"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

In Your Ear....

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Morph the Cat
Warner Music, 2,580 yen

A new album of smooth, jazzy R&B-inflected pop from Steely Dan is always a major musical treat and a new solo album by Donald Fagen, one half (some might say more) of the creative brain trust behind the band, is a very close second. The casual listener might be hard pressed to hear the difference, but Fagen's solo work seems to lean a little more heavily on old-fashioned R&B and a little less on radio-friendly rock hooks.

That isn't to say Morph the Cat is a noncommercial album--far from it--but Fagen indulges his love for extended solos and dense horn arrangements a little more when on his own and nearly half of the album's eight songs clock in at over six minutes. Most of that length is taken up with intricate and artfully executed guitar solos, by past Steely Dan sidemen Hugh McCracken, Wayne Krantz and Jon Herington. All three manage to scream and wail enough to put most heavy rock guitarists to shame, yet do so in the most tasteful way imaginable, never veering into vulgarity or seeming out of place.

Also reminiscent of Steely Dan is Fagen's love of offbeat humor and storytelling. "H-gang" tells the story of the "ultimate five-chord band" and "Security Joan" is a meet-cute tale for the era of the "war on terror."

Behind all the fancy arrangements and clever lyrics lies the rock upon which the tarnished chrome church of Steely Dan was built--Fagen's solid talent as a composer, pianist and singer. His versatile voice remains as expressive as ever, straining just a little to hit all the highs and lows as it always has, with just a hint of decadent indulgence and corruption and a large dose of ironic humor.

Besides, you have to love anyone who can get away with describing a character in a song as a "Rabelaisian puff of smoke."

The Little Willies
Toshiba-EMI, 2,500 yen

Pulled together in 2003 by singer-songwriter Richard Julian and his longtime friend and pop-jazz sensation Norah Jones, the Little Willies were originally meant to give the two a chance to play some old-time country music with some pals in a one-night stand at a New York bar called the Living Room. Fortunately for all, the gig proved to be so much fun that it became a recurring irregular engagement whenever the band members' conflicting schedules permitted.

That sense of fun permeates this collection of western swing and old drinking songs penned by the likes of Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt. There is even an Elvis cover, with Jones languorously crooning Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller's "Love Me" with backup vocals provided by "the Ordinares."

Julian adds three of his own songs and a contribution from bassist Lee Alexander rounds out the collection.

Jones and Julian split the vocal work evenly with Jones' authentic sounding honky-tonk piano and some tasty guitar work by Jim Campilongo grabbing the instrumental spotlight.

Purists may question whether a bunch of New York jazz musicians can do justice to country and bluegrass classics such as "Streets of Baltimore" and "Tennesse Stud," but their infectious sense of enjoyment and obvious affection for the material make the Little Willies more appealing than the bluff jingoism and Nashville cliches of Toby Keith or Garth Brooks any day.

Besides, you have to love a band that can get away with writing a song about Lou Reed going cow tipping.
(Mar. 30, 2006)

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