One of the coolest bands of the 1970s has survived to still make cool music. Judge Norman Short gets his groove on with this review.
Steely Dan is a combination of rock-solid music and biting satire mixed with humor, a band that has been around seemingly forever. In all those years their sound has remained virtually constant, a mixture of jazz fusion with pop, R&B, and rock and roll that provides a smooth, warm, intricate sound. That sound is unmistakable to fans. "Two Against Nature" is the name of their latest album, but this is a concert containing numbers from both past and present, mixed with interview footage of both the band and their fans. Good video, great sound; fans of the band will be happy to add this disc to their collection, if for no other reason to get the music in glorious 5.1 surround, with both Dolby Digital and DTS formats.
Facts of the Case
Steely Dan is made up of a large group of musicians, some of whom have come and gone through the years. The mainstays of the band are guitarist Walter Becker and vocalist Donald Fagan. Among the fine musicians in this incarnation of the band is saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus, who can often be heard playing solo in the subways of New York City. All are excellent musicians who know exactly what sound they are trying to get.
As I mentioned, the band is known for their satire and humor. Even the name Steely Dan is a reference to a vibrator, as it was called in a movie whose name escapes me at present. [Editor's Note: A helpful reader supplied the following: "In Norman Short's review of Steely Dan: Two Against Nature he mentions the origin of the name Steely Dan but the name of the film it comes from eluded him for the moment. Let me helpful and say that the name is derived from a 'household appliance' (i.e. dildo) that has a cameo in William S. Burrough's book The Naked Lunch. So there."] The satire often appears in their lyrics as well.
By far the best aspect of this disc is the music. Recorded live at Sony Music studios in New York, there are 14 songs for your enjoyment, each somewhat lengthy in the jazz tradition. Favorites include "Josie" and "Babylon Sisters." There is a small audience, which qualifies it as a concert, but they're well out of the way, and I was surprised just how professional this sounded. It sounds exactly like studio work rather than a live concert, with the exception of a couple times when a windscreen on the microphone would have been a help. The music itself is flawless, without a single mistake or so much as an out-of-place echo.
As always, the most important aspect of a music disc is the soundtrack, and I'm very happy with both the Dolby Digital and DTS surround tracks. Frequency response is solid, bass response deep, fidelity and clarity off the charts, with a very wide and spacious soundstage in the front for the vocals and most of the instruments, with the horns coming in from the left rear, and the female back-up singers from the right rear. You're right there.
Video quality is a mixed bag, but mostly very good. During the concert parts of the disc the picture is relatively sharp and clear, with good shadow detail, which is a good thing since they seem to like playing in semi-darkness. Color renditions are accurate. One test it did fail was my guitar string test—the image of the strings break up. There is also a fair amount of artifacting, especially aliasing. It's still very watchable, and fortunately the picture quality isn't the big draw on a music disc. Between songs we are given footage of fans talking about their favorite band, which is all shot with handheld camcorders, so the look is exceptionally grainy and the image quality poor. This was as intended, though I wasn't pleased with it. Also between songs at times we go to interviews with the band, and some weird pseudo talk show simulation where band members interview someone on a cheap couch. The boom mike is clearly in view moving from person to person as they speak. Video quality here ranges from poor to fair; some of it is in black and white and others in color.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Maybe it's just me, and if I were a real fan I'd have enjoyed it more, but I found the majority of the interview footage and especially the fan reactions annoying. A bunch of stoners standing around reminiscing about a concert they saw long ago and such. I just wanted to get back to the music. More egregious is that there are some chapter stops that make you sit through some of the talk before you can get to the song. There really should have been chapter stops at the beginning of each song.
Another lack in the disc is the lack of subtitles for the lyrics. I think this should be a standard feature on all music discs, maybe just so people can sing along. There is also zero extra content, which was a shame.
Fans of Steely Dan will absolutely want this disc; the music portion of the disc is glorious. Those not yet familiar with their music should give it a rental; between the talk portions and the eclectic nature of their music you might want to try before you buy.
Steely Dan is absolutely acquitted of any charges; their music has withstood the test of time and is better than ever. Image is fined for the lack of extra content, and for the lack of lyrical subtitles.
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