In his third solo album Donald Fagen doesn’t stray too far from what he is so well known for, his music with Steely Dan. I knew after hearing just the first few bars of the opening track, “Morph the Cat,” that I was on familiar ground. Soulful Jazz with blues influences — the sound is soft, warm, and as comfortable as a pair of faded jeans and a tie-dye t-shirt. Even though the tone is reminiscent of the seventies, the theme to the collection is timely. Many of the songs deal with the ever-present concern of homeland security.
Fagen certainly lives up to his reputation as the dark poet from Steely Dan; many of the songs have a deep and ominous message. Death and war are the main topics. His genius is in weaving the heavy message with light and soft music that is best described as romantic. Commenting on the odd mixture, Fagen said, “There’s nothing sexier than the Apocalypse … I suppose you could call this album Apocalypse Wow.” Romantic and sexy are both good words to describe what you hear with a first listen. It is exactly what you would want in the background during a candlelit dinner or just good music to unwind by.
Only when you dig deeper and give it a second or third listen do you begin to hear the gloomy undertones. “H Gang” is the first single from the CD and was released in January. It starts out with loose and light piano, before the horns and strings fill out the sound. It follows the dark theme though not specifically about war or death. The track has finality about it, reminiscing about an old rock band long after their demise. The harmonies and music are so warm it’s hard to focus on the moodiness, not only in the mentioned tracks but the CD as a whole.
Both versions of the song “Morph the Cat” (one is the opening track and the much shorter reprise version closes the CD) are the ultimate in Jazz and really set the tone for the whole album. The horns and sax are a welcome addition to the piano and strings that are prevalent on the entire CD. Another standout track is “What I Do”. Fagen says in the liner notes the song is a conversation “between some younger version of myself and the ghost of Ray Charles.” The harmonica on the song adds to the sound giving it a distinctive blues feel. I really like the affectionate yet informal exchange in the lyrics. It is more than evident Fagen has put a lot of himself into the entire CD. It is deep and personal and that makes it all the more attractive.
Fagen considers Morph the Cat the third in a trilogy of solo albums. In 1981, he released The Nightfly followed by Kamakiriad in 1993. Though it was a long span between releases and he was constantly working with Steely Dan between the solo projects, he considers them a specific journey with this being the end. He plans to eventually offer the three albums as a box set. Morph the Cat has literally been in production since the release of Kamakiriad, but Fagen became particularly focused on the project in the last two years. Speaking of the recent inspiration, he said, “I’m starting to get older, and began to think about mortality a little more. My mother died in 2003 and that was a big shock.”
One can certainly understand how such a life-altering event would have a profound effect on his music. What is remarkable, however, is how the album doesn’t leave you feeling depressed. The infectious and upbeat melody as well as the instrumentation keeps the listening experience enjoyable.
Morph the Cat has some familiar names on the production side. Elliot Scheiner headed up the engineering and many of the players are the very same he plays with when he’s on the road and recording with Steely Dan. Produced by Fagen himself, the sound is smooth and effortlessly layered.
Donald Fagen is currently touring in support of Morph the Cat and a list of tour dates can be found below. News and information about the CD and Fagen himself as well as MP3s can be found at the artist’s website.
3/24 — Las Vegas, NV — The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
3/25 — Temecula, CA — Pechanga Theatre
3/27 — Los Angeles, CA — The Witem LG
3/28 — Oakland, CA — Paramount Theatre
3/30 — San Diego, CA — Viejas Concerts in the Park
3/31 — Santa Barbara, CA — Arlington Theatre