Although not truly defined as a jazz group, Steely Dan’s music has always been just on the fringes of what we might call, for lack of a better term, "light jazz". Two certifiable fans of America’s original art form, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have a flair for developing resonant jazz-inflected harmonies that are married to lyrics telling a story in almost literary terms. The team's production values have also been highly lauded through the years, although Fagen has modestly stated that the Dan’s approach to the studio is to obtain the kind of precisely-defined integrity captured by engineer Rudy Van Gelder on those classic Prestige and Blue Notes from the ‘50s (ah-ha, there’s the jazz connection again!).
Since the disbanding of Steely Dan in the ‘80s, Fagen and Becker have periodically surfaced for air, what with Fagen’s THE NIGHTFLY and KAMAKIRIAD and Becker’s ELEVEN TRACKS OF WHACK, but TWO AGAINST NATURE is the pair’s first studio effort as a group since 1980’s GAUCHO. Although it’s been a lengthy wait, it was all worth it in the end, with NATURE being every bit as savvy and infectious as anything else in the Dan’s time-honored catalog. All the recurrent alluring elements are in place- the usual cast of brooding and cryptic characters, mystical lyrics ripe for personal interpretation, jazzy horn lines, and a great cast of supporting players.
In keeping with past efforts, one gets the sense that Fagen and Becker have developed the program so that each note actually counts. In other words, there are no fillers here used to pad the time between what might become a few radio-friendly hits. Each song develops its own plot and stays around just long enough to whet the appetite without wearing out its welcome. Becker's guitar takes the solo spotlight on many of the cuts and he's in fine form, as is saxophonist Chris Potter, who among other things contributes a glowing statement to the rideout of "West of Hollywood."
Other highlights include the brass-heavy bump and grind that is "Jack of Speed," a humorous case of a "down-home family romance" as told in "Cousin Dupree," and "Gaslighting Abbie's" cabalistic story line. Even if we have to wait another couple of decades for the next Steely Dan project, TWO AGAINST NATURE is the kind of classic fare that will continue to provide sustenance for years to come.