Album Review: Donald Fagan – Sunken Condos

Vincent Coole 19 December 2012

Donald Fagan – Sunken Condos


Track to download: Slinky Thing

Jazz-rockers Steely Dan can claim to be one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the last 40 years. Today they generally reside in the affections of sound-tech geeks and dads who remember smoking a “doobie” to ‘Reeling in the Years’. If their syrupy blend of rock, funk, soul and jazz is predictably irrelevant to today’s generation, then I’m at least happy to say (and admit) that I have fond memories of one night in my late-teens camping under the stars, smoking said “doobie” to Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy. And I’m no dad-rocker just yet.

At the helm of this ever-changing outfit were Donald Fagan and Walter Becker and, like the Heston Blumenthals of popular music, they became obsessive in their search for recording perfection. Only Fagan has continued releasing records of any merit as a solo artist, increasingly with a soul-jazz direction. His latest offering Sunken Condos is lighter in spirit than his best solo effort The Nightfly, yet generally retains the Steely Dan blend of wry lyrics, funky r’n’b, plenty of harmonies and slick guitar lines.

‘Slinky Thing’ makes for a good start with a sparse arrangement of funky double bass and clavi organ. The album doesn’t really detour from this sound, apart from added brass sections and backing singers. Elsewhere a Motown harmonica solo in ‘I’m Not the Same Without You’, and that ubiquitous funky organ indicates a Stevie Wonder influence. Fagan covers Wonder’s 60’s soul peer Issac Hayes on ‘Out the Ghetto’, and it says something about the quality of writing on the album that this cover is by far the best track. Generally, the melodies are often forgettable, with long instrumental passages that were probably more fun to play than they are to listen to. Lyrically, the subject matter is quirky (‘Weather in my Head’ compares America’s environmental policy to the disruptive “weather” of Fagan’s psyche); often portraying city scene situations and characters that roam through streets, bars and somewhere called Planet D’ Rhonda. Why the album is called Sunken Condos (with an album cover depicting a sea bed and ruins) is clearly only obvious to Fagan.

Sunken Condos is certainly an album for Fagan fans only. Even for ‘Dan fans it may sound uncomfortably close to elevator muzak with lyrics that portray scenes better written by Norman Mailer or Phillip Roth. Or, indeed, by Steely Dan.

Vincent Coole