review: two against nature

August 10, 2006

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In January of 2000, jazz-rock masters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker recorded a private concert for a lucky few fans at Sony Music Studios in New York City, playing both classics from their voluminous discography and new material for their then-upcoming Two Against Nature album, the first for Steely Dan in twenty years. After the concert aired on PBS’ In The Spotlight series, Image Entertainment released it on VHS and DVD, the latter release featuring a wonderful DTS 5.1 surround track. For Dan fans new (that’s me) and old, this release offers much of the fun of a concert experience, but with superior sonics and intimacy.

Even at 52, Donald Fagen’s voice, at once both playful and sinister, comes through clearly from the very first track (an updated take on fan favorite “Green Earrings”). Sporting his trademark close-cropped hair and tinted glasses, he and partner Becker are accompanied on this musical romp by a cadre of superbly talented musicians, including guitarist Jon Herington and the late, great saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus. The tone of the performance is lighthearted at times, somber at others, and always intriguing, not least because the performers are clearly having a ball in their seemingly effortless waltz through decades of Dan history.

Nearly as entertaining as the music are the interspersed interviews with enthused attendees, backup singers, and instrumentalists, who provide anecdotes of their own experiences with the band’s music and offer wildly varying interpretations of its meaning and inspirations. Together, they offer viewers tantalizing yet frustratingly limited glimpses at the sources of Steely Dan’s immense popularity. And then there are the segments with Fagen and Becker, whose refusal to take most anything seriously–except for the music, of course–manifests in hilariously deadpan non-responses to interviewers’ questions and is fully realized in a series of mock-public-access-television “interviews” in a blindingly white room between the duo and various musicians. You’ll have to stifle a chortle when the overhead boom microphone begins frantically waving to-and-fro, and it’s eccentricities like this that make the disc such a peculiarly wonderful thing to see.

On the technical side, the concert is capably shot in digital video, though with camera angles whose extremity can raise an eyebrow from time to time. Happily, the editors take pains to ensure that all areas of the band, from Fagen and Becker to the cornet and trombone players, receive adequate coverage, and in any case it is far above what you would experience at a live concert. Fagen is still the undisputed star of the recording, however, demonstrating again and again his mastery of the piano and defining command of each piece’s impossibly convoluted musical progression. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio options included, but both are outmatched significantly by the aforementioned DTS 5.1 track, which sounds nearly as good as the band’s impeccably engineered albums.

The whole experience is a singularly thrilling one which could easily induce a strong desire to attend one of Steely Dan’s live concerts. If so, take note: the band is currently on tour throughout the United States, details of which can be found at their website (which is well worth a visit besides). Alas, circumstances have conspired to prevent this reviewer from taking part, so I will have to settle for this quintessentially authentic facsimile. Not a bad compromise at all, in my estimation.

–D. S. W.

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