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Two Against Nature

music reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Two Against Nature

Artist: Steely Dan
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: February 2000

Review by LarryG
2½ stars out of 4

With twenty years since the last Steely Dan studio record, there was reason to be skeptical about Two Against Nature. The good news is it sounds like a Steely Dan record and quite a good one. All the marks of their classic work is present: the great musicianship, the wryly humorous lyrics and the complex but still tuneful songs. Rather than their most successful record Aja, which sounded like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker wanted every song to be a pop hit, or their last and, even with the brilliant Hey Nineteen, worst record Gaucho, Two Against Nature is more reminiscent of Steely Dan's cool, jazzy and smart early work. But instead of the rehash or slapped together album it could have been, Two Against Nature is a confident, personal work that clearly is the result of a lot of effort and care. Because their pop/jazz mix has never been too concerned with contemporary gimmicks and their sound is still fresh, Steely Dan hardly seem dated on Two Against Nature.

Gaslighting Abbie opens up the CD with one of its many great grooves. As always, Fagen and Becker worked with great jazz musicians on Two Against Nature. However, on Gaslighting Abbie, it's Becker's stinging guitar riff, along with Chris Potter's very cool closing sax solo, that's the highlight. Jack of Speed, urging a woman to get away from a drug addict, has a nice relaxed pace and the horns have a great hook. The music on Two Against Nature is always likable and smooth. The only problem is that the intricately arranged horns and sweet female background vocals can have an icy perfection that favors form over substance. In the context, Almost Gothic, the least screwed up of the songs about admiration for a much younger woman, is appealingly simple. The unadorned sound, with Fagen playing a wurlitzer organ that's evokes a more innocent time, is reminiscent of the great songs on Fagen's solo record, The Nightfly. However, Negative Girl, which uses vibes to create a similar sound, is a yawner. On songs like Two Against Nature and What a Shame About Me, Steely Dan are a little lacking in distinctiveness, sounding like the lite jazz radio format they shouldn't be blamed for but helped inspire. The sound has the band's smoothness but loses their distinctive texture. Two of the best songs on Two Against Nature have the most energy. Cousin Dupree is the leanest, most focused and least jazzy song. It has a steady beat, no horns and another good, unshowy guitar solo from Becker. It's fun musically and lyrically. At the end, the vulgar man who lusts after his now grown cousin is dressed down as she mocks his "skeevy look", his "mind turned to apple sauce" and "the dreary architecture of your soul." Unabashed, he asks "what is it exactly that turns you off?" While it has another good Potter solo, West Of Hollywood also has a clean, direct sound. Sonny Emory's crisp drumming helps the epic's eight plus minutes go by quickly.

Two Against Nature is generally more about the music than the words. But the lyrics give the songs an edge. That's a good and bad thing. The songs are about sleazy, bitter middle aged men. Fagen's unrelentingly unappealing characters are fascinating and repulsive. Gaslighting Abbie alludes to the movie Gaslight. Fagen plays a man who forms a "mystical soul synergy" with a new girlfriend who's "bad through and through." He celebrates "all the beautiful work we've done" slowly driving his wife to her death. Nothing in the song's breezy tone hints they're doing a bad thing. What A Shame About Me is about a failed novelist working in a bookstore. He has a dream meeting with a college classmate who's become a big star but he's so paralyzed by self pity that he rebuffs her sexual advance. Janie Runaway might be the best match of music and lyrics. Very slick horns and Carolyn Leonhart's background vocals create a seductive mood that matches how the character tries to present himself in his come ons to an underaged girl. The words, such as his fear of committing a federal offense if they cross state lines for a weekend jaunt, show how pathetic he actually is.

Two Against Nature is always great listening. Fagen and Becker are fine musicians and they know how to work very well with other skilled pros. It's great that two guys who create such sophisticated melodies went back in the studio. Even at its worst, Two Against Nature is pleasant and it often nears the heights of the band's classic work.



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