Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat

White-boy soul on another level, and so much better than Steely Dan’s last output, this is High Donald Art.

My disappointment with Everything Must Go seems fully justified and warranted now that I’ve heard Morph the Cat. Quite simply, Morph is everything that Everything should’ve been. It’s better, slicker, smoother and heaps more fun than the Dan cut. Like Adam says, Fagan’s solo works sound more like Steely Dan records, as opposed to Becker’s solo ventures; leaving one to conclude that Fagen is the greater shareholder in the Dan equation. Which is not to say that Morph sounds like a fully realised Dan album, it just meets more of the Dan expectations than Everything did. 

It’s ferociously well produced and mixed; it’s musically precise and tight; it’s got killer session chops. Freddie Washington brings a distinctive force of simplicity to the bass chair; and he’s flattered in turn by a bass-friendly mix. The bass is the clue to the feel of the album: I’m not sure if Fagen has ever sounded so in-the-groove in his previous work. This is seriously slick groove stuff. Some of the 6-min plus tracks just run with it; they don’t dry up or meander. Have young session cats, will sound fresh.

The second clue is the feeling of soul music. Maybe it’s the dialogue with the ghost of Ray Charles (What I do) that dials up the right atmosphere, but this album is seriously soul-oriented. It’s not what you’d expect to receive under the White Soul moniker, but I can’t think of many other white artists who get off on such rigorous groove and warm swing. Fagen’s is not a classic soul voice; but then there’s no better backing for his tunes. His I.G.Y.-style backing vocals don’t hurt either.

OK, that’s all pretentious guff. This album sounds like a soul cut because it has really nice horn section scoring. The horns make it — low-key but funky and distinct and oddly-voiced — I was put in mind of some of Prince’s 90s horns, a mix of sass and tricky. Flutes and clarinet along with muted trumpet and the usual ‘bone and saxes. It’s a much warmer and fuller band sound than Everything Must Go (there’s handclaps and cheesy organ), which might make the 5.1 DVD mix worth getting (apparently it won a Grammy award for ‘Best Surround Sound Album’ at the 2007 Grammys) (and what a prestige that must be for one of the grandfathers of modern lounge music!).

Considering Fagen is hitting 60, he doesn’t sound aged or wearied. Maybe it’s the session cats, maybe it’s his innate musical positivity and witty singing; even though there’s a comically dour and post-9/11 bite (for example: falling for the airport security chick in Security Joan), The Donald still sounds fresh and together. He weaves a lot of oblique detail and local character into his New York narratives. And fun too: ‘Ten milligrams of Chronax / Will whip you back through time / Past Hebrew Kings — and furry things / To the birth of humankind’ — all from a WC Fields anecdote — is lyrical fun in my book all right.

It’s poppily coherent, tunefully informed and literate in all the Fagen ways; but above all it’s a slick-soul-sounding, modern white-ass groove fest. In another Dan-world first, The Donald also provides a one-line theme-explanation for every song. Just to prove how savvy he is. Example: ‘Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government’.

You can hear the point where Washington switches to the thump of the Fender Precision bass. I love it.

I don’t care if you don’t like Steely Dan; this album is worth having just to hear the state of the recording craft.


Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

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