, are not like buses. You wait 12 years and then you only get one, usually with a meagre 8 new songs. Still, he's certainly been busy in the years since 1993's 'Kamakiriad', reviving the Steely Dan moniker, completing several lengthy tours and recording two new highly acclaimed (and highly polished) Steely Dan albums. 'Morph The Cat' now completes a loose conceptual trilogy begun with 'The Nightfly'. It sees Fagen musing with wry glee on post 9/11 (in)security and fear and his own encroaching mortality. The juxtaposition of the personal and political is neatly engineered, and Fagen's sardonic and pointed wit remains uniquely barbarous.

Over the course of these 8 songs, Fagen addresses current preoccupations and concerns. He creates a marvellous surrealist metaphor in the title track, the cat being a peculiar feline apparition floating over New York city. It appears to provide only misleading comfort - a false sense of security. It's difficult to imagine a less responsible approach to airport security than the hilarious 'Security Joan', where Fagen relishes the prospect of being a suspected terrorist interrogated by a female security guard. On 'Brite Nitegown', Fagen describes meeting the Grim Reaper in a dream with tacit acceptance of his ultimate fate. Best of all is his sincere tribute to the late Ray Charles on 'What I Do', a song that goes some distance towards explaining Fagen's own musical heritage.

'Morph..' is unlikely to reach the unconverted, however. For those immune to the lithe, metronomically regulated funk grooves of late-period Steely Dan, this is likely to simply be more of the same. I would concede that this music could be more consistently engaging were Fagen to allow his undoubtedly excellent musicians more breathing space. Much like on Steely Dan's 'Two Against Nature' and 'Everything Must Go', there is hardly even a drum fill to break the perfectionist pulse of each track. Can this really be the same Fagen who approved the extraordinary Steve Gadd drum solo on 'Aja'? Sometimes the approach is compelling, such as on the crisp groove of 'Brite Nitegown', which casts an appropriately hypnotic spell. Other tracks ('The Great Pagoda Of Funn', 'The Night Belongs To Mona', 'Mary Shut The Garden Door'), despite some typically incisive lyrical ruminations, seem a little overlong and elusive.

Still, at its best, 'Morph The Cat' demonstrates the steely interplay between highly literate, irony-laden songs and expressive, jazz-inflected musical extrapolation that has always characterised Fagen's best work. Whilst it occasionally steps beyond the urbane territory Fagen has defined so well into refined smoothness, there's plenty of detached charm and smoky elegance to these songs. Whilst one suspects that Fagen is not in any way a spiritual man, it's hard to think of a more pithy encapsulation of the gospel-blues heritage that he playfully plunders than this epithet on Ray Charles from 'What I Do': "Well you bring some Church/but you leave no doubt/As to what kind of love you like to shout about". It's good to see Fagen maintaining his spirits in a world gone mad.

Another legend who knows much about walking the tightrope between the sacred and profane is Prince. His latest effort, '3121', comes after yet another label switch, and has been hailed as a major return to form (didn't that come with 2004's patchy-but-promising 'Musicology'). Talk of 'form' here is rather pointless - Prince can churn out disarmingly good tunes in his sleep, it's simply that he's elected to indulge his every whim in recent years, from extended improvisations on the much maligned 'NEWS' to simply recording and releasing his every breath (the 3CD 'Emancipation').

I enjoyed a rather amusing discussion with two American strangers at Oxford Circus underground station regarding the origins of this album's somewhat enigmatic title. They had the somewhat unsubtle theory that the numbers 3, 1, 2 and 1 relate to Prince's obsession with sex - a threesome, some solo action, a conventional coupling, before finally concluding that it's actually better on your own (surely a somewhat tragic and unexpected resolution to years of sexual adventure?!). Actually, it's much less interesting - it apparently relates simply to US release dates.

I'm not convinced that this is the evidence of Prince's musical resurrection. Admittedly, 'Black Sweat' is his best single for aeons, taking in some of the sounds and innovations of modern R&B (particularly the Atlanta crunk sound) and processing it all through his own distinctive vision. It is playful, uncompromising and unashamedly sexy. There are some other impressive moments here - from the moralising party vibe of 'Lolita' to the poptastically infectious 'Love', but nothing comes close to matching the questing spirit of 'Black Sweat'.

With new female protege Tamar in tow (not another Mayte, surely?), Prince indulges his penchant for very cheesy ballads (the Latin tinged 'Te Amo Corazon' and the nauseatingly titled 'Beautiful, Loved and Blessed'). There's no denying that Prince has mastered the love ballad and 'Arms Of Orion' and 'Purple Rain' stand as two exquisite examples of his peculiar genius. The ballads here may just be a step too far into saccharine territory though. They are certainly disconcertingly glossy.

The title track should provide an enticing overture for the whole project, with its lavish description of an absurd Paisley Park house party, but it actually comes across as more of the lumbering funk most clearly associated with 'Exodus'-period NPG (remember that masked White Room performance, anyone?). By the end of the album, he's also drifted towards shakier lyrical ground, forsaking the hedonistic impulses of the album's first half in favour of some rather sanctimonious philosophising. At the height of his artistic success, Prince could chart both the conflict and the overlap between the sexual and spiritual drives with consummate ease. The impression here is more that the album's massively more entertaining moments are compromises to ensure some degree of commercial success.

It seems grossly unfair to describe a Prince album as generic, given that he has arguably done more than any other modern artist to break down genre conventions. It's just that all this is ground that he has mapped out many times before. Where once it was remarkably fertile, it now appears to be in danger of running dry. The highpoints here would make for an effective mini-album that would stand as a timely reminder of Prince's talents. As a whole album though, it feels slightly queasy and uncomfortable. I can't help but feel that the now unfairly discarded 'Musicology' made for a more consistent, less ponderous and more entertaining listen.

Pick of the bunch is the secular return of soul legend Candi Staton. Still scandalously most famous here for the disco hit 'Young Hearts Run Free' and for providing the vocal sample on The Source's endlessly rehashed dance anthem 'You Got The Love', last year's compilation of her southern soul gems on the Honest Jon's label (part owned by Damon Albarn) provided a welcome opportunity to reassess her impact and achievement. The success of that release has tempted her away from the Gospel train (following in the recent footsteps of Bettye Lavette and Solomon Burke) back into the mainstream fold with 'His Hands'.

The obvious choice of producer for this project would have been the in-demand Joe Henry, whose faithful invocation of the classic soul sound would have worked well here. Instead, Staton has joined forces with Lambchop producer Mark Nevers who, whilst pulling off a similar trick, has added some of his own subtle studio trickery, most noticeably on the eerily atmospheric title track. This is one of those records that operates in its own territory, refreshingly free from the influence of any prevailing trends. The playing is stately, but also appropriately sensual. Staton's voice is arguably a little wearier now, occasionally cracking slightly - but her choice of material has made the additional vulnerability a welcome ingredient.

As well as being an accomplished writer herself, Staton is a genuinely skilled interpretative singer and she tackles material from Solomon Burke and Merle Haggard amongst others with sizzling relish. This album would be worth the entry fee alone for the astonishing title track, penned specifically for her by Will Oldham, providing yet more evidence of his status as one of the greatest living American songwriters. The hands of the title are used to invoke erotic love, domestic abuse (which Staton herself endured for many years) and the compelling spiritual love of God. Staton's performance on this track is tightly controlled, but fearsomely convincing and she adds great power to Oldham's words with her spine-tingling phrasing. It's unlikely that there will be a more overwhelming vocal performance captured this year.

It sets a high watermark that the rest of the album inevitably can't quite match, but 'His Hands' is nevertheless a consistently engrossing and rewarding listen, overflowing with gritty emotion and rousing passion.

No comments: