Morph the Cat
The songs of Donald Fagen have a tendency to sink slowly into the brain, then shake you awake. "Snowbound," from his delightfully weird second solo album, Kamakiriad, skates through the mind on lite-jazz wheels. Until, that is, the bridge kicks up, and you hear the seamless chord changes, those layered vocals, that keyboard work. Yeah, that's Don, all right - sneaking right up on you with his chrome-slick melodies. It's clockwork clean - his session boys can stop on a dime and do a two-step on its edge - but damn, if it don't swing.
After a hiatus that spans half my life (he released his second solo album when I was the ripe, wise age of 13), Fagen offers us Morph the Cat. The casual listener might tether this album to Steely Dan's Gaucho or even their Grammy-winning 2000 album Two Against Nature, but it's quite different than the work he shares with Walter Becker. After letting the songs get into your head and bounce around a little, you hear something that later Steely Dan albums seem to lack: looseness. Sure, Fagen's studio band consists of nearly all of the folks who played on the Dan's last two albums, but there exists a freedom in the songs that can only be created when Fagen flies solo.
One of Morph's laziest grooves is also one of its best: "Mary Shut the Garden Door" is quiet funk, tightly bound by Keith Carlock's brilliant drumming and Freddie Washington's bassline. The rhythm is a welcome change from the lockstep 4/4 that appeared often in Steely Dan's Everything Must Go - even Fagen himself gives his coda solo space to breathe. The result is gorgeous and haunting - the horror of the RNC coming to town, stylized with film noir lyrics, is easy to visualize.
The title track and its reprise at the end of the album bookend the collection: A feline super hero-type figure hovers over Manhattan, floating along to a breezy, harmony-laden soundtrack. The song works well as the album's alpha and omega - the songs proceeding and preceding it, "H Gang" and "The Night Belongs to Mona," both speak of lives in limbo, characters held hostage by a nasty beginning or an inevitably bad end. Leave it to Fagen to imagine salvation - or is it something more sinister? - as a mammoth ghostlike cat flying over the New York skyline.
Another standout on this nine-song album is the funky "Brite Nightgown." In the liner notes, Fagen mentions that W.C. Fields called death "the fellow in the bright nightgown," and each verse of the song deals with a different person's introduction to the bedtime-dressed Grim Reaper. The layers of this track click together perfectly, and it gallops along to one of the best bridges Fagen has ever written; it's a prime example of his ability to rock and swing at the same time.
Aside from being wonderfully sequenced, the songs on this album also have their own distinct personalities. The listener can hear the influence of the musicians on the tracks - something else that rarely happens on an SD album. After the near-miss of last year's Everything Must Go, I've been hoping that Becker and Fagen would get together and give us something else. Now that I have Morph the Cat, though, I think I can wait a little while longer.