Rick McGrath

Two against nature tan and lean
Puttin big heat on skanky things unseen
Two against nature slinging dread
These boys wanna bang the skulls of things undead.

Two Against Nature CD

Giant Records/Warner Music

Donald Fagen: Piano, keyboards, vocals
Walter Becker: Guitar

Ted Baker: Piano Ricky Lawson: Drums Tom Barney: Bass Jon Herington: Guitar Cornelius Bumpkin and Chris Potter: Saxophones Michael Leonhart: Trumpet Jim Pugh: Trombone Carolyn Leonhart, Cynthia Calhoun, Victoria Cave: Backup Vocals et. al.

2VN DVD review »»»

Ajo says:

Ajo's rating

Steely Dan: Two Against NatureAltho I’m a longtime Dan Man, Steely Bopper, and convicted Faganite, it was with a mixture of lip-licking anticipation and eye-narrowing dread that I crept into the Toronto HMV mega-media-complex and laid down the scratch for Steely Dan’s new CD, Two Against Nature. It was, of course, Cousin Dupree that brought me in. I had already heard it on the radio. That thin, flat, floating nasal voice sounds familiar, I thought, and sure enuff, the men of steel had derusted back into pop consciousness. Who cares if the rest of the CD is fluff, I thought to myself, Cousin Dupree’s worth $15 in itself. But that was just the beginning: a half-hour later I was amused, naturally, to stumble across the corresponding Two Against Nature DVD. Gimmie. Gimmie. I took the synchronicity as a good omen. Two against nature, indeed. Or, as some clever acronymic has already dubbed it... 2vN (two versus nature).

I thought about the boys on the ride home. The Burroughs dildo. Steely Dan. It’s like a 3rd thing: Steely Dan is really the alter persona of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, two smartass English Lit Bard college guys who have been disguising songs about sex and drugs since they started their careers in 1969, writing songs for an obscure publishing company owned by Jay and The Americans. By 1972 their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, had hit, and so began eight years of creative mania. Looking back, they owned the intellectual side of the disco 70s, with an incredible output of quirky songs and stupendous music: Countdown to Ecstasy '73. Pretzel Logic '74. Katy Lied '75. The Royal Scam '76. Aja '77. The hits poured like good bourbon, until Gaucho in 1980... and then that was that. Nada. Until 2000. Twenty friggin’ years. Your first cynical thought is what’s this? Dinosaurus Moneygrabbus? One more squeeze on the Dan Fans? You think, where’s the provenance for this cd? On the face of it, Fagan and Becker have collectively created just three albums between them in the intervening 7,300 days since Gaucho --(altho Fagan has amused himself with movie scores and Becker has detoxed himself -- no mean feat), so coming out of retirement to create a great album might be a little iffy on the pull-it-off scale. Let’s face it, leaving us to figure out just what that number is that Rikki shouldn’t be losing is a tough act to follow. Remember, their very first cut on their very first record was the classic, Do It Again (“In the morning you go gunnin’/For the man who stole your water”) so we’re talking a lot of glory in the balance.

So I’m home. The B&O cheerfully slides its dark plastic face to the side. I gotta hear Cousin Dupree right away. It’s great. A classic. “A little country narrative” Fagan drawls to an interviewer on the concert DVD, “that my father would say is... risk-kay”. It’s a funny paen to “down home family romance” that’s an upbeat hillbilly funk snake charmer rocker about an unemployed musician/rig worker moving in with an aunt and rediscovering the freshly-matured charms of his young cousin Janine. Roll your eyes if you must, but Fagan’s usual deft touch with lyrics is even evident in this homespun tale of horniness on the hearth, with Janine saying putdown lines like, “The dreary architecture of your soul”, in counterpoint to Fagan’s leering refrain, "We used to play when we were three/ How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree”.

Then I whipped into the TV room to hear the rest of the CD on my Dolby 5.1 surround sound DVD system. BIG subwoofer! Oh-oh. It all sounded so... familiar, somehow. Oh no. They’ve ripped off their old licks and changed the lyrics. At the beginning of most of the songs I was groping for a name out of the past. I was experiencing a rare moment of angst. It was true. They stuck with the old musical formula. Twenty years? This is 20 minutes away from Gaucho. What can one say? Well, one can say it’s still the basic Dan sound: the jazz funk, headpumping beat; the crisp, harmonious horns; the jazzy sax solos; the blistering guitar; the boppin’ piano chords; the sheer complexity of the arrangements, and, as usual, the precise, highly rehearsed, hard-edged professionalism of the whole perfect production thing that either endears or dismays Dan listeners. Is that so bad?

And the content of the songs is pretty well the usual fare: what you’re hearing is the enigmatic, impressionistic Fagan lyrical riffs; the self-depreciating humour and the endless obsession with women, relationships and drugs. The boys still have it, sure, but on this album the only real difference is the songs are darker, more mature, more stuck in the ennui of the fin de siècle 90s. Sort of CD Noir. Two against nature slinging dread/ These boys wanna bang the skulls of things undead. Hey, it’s there in the title track: this isn’t going to be a particularly fun trip. And banging our skulls is precisely the metaphor that hammers this collection of songs together. It’s the classic Dan themes of slow drugs and fast romance -- as experienced and reported from two guys who are hipper than thou ... way hipper than thou. If you never change, you don’t have to go back. In the ‘70s, Donald Fagan was the coolest cat in town. He told funky stories in drop-dead songs. A way cool Frank Zappa. He wrote stuff about sex and drugs in a manner so obscure today you can hear these songs being played in drug stores! If they only knew. In 2vN, this post-modern persistence still flickers around the twin porchlights of Sex and Drugs -- the only variation is the boys are 20 years senior, and whereas in the ‘70s Becker & Fagan just had look around their peer group to stay jazzhot hip, now they’re looking generationally for trouble. And, it seems, finding it.

This emphasis on the attractions/tragedies of screwed-up younger women has its gong banged in a number of songs, including Janie Runaway -- a sleazy ditty about the joys of the underaged girl, and maybe one of her friends -- Almost Gothic -- about a relationship with a fascinatingly mixed-up girl, “a sloe-eyed creature” of the night, or is it the day? -- Negative Girl -- all about deep longing for a heartbreaker with skin like milk who has a “reptile brain/ Locked down and ready for combat mode” -- and Gaslighting Abbie, which is either about a hot chick, or a fantasy about burning down an old house on Halloween, or a type of game of solitaire.

West Of Hollywood seems to be about drugs, or about getting off drugs. It could also be about an abortion. You sort of fill in the blanks as you go along. Surfers will love the cool refrain: “I’m way deep into nothing special/ Riding the crest of a wave breaking just west of Hollywood”. The most obvious drug song is Jack Of Speed, a warning about becoming a “one-way rider/ On the shriek express”.

The title track, Two Against Nature, is a dystopian LSD fantasy about bad/crazy people, bugs, maggots, house construction, science... civilization, probably.

Another standout track is What A Shame About Me, a poignant story song about a loser meeting “Franny from NYU”, a member of their old college crew, all of whom are enjoying wildly successful careers. The bluesy feel of Becker’s guitar and Fagan’s jazz piano licks complement the awkwardness of the lyric ... sort of Woody Allen turns down a sympathy screw.

Today, a quick check of the Steely Dan web site reveals some highbrow support for the 2vN CD. Elmore Leonard, Roddy Doyle and William Gibson all weigh in with praise... and there’s a big section of 2vN merchandise awaiting your credit click. Not to be cynical, that’s just the way it is these days. Baby needs new shoes.

To sum up, these songs are flashbacks, constructed in exactly the same way as their timeless 70’s cousins, and this musical bedrock... Fagan’s shifting vocal phrasing over a killer jazz funk beat... means that not much has changed in the sonic department. It’s darkly complex, the lyrics are fleeting (it helps to listen while reading the lyric sheet the first time), the musicianship is extraordinary, and while this CD doesn’t seem to have the wide-ranging eclecticism, or anything upbeat -- or the three top 40 hits -- of the 70s stuff, hey -- give ‘em a chance to get back, Jack, and do it again. Aja wasn’t built in a day, either.

2VN DVD »»»

© Rick "Ojo" McGrath August/2000


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