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Donald Fagen - Morph the Cat  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews DualDisc
Written by K L Poore   
Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Reprise
performance 8.5
sound 10
released 2006

I may have to make the walk of shame tomorrow, but I can’t really imagine waking up with pop music that sounds more beautiful than Morph the Cat.

I was seduced from the first seconds and Donald Fagen didn’t even have to buy me drinks or dinner. First of all, he was dressed in intelligent jazz/pop with a pristine (sonically stunning, actually) production in 5.1 surround sound that I could never have imagined when I was young, dreaming over the pages of my favorite music magazines. I knew I was in trouble, he was pushing my buttons and he really hadn’t said a thing. I started thinking I should play hard to get.

Sure, I’d had plenty of warning what he was like before I’d even agreed to meet him at Morph the Cat. I knew all about his past, in great detail: Steely Dan, “Josie,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number,” so I guess I should have known better, but it’d been 25 years since his first solo outing, The Nightfly, over 13 since Kamakiriad, and those coupled with the last two Dan releases led me to believe that he’d settled into harmless middle age. And anyway, it was the dark sarcasm and misanthropic lyrical twist of his partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker, that got my attention in the early days. This meeting was going to be a few drinks, a night of enjoyable listening, then off to sleep.

No chance.

Has Donald Fagen been studying me in preparation for this meeting? While listening to Morph the Cat, I felt intellectually naked. For all my blustery talk of looking for that something new, exciting and raw, he’s shown up with eight slick pop songs, as if they were a bouquet of drugstore flowers, and I’m suddenly easy in the sluttiest sense of the word. After a couple of listens, he’s not only taken me back to his place, he’s had his way with me.

He’s smart. Seems he knows just what I want to hear in a world populated with disposable pop stars, glamour pimps and recycled 60-something “Can’t You Hear Me Croaking” rock CEOs rebelling against the banks that hold their mega-millions. A “potent combination of dark thoughts and upbeat tunes” is how Fagen’s publicist puts it. And that’s dead on. It’s that kind of subversion I’m longing for. “There’s nothing sexier than the Apocalypse,” Fagen says about these ruminations on the different forms of death. He and I are so simpatico he instinctively knows that I’m so sick of phony moaning post-punkers that I can hardly bring myself to turn on the radio these days. Like I said, he’s having his way with me.

“Morph the Cat” sets up in a groove that recalls Aja and sounds like it could be an incredibly hip cartoon theme song about a ghostly cat. But I know it’s more insidious than that. The Morph the Cat in the song descends on New York in the form of a cool smoke, and changes everything. He makes everyone feel good and helps them jettison that nasty need to think about things. After Morph, there’s no need for pondering or questioning, or wonderings of any sort. “What exactly does he want,” Donald sings, “this Rabelaisian puff of smoke?/To make you feel all warm and cozy/Like you heard a good joke.” He may be shooting over my head a bit, but that’s what makes it so attractive to me in these days of lowest common denominators. Is he telling me that with complacency comes death? With lack of critical thought? I don’t know, I have to think about it some more, but by the time we reach Walt Weiskoph’s gem of a tenor sax solo over the outro, I’m already wondering how it can get any better than this. Last time I heard anything like this, it was Phil Woods’ alto solo at the end of “Doctor Wu” on Katy Lied.

Next Donald tells the story of “H Gang,” an all-girl band that’s ever ready “for a kick fight.” I’m intrigued by this miniature movie in words and music. Is he singing about the graveyard where all musicians are headed in this world of corporate bands? According to “H Gang,” we may start out ready to kick ass, but we’re going to end up somewhere in the Midwest, dreaming of better days.

He’s toying with me.

This is an almost straight-ahead pop song (although musically and lyrically more complex) about the perils of pop life, couched in groovy vocal harmonies and real horns. The heroine of the story, Denise, gets out of prison, rocks the US of A and ends up in a different kind of prison. But don’t worry, she’s got a biopic on the way. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for her or what. Why’d he tell me this story about the corruption of something so dear to me? Is he trying to break me down? Or is he merely trying to set up the next cut?

“It’s What I Do” is a conversation between a younger Donald Fagen and the ghost of Ray Charles, told in a slow groove with a piano sound meant to elicit either thoughts of the great man himself or past Dan cuts. Seems it took the death of Charles for Fagen to figure out he himself was a professional musician, and that it’s an actual profession, worth having. “It’s not what I know/What I think or say…/It’s what I do.” Maybe I’m intellectualizing too much, and the lyrics might be telling me just that, but the back-story here is universal. All of us wish that at some point in our lives someone would have sat us down to give us this kind of “advice,” but when the Ray Charles of the song tells young Donald, “Yes I come to play and I bring big soul,” you can’t help but feel a bit of a twinge. Maybe the advice that is to follow will be good, but really, how many people can bring Ray Charles levels of soul to the table? Is that good advice? Can anyone live up to that, or is it a matter of settling in, and recognizing what you do?

As my head swims and I think I need a little air and perhaps a drink, Fagen wins me completely with “Brite Nitegown.” So much for playing hard to get. Now he’s making me laugh with three stories about guys meeting “the fellow in the bright nightgown,” which is how, we’re told in the liner notes, W.C. Fields would refer to death. It’s got a big ol’ thick and fattening groove running through it and, if such a thing still existed, every funky dance bar in America should be spinning this cut. I actually smirked when I heard the last line of the third verse, “I’m sittin’ on the rug/Getting a victory hug/From the fella in the Brite Nitegown.” Who smirks these days? Who smirks when they’re listening to a song this funky?

Fagen points out that the players on Morph the Cat are the guys that he and Becker picked up over the course of reconstituting Steely Dan in the ‘90s, and, as you’d expect, the musicianship is remarkable. I’ve got to be honest – I always get excited when someone walks onstage with an acoustic guitar and kills me with a song, or when I get a little tangled up at the frayed edges of a mosh pit, but I’ve never ascribed to the notion that “good musicianship” means boring or bland or old hat or any of those things. Jack White is just as credible as Miles Davis, but each in his own context. Lemons and oranges. Each is brilliant in his fashion. And Donald Fagen is brilliant in his genre, which just happens to be one of his own making.

“Brite Nitegown” is followed up with “The Great Pagoda of Funn,” “Security Joan” and “The Night Belongs to Mona,” the latter being probably the saddest and quietest of the songs on Morph the Cat. Mona has retreated to her place on the 40th floor and no one’s sure exactly why, and it’s easy to tell that no one will take the time to find out. It doesn’t matter as long as she puts on a good show dancing 40 floors above the street. Who is really dead here, I wonder? Her, or the people who watch her each night, waiting for her to “fall hard or float softly to the street.” Do I detect a hint of empathy/identity in Fagen’s voice and lyrics? I wonder if Mona is a woman after all. The song leaves us suspended and wondering, the air conditioner of the lyrics humming as we leave.

About “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” Fagen writes, “Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government.” If the lyrics weren’t so frighteningly on the money, I’d be able to laugh. “They came in under the radar…/In a fleet of Lincoln town cars.” Yes, he’s talking about the Republican National Convention coming to New York, and the response, in the song, to this occurrence is perfectly indicative of the current state of American social discourse. Why fight? How about one from column B and two from column C? A city disappears? Aliens invading? Go inside. Hide. Turn on your radio. Make sure you shut the garden door. That’ll keep ‘em out. What’s truly frightening is that the song’s protagonists seem to think that shutting the door is a long-term solution.

Our date ends with a reprise of “Morph the Cat,” as if he needs to draw me back in by reminding me what sucked me in in the first place. Does it represent the final remnants of the cat-like smoke seeping into my consciousness? As if I’ll just settle in and listen to the music, calm and soothing, forgetting talk of subversion, paranoia and complacency. It’s like he’s turning the lights down low.

Once my friends find out about our liaison, I know they’ll ask me how I could fall for Fagen’s lines. Sure, if they listen to Morph the Cat on only a cursory level, they might see a sameness in the songs, or his voice, and as they’ve done in the past, they’ll complain about the clean, or “sterile,” production. But I’m not falling for that because I know jealousy is doing the talking. So what if I meet someone, mature and secure, and I hear some interesting stories that stir up my own intellectual pretensions? And if the music goes to my head, so be it. And if we spend a wonderful evening together, a wonderful evening where I don’t have to say a word, that’s all the better for me. And maybe, when I wake up in the morning, I’ll press play and do it all over again. Or I may take that long walk over to my CD holder and file Morph the Cat, filled with the regret that comes with loving something so quickly. But I doubt it. I think what I’ll remember is an evening of smart lyrics, very cool music and incredible production. How could anyone turn down such a wonderful night?

Sound
Just the listening aspect of Morph the Cat in 5.1 surround sound was thrilling, and has led me to believe that Donald Fagen must have some of, if not the best, “ears” in the biz. Sitting in the middle of the room, I’m the focus of all this music … guitars and horns in the rear speakers … it’s a concert being played just for me. Everything, from location and balance to the instrument levels, of the DVD-Audio mix is stunning. It would be sick for me to continue gushing on about it. But I will. Because the making of music remains steeped in stereophonic sound, I’ve been hard-placed to find selections that provide me with anything more than a heightened enjoyment. I can honestly say that Morph the Cat has set a standard to which I’ll be able to hold up future releases. The detail and clarity, whether playing it loud or soft, is there. Some things to listen for that will knock you out: the interplay of the guitars in “Morph the Cat,” the muted trumpets in “H-Gang,” the soloing guitar throughout “Brite Nitegown,” the trumpet solo by Marvin Stamm in “The Great Pagoda of Funn” and, lastly, Donald Fagen’s own organ work in “Security Joan.” Each is surprising in its own right, holding its particular place in the music, neither lost nor obtrusive.

Since I enjoyed this DVD-Audio so much, I put the CD version in my car and have been driving it around. It’s just as well done in stereo, but I’ve found Morph the Cat to be more of an audiophile sit-and-listen experience (or even a sit-and-work experience for those of you who can play music while on the job). The ambience and instrument definition of the DVD-Audio is so sterling that it’s the version you’ll most likely return to.

Extra Features
Morph the Cat comes in CD-only and two-disc CD plus DVD-Audio versions. The audio DVD contains DTS 5.1 surround sound, Dolby Digital Stereo and Dolby Surround. It is menu-driven with interesting pictures, some relating to the content of the songs. That’s it.







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