Donald Fagen | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper



When Steely Dan's Donald Fagen puts out a record, it's cause to celebrate. Especially if it completes the trilogy of solo records he began with the Grammy-sweeping plastic soul of The Nightfly (1982) and carried through the wryly futuristic song-cycle Kamakiriad (1993). Fagen's trump card has always been the imagistic transformation of ordinary circumstances that take place under his sardonic gaze. Accordingly I set out on a misty evening with fellow Steely Dan aficionado Sproul behind the wheel, to see how Fagen's latest, Morph the Cat, transforms Pittsburgh's quiet city streets.



"A vast, ghostly cat-thing descends on New York City, bestowing on its citizens a kind of ecstasy," is how Fagen describes the title track [1]. Its lurching stereophonic bass line lets out a blast of icy cool as we slide under the streetlights of Squirrel Hill, and pedestrians on Murray Avenue pull their jackets tighter.


We cruise in silence down to Second Avenue and hit the Hot Metal to the snap-and-release beat of the album's single "H Gang"[2]. Reminiscent of Steely Dan's hit "Hey Nineteen," this tale of tough girls forming "the ultimate five-chord band" brings the 'Burgh's Motorpsychos to mind, as we head towards the South Side.


A somber ode to the nightlife and showbiz, "What I Do,"[3] proves perfect for cruising East Carson, and seems to transform the human parade on the sidewalks into winners and losers, insiders and marks. Sproul takes us over the West End bridge as Fagen deploys some eccentric vibes and that old Prince trick of singing each line an octave apart [4].


North Shore Drive between Heinz Field and PNC Park is brightly lit yet deserted when the album hits its central peak: "The Great Pagoda of Funn"[sic][5]. Opening on a bittersweet note ("the detective chord," Sproul says), the song builds slowly until Fagen hits a soaring, unexpected note. The R&B groove turns inside out, and all I can say is "Shit ..." As Marvin Stamm takes a muted trumpet solo, it's like a curtain shudders and lifts from the skyline. Over the Clemente bridge and onto the Downtown grid.


The cutesy "Security Joan" [6] follows, prompting a dissection of the sins of latter-day Steely Dan albums, which focus on slicked-out jump-blues character studies. Coincidentally, the musicians on the disc are essentially Steely Dan's touring band, including brilliant guitarist Jon Herington and Walt Weiskopf on sax. "I just don't like this at all," Sproul mutters, and begins making for The Strip.

Things turn sinister as we roll past Bare Elegance (now Club Royale) to the tale of an ODing drama queen [7] and head into Bloomfield with the chill drum 'n' bass paranoia of "Mary Shut the Garden Door" [8]. As the beat shuffles on, I see the wisdom of Fagen's pronouncement that "there's nothing sexier than the Apocalypse."


As we creep down Aiken through Shadyside's cocooning couples, the title track reprises in a minor key [9]. Sproul sums it up, "You know, I give this record a B. The music's better than anything since Gaucho, but the lyrics are all about relationships ... which is rather dull. It's more about Don layin' pipe in his middle age." Perhaps a dozen years of marriage have mellowed Fagen's wilder imaginings, but our cruise with Morph the Cat finds him at his most musically inventive in at least as long, if not since The Nightfly.

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