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CD Review: Donald Fagen – Morph The Cat

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Every so often, I develop a raging desire to go off the grid. Not the buy-fifty-acres-and-a-yurt kind of off the grid. And certainly not the Scott and Helen Nearing self-sufficiency off the grid. Heck, my off the grid requires electricity!

What I’m getting at is a kind of escape from society. From the pressures, the expectations. From the dread of Monday mornings. Most folks “get away” by traveling abroad, taking cruises, visiting remote sites, getting “back to nature”.

I want an apartment on the 2nd floor of an old building in the middle of the arts district of a small East Coast city. Hardwood floors. High ceilings. No furniture…except for a single overstuffed chair facing the stereo that’s set up a few feet from the window seat. It’s an old tube amp, a turntable, and speakers. Nothing fancy.

Now…you think that I’m going to put Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat on that platter. No, I need music that filters the outside world without demanding too much of my overtaxed brain. Eno’s Ambient: Music for Airports, Mickey Hart’s Music to be Born By, maybe even some of Keith Jarrett’s improvised piano. Just enough internal support to be therapeutic. The contours of the music, coupled with the smart hustle of the community (easily glimpsed from my window), will wrap me in a reassuring cocoon of art.

Except, of course, that I won’t be able to sit there forever. In a more clear-headed state, my curiosity at the comings and goings at the coffee shop across the way will get the better of me. That group of scruffy, panhandling neo-hippies…what’s up with them? Why was that woman holding her head in her hands in that swanky restaurant? Hmmm…maybe opening my curtains was a mistake. The idea of this serene and erudite neighborhood is turning out to have a dark side. So much for comfort.

Now this is where Donald Fagen comes in. He’s a master at wrapping stories weird and sinister in layers of sound that can fool the listener into thinking that all is well.

Morph the Cat is no different. A casual first listen brings the signature funk, soul, jazz, rock, pop, blues thing that Fagen is known for. Ever wonder how (or why) Donald Fagen is able to come up with music that manages to be creative and somewhat homogeneous? In an mp3.com interview, Fagen was asked if he listened to “any contemporary music…”

Not that often. I mean, there’s a few things I like if someone brings it to my attention. But I only listen to the same 40 jazz records I had in high school pretty much.

Here, the melodies wind back on themselves, the guitars skank and chop, the vibes plink, the horns spark up some aural shine, Fagen’s voice is as good as ever, and the backing vocals are as sultry as all get out.

Comforting? Yes, but things are not what they at first seem. While the protogonist, Morph the Cat, spreads a kind of bliss throughout post-9/11 Manhattan, there are confrontations with death, musings on governments gone wrong, lives gone wrong, intrigue at the airport, and even a conversation with the ghost of Ray Charles.

So Donald Fagen, at 58, turns his creative impulse toward his own mortality. Death. It’s been a long way from The Nightfly through Kamakiriad to here. Not comforting. Stuff that I wanted to avoid in my version of the monastic retreat. But, hey, I know that refuge was only temporary. Sooner or later, real life intrudes.

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    The bane of my existence. Not you, Saleski. Steely Dan. The sound of the voice always bothered me. It did not help that one of the most unpleasant bosses I have ever worked for was also a big fan.

    The music was always pretty interesting to me, what little of them I did actually hear. The voice always ruined it for me.

    “Bodhisattva” made me laugh, though. I don’t know why.

    Well done review, Sir Saleski.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    there is something kind of funny about an uptempo tune with those ‘serious’ lyrics. but, then again, both Becker and Fagan are known to be smartasses.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    And I like that about them. If they would have hired a different vocalist I probably would own some of those albums.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    You might try their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, then, DJR. A singer named David Palmer sings on about half the tracks.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i think the must-have is Aja…in fact, i use that particular song when auditioning stereo equipment. there’s just SO much going on there.

    as far as the voice goes, if ya don’t like it..ya don’t like it!

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    “Aja” brings back memories.

    This is the story and I am not making it up… I was a DJ at a classic rock station in the Florence/Muscle Shoals area. I worked the overnight shift on weekends starting out. Nearly every weekend at some point in the night I would get this phone call:

    “Hey, Josh. This is Steve, a retired drummer from Florence. Could you please play ______.”

    The songs he requested were either “Aja,” “Turn the Page,” or “Runnin’ On Empty.” The phone call went like that verbatim. He was a nice older guy. He was always real polite. We all wanted to take up a collection and buy those albums for him because for the years I worked there he requested those songs all the time and had been doing it long before I worked there. I hope he’s all right and still doing that now.

    Anyway… I would play him the Jackson Browne or Seger because he was nice but I could not make myself play “Aja” because I just couldn’t take it. The voice, that is.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    you shoulda just put “Aja” on and then took a bathroom break. by the time you came back the vocals would have been done and you could have enjoyed the cool instrumentals at the end. ;-)

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    And that did happen occasionally. Or I took a smoke break. That worked, too. Back in the day. When I smoked. Which I don’t do now. Very often.

    I had a point when this all started.

  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    “Hey – You – Get offa My Grid”

    Sorry – I couldn’t help myself.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i think somebody’s has too much coffee.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    And it was probably Folgers.

  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com Mary K. Williams

    i’d make some witty comment – but i have a stomache ache

    (no it wasn’t folgers)

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    This article has been placed at the Advance.net Web sites, a site affiliated with about 12 newspapers.

    One such site is here.

  • Mijo

    Yeah. I dig what you’re saying. That annoying voice. But somehow if it was a pleasant, easy to listen to voice, would it be as successful a delivery method for the, as Ian Dury put it, “Faded Hipster” to bring forth this persona? I doubt it. He is who he is and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way. Everything around him is so polished, so post-perfect, yet there he is, warts and all. Human. Even his imperfection can be presented as part of the perfection. Sorry Don, you can’t get anything wrong for me.

    I love Morph the Cat. I dread the day I finally make myself sick of listening to it and have to go looking for my next hit or DF/WB genius. If there ever was a case for life extending medicine, give it to these guys, please… – mijo

  • Reggie

    I like every song except the title song. I can’t make myself like morph the cat. I love fagen’s voice and his music.