Monday, May 01, 2006

Donald Fagen's "Morph the Cat"

For the past month or so I've been listening nonstop to Donald Fagen's new CD, "Morph the Cat." In short, it's amazing.

Written in the wake of 9/11, Fagen's third solo effort completes a trilogy of sorts. And in Fagen's typically sardonic style, the album's mellifluous vibe and comforting melodies mask some seriously dark undercurrents.

Though the album lacks some of the initial hooks of Steely Dan's 2003 "Everything Must Go," or even Fagen's previous solo projects (1982's "The Nightfly" and 1993's "Kamakiriad") it is undeniably Fagen: vaguely humorous allusions and inscrutable lyrics set ironically against a backbeat of jazz, lush harmonies, tight grooves, and unparalleled craftmanship. The themes and arrangements unfold and develop in natural, deliberate rhythms. Donald describes it beautifully:

Musically, Morph The Cat blends jazz, soul and other musical influences - not unlike Brother Ray [Charles] once did - with extended grooves and ever changing textures and a sort of musical ambition rarely heard anymore - think Aja set in current day Manhattan. “I like it when songs develop in some way and four minutes isn’t usually enough time for something to develop musically usually,” says Fagen. “I’m still kind of plugged into the Duke Ellington model - something akin to classical music - where you start with something, you develop it a little bit and stick with it. And when you get a groove going, time flies.”

Personal highlights for me include the title track, "Morph the Cat," along with "H Gang," "Security Joan," and "Mary Shut the Garden Door." Donald displays an uncharacteristically political side in "Mary" as described by the liner notes: "Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government" (Fagen confesses this song was written right after the Republican convention came to Manhattan). The song features a haunting melodica solo by Fagen and a vivid tableau of jackbooted terror set in the opening verses:

They came in under the radar
When our backs were turned around
In a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars
They rolled into our town
Confounded all six senses
Like an opiate in the brain
Mary shut the garden door
Looks a lot like rain

Mary shut the garden door
Mary shut the garden door

We pounded Rachel's radio
For reports about the bridge
There was nothing on but static
Nothing in the fridge
We lay there listening to the wind
Whistling through the pines
When we heard the engines idling
Saw the headlights through the blinds

This is a beautiful and intensely personal album. Do yourself a favor and check it out.


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Anonymous said...

Morph The Cat - superb album, even better in 5.1 surround. Beautifully produced and a joy to listen to. Worth buying a new system for! My favorite tracks are Morp The Cat and the stupendous What I Do.


J Ballot said...

Hi John,

Thanks for checking in. I've heard some of the old Steely stuff remixed and remastered for surround systems and it's like a religious experience. But Morph the Cat -- wow. You used exactly the right word: joy. It's impossible to overstate or convey just what a joy this album is to listen to. Although the themes are somewhat dark I can't help but smile every time I hear it.

"What I Do" is indeed stupendous. Recently I've found myself humming "Morph the Cat," "Security Joan," and "Brite Nightgown" quite a bit. Donald and Walter have never been known for working quickly but they're starting to spoil us: two amazing SD CDs and two solo efforts (WB's new one is coming out soon) in the span of 6 years? Plus a SD tour with Michael McDonald this summer? Awesome.

Anyway, I appreciate your patronage and your comments. Thanks again for checking in.