CD Reviews: Review of Morph the Cat by Donald Fagen

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Morph the Cat
starstarstarstarno star Label: Reprise
Released: 2006
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Donald Fagen is the Woody Allen of pop music. That is, Fagen shares the same love and obsession for New York in his music that Allen does in his movies. Ever since the first Steely Dan album dropped back in 1972, you can be guaranteed of hearing Donald sing at least one song about New York per album. But unlike Woody Allen, whose films have mostly turned sour with their Manhattan and upper crust socialite topical fascinations, Fagen’s music is still fresh, even with the expected subjects, and even though his solo albums will always sound just like a Steely Dan album.

But that’s not a fault. It’s not like you can escape that voice, or the tasty perfection of the musicians picked to play on the tracks, the production, and everything else that goes along with Donald Fagen and his music. And so it continues to go on his latest album, Morph the Cat. Though truth be told, while he still hasn’t eclipsed his finest solo outing, 1982’s The Nightfly, with this album, it is a far cry better than Nightfly follow-up Kamakiriad, which felt like nothing more than an exercise in laidback futility. Fagen’s better at sticking with loose concepts than rigid ones, and luckily <Morph the Cat> is an example of the former. It’s every bit as good as the last couple of Dan excursions.

However, that might not be so obvious from the offset. The opening title track is easily the worst thing on the album. Sometimes Fagen has a tendency to get too calculated and too polished, driving his skills into elevator muzak territory, and this is the case with this song. The melody isn’t very catchy, and Donald’s backup vocalist seems mixed louder than Fagen, reminding one of the David Palmer days of Steely Dan when Fagen absolutely did not want to sing all the songs. But it’s a shame to mask that gnarly snarl.

Fortunately, everything else picks up from there (save for a reprise of the title track that closes the disc). It’s hard to think of another album where Fagen directly addresses female characters in the song titles. But here we have “Security Joan,” “The Night Belongs to Mona,” and “Mary Shut the Garden Door.” Guess which one is the funky one? If you said “Security Joan,” you’d be correct. It slinks and bounces along as well as, say, “Cousin Dupree” from the Dan’s Two Against Nature. “The Night Belongs to Mona” is more laid back, finding the title character going out to only get her “bare essentials.”

“Brite Nightgown” pops along the best, and seems like a better single pick than the current “H Gang,” which is good as well, though not as obvious (kind of like how “Hey Nineteen” is immediately catchy and “Babylon Sisters” takes that extra push to get into). And then there’s “The Great Pagoda of Funn,” that has a pulse and vibe similar to that of Aja’s “Deacon Blues” if not necessarily its personal ties. Indeed, Fagen is more observer on this album than participant, and perhaps that lends <Morph the Cat> a sense of detachment overall. It’s certainly what keeps it from becoming another Nightfly, anyway.

But why quibble? It’s great to still have Fagen around, period. Someone still needs to show those emo brats how being cynical and in love is really done. But then, those kids undoubtedly can’t relate to anything more than four chords in total with all of them being in major keys. Plus it’s good that Donald’s still tending after every damn note of perfection and not settling for anything less. Some things never change. Fagen’s as classic as Skyline chili or a Primanti Brothers’ sandwich. Amen to that.

~Jason Thompson