Monday, April 10, 2006


It's been a classic MOR day here at the Honest Engine pagoda. What does that mean? Well, it means that I've given my first listen (ever!) to two albums widely reputed to be "classics" that somehow my punk affinities had led me to overlook— Aja by Steely Dan and Hermit of Mink Hollow by Todd Rundgren.

First, the Steely Dan. I found a vinyl copy of Aja in my girlfriend's crates and stuck it on.

Maybe the problem is that I'd been listening to real jazz right before it (Archie Shepp's brilliant Choral Rock), but the smoove was overpowering. Pleasant, and I don't have any hate for it, but like baby food. Like jazz pre-chewed.
I liked Deacon Blues OK, and I thought Josie was pretty cool. I like the bass sound that they've got, warm and mid-'70s. But things like the disco-ish beat on Black Cow and the endless vapid crooning (I know, I know, everyone loves the lyrics. But Home At Last is pretty damn empty, at least to me). Too much pretention in this yacht rock. If I'm going to listen to smoov, I want something a little more fun and a little less late night AM radio. Too much REO Speedwagon. Too much Hall and Oates ballad. And I know, I know, those guys didn't do it as meticulously (or something). And Steely Dan passes on the practical scale— you can tell that they succeeded at putting out albums that sounded like they wanted them to sound, even if that meant saxophones so slick that they glisten like slug trails. And if the argument is going to be that you simply need to be a musician to comprehend their consumate skill, well, I'll cop to feeling a little more populist on that front (while acknowledging the contradiction between that and eschewing 'smooth,' 'accessible' music).
I'm not even going to bother with the real/memorex distinction about whether or not the crushing on Steely Dan that I see a lot of places is genuine/backlash, except to say that the endless hype did make me expect something more. Sorry, I'll take my Sex Pistols album over Aja any day, and rating the other way seems to be more contrarianism than conviction (and I've seen a lot of people now rate it the other way).
Weirdly enough, the "slick disco" isn't as much of a problem for me as the slick jazz. I've been tussling with my dad over Donna Summer and my growing appreciation for her this last week, but he loves Steely Dan in a way that I don't get. It sounds too much like the theme from 'Taxi.'
And, given the choice of studio lunacy, I'll take 10cc any day. At least they seemed like they were having fun, rather than placing a coke-fueled chrome polish onto Randy Newman song suites. Out of 10, I'd put it Aja at 5.5 or so, a bit above "I'm Your Captain." Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe I'll listen to it again in five years.

As for Rundgren, I'm a big Nazz fan but never really knew anything from his solo career outside of Bang on a Drum... Hermit of Mink Hollow is apparently about his breakup with Bebe Neuworth (or whatever her last name is), the relationship that spawned Liv Tyler (kinda). But listening to it really just crystalizes why punk must have been so exciting, and why saxophones have totally dropped out of the rock lexicon. It's not that the sax is a bad instrument, or unsuited for rock, it's just that folks like Rundgren used it as a patina of soulfulness over extremely white licks. Of course, I hate the E Street Band, so whaddo I know? But this album is so packed with self-indulgent pap that it makes Steely Dan sound positively lean and populist. The tortured rhymes of "Lucky Guy" ('And when there's pain he never minds it/ when it's lost he always finds it') sound like they were written as theme songs for angsty tv shows about blondes with teased hair. Despite the Big Star theme of That '70s Show, this is the MOR shit that sums up their aesthetic. For anyone reading, I'm listening so you don't have to. Even the 'rockers' like "Out of Control" sound more like wanky Paul Sabu than, say, KISS. Where did the Rundgren that was so beautifully psychadelic in The Nazz go? When Rundgren threatens to go 'totally out of control,' his rampage means having a couple of beers and maybe letting the air out of his neighbor's tires. And the ballads are one of the strongest arguments for that now-dismissed canard that 'music sucked during the '70s.' If I heard this on the radio, I can only imagine that heroin, safety pin jewelry and nihilism would seem like the only acceptable answer.

So, today's score is two "classic" albums that I'd never heard and now vaguely wish I hadn't. At least the Steely Dan seems like it might be worth listening to again, sometime when I'm going to have totally shitfaced sex with a girl I don't like very much. I can't imagine ever having sex to Rundgren.