Steely Dan Deliver First Studio Disc In Two Decades

Studio maestros' Two Against Nature picks up where the duo left off with 1980's Gaucho.

Two Against Nature, jazzy prog-pop combo Steely Dan's first album of new material since 1980's Gaucho, finds the band's core duo of singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and singer/guitarist Walter Becker picking up where they left off 20 years earlier.

Inveterate studio perfectionists, Fagen and Becker labored for 15 months to update their mix of New York intellectualism and glossy, tight yet elaborate production values.

"You're working on something, maybe just a piano and a drum, but they have a picture in their head," engineer Phil Burnett said. Burnett, a lead engineer at Fagen's River Sound studio in New York, has worked on several of the duo's projects, including Gaucho and the live album Alive in America (1995).

"Parts are added and taken away, a new rhythm part might be added, a trumpet or guitar solo might be tried ... a song is constantly evolving into the mix," Burnett said.

Released Tuesday, the album's mix is complex yet spare and airy, with instruments popping in and out, panning between right and left channels. Keyboard lines segue into horns, then into guitar leads.

"What a Shame About Me" (RealAudio excerpt), a reflection on New York's Greenwich Village intellectuals growing older and astray of youthful expectations, mixes Rhodes piano bursts with bluesy guitar leads. The attention to sonic detail becomes apparent as Lou Marini's tenor sax blows raunchy riffs far in the back of the right channel, behind the rhythm guitar, while percussion occupies the left channel, and guitar leads and vocals pour out of the center.

Intensive, As Always

Burnett said that unlike most of the group's past recordings, Fagen and Becker played most of the guitar, bass and keyboard tracks on Two Against Nature. True to vintage form, however, the duo would record the same song several times with different combinations of session instrumentalists, then pick and choose snippets played by different musicians to work into a song's final mix.

Having given up touring in 1974, Steely Dan displayed their musical prowess chiefly in intensive studio work, recording a handful of extremely slick, heavily produced albums that employed jazz-based instrumentation and arrangements to create a highly polished sound — leaving the rock 'n' roll subversion to sex-and-drugs references in their lyrics.

The pair teamed up on various solo and side projects in the 1980s and 1990s, including Becker's 11 Tracks of Whack (1994), and regrouped as Steely Dan in 1993 to tour and record Alive in America. The group plans to tour the U.S. again this spring.

Becker and Fagen first worked together as a songwriting team while studying at New York's Bard College in the 1960s. The pair went on to play with a few other bands before founding Steely Dan — a group whose personnel changed frequently, with some members leaving to join rock veterans the Doobie Brothers and others taking work as studio musicians.

The machine-precise yet passionately musical group took its name from a steam-powered autoerotic device in William Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch."

A New Audience

The new album updates Steely Dan's studio wizardry with digital recording techniques and instrument sounds — such as slap-and-pop bass guitar — developed in the years since Gaucho was released.

"You go away for 20 years, and you're playing to an entirely new audience," said Kevin Welch, music director of KINK-FM in Portland, Ore. "There's a whole audience that wasn't even born when their last album came out. Does it work in their favor? It's really hard to gauge. ... Of course, 20 years ago was just the beginning of CD technology, and they're definitely benefiting from the new technologies."

The album's first single, the incestuous country-rock song "Cousin Dupree" (RealAudio excerpt), is about a recently unemployed keyboardist-turned-truck driver staying at his aunt's house, recalling his childhood fondness for a now-grown cousin. The tune sounds like 1980s-era Grateful Dead playing the groove to the Captain and Tenille's "Love Will Keep Us Together," with off-color redneck-joke lyrics reminiscent of the late Frank Zappa: "Honey how you've grown/ Like a rose/ Well, we used to play/ When we were three/ How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree."

The album's opening track, "Gaslighting Abbie" (RealAudio excerpt), begins with slap-and-pop bass and clean, reggaelike guitar. The groove is steady, premeditated funk, creating a lazy-day sound that echoes the seaside-in-the-summertime lyrics with urban jazz instrumentation. Then the familiar sound of Steely Dan's glossy yet dissonant vocal harmonies ease in as the bassline melts down.

As does much of the album, the lyrics to "Gaslighting Abbie" seem to hint at Fagen and Becker's long-term working relationship: "One plush summer you come to me ripe and ready/ And bad through and through/ With that deep mystical soul synergy pumping steady/ Between me and you/ Lovin' all the beautiful work we've done, cara mia/ And it's barely July."