CD Review of Circus Money by Walter Becker
Recommended if you like
Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, Rosie Vela
Label
Mailboat/Five Over Twelve
Walter Becker: Circus Money

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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N
ever one to rush things, Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker is just now getting around to following up his solo debut, 1994’s Eleven Tracks of Whack – which was itself 14 years in the making. He hasn’t been resting entirely on his laurels, of course – the last decade and change have seen Becker reuniting with his partner in Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, for a pair of studio albums and a handful of tours – but still, 14 years is an awful lot of downtime. If we weren’t talking about one half of Steely Dan, it would be fair to expect some sort of stunning musical evolution out of an album so long in the making.

We are talking about half of the Dan, however – and the less prolific half, to boot – so you shouldn’t go into Circus Money expecting to hear anything other than the sardonic quips and fusion-flavored grooves that have fueled pretty much everything Becker and Fagen have done, together and apart, since the late ‘70s. It would be tempting to criticize them for treading water if they didn’t do it so artfully.

For all its Steeliness, Circus Money isn’t completely of a piece with the band’s most recent output, or even Eleven Tracks of Whack. For one thing, it has a much more organic sound than Whack, probably due in large part to the influence of producer Larry Klein, who uses a small combo (Keith Carlock on drums, Jon Herington on guitar, and Jim Beard and Ted Baker on keyboards) to thaw the icily precise vibe Becker utilized last time around. For another, Becker seems to have been listening to a lot of reggae lately; a number of these tracks are propelled by mellow (very mellow) Jamaican rhythms.

Becker has also lost whatever interest he ever had in obvious hooks – although Eleven Tracks of Whack was one of the artier, quirkier major-label rock records to come out in the early ‘90s, it still made room for finger-snappers like “Down in the Bottom,” “Junkie Girl,” and the throwaway “Little Kawai.” Circus Money, by comparison, favors cucumber-cool jazz grooves and knotty melodies. In other words: Good luck whistling along to most of this stuff.

Of course, whistling along has never really been the point. The occasional pop goodie like “Peg” or “Hey Nineteen” notwithstanding, Becker and Fagen have always been more interested in telling a story and maintaining a vibe than making sure their stuff is easily digestible, and on that front, Circus Money is as much of a success as, say, the last Steely Dan album, 2003’s Everything Must Go. It isn’t his best work, but if you like what’s come before, you’ll like what’s on offer here.

If the album has a real problem, it’s that Becker occasionally seems to find himself short on worthwhile protagonists. He’s always had a penchant for writing from the viewpoint of skeeves, grifters, and ne’er-do-wells, but here, the jokes sometimes wear thin. Opening track “Door Number Two,” for instance, gives every appearance of being a four-minute anal sex joke, and “Selfish Gene” comes across as an unintentional Steely Dan parody. This is a relatively minor quibble, though, and the album’s got its share of musical moments – like Dean Parks’ sublime guitar solo in “Upside Looking Down,” or the seemingly straight-faced nostalgia of the title track. All told, it probably won’t knock Steely Dan’s Gold (or even Eleven Tracks of Whack) out of your CD player for more than a week or two, but you can’t find too much fault with a guy for simply doing what he does best.

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