On The Dunes: Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad at 30
Celebrating the Steely Dan man’s second solo stand
Even seven years following the start of his prolonged split from constant collaborator Walter Becker, the ghost of Steely Dan continued to hover over Donald Fagen.
That’s little surprise of course; his vocals, keyboards and combined pop/jazz inflections defined Steely Dan, as much if not more so, that any of the musicians who contributed to that classic combo, Becker included.
As a result, it might have seemed a somewhat daunting task to try and establish his own identity, while distinguishing himself from that band — and brand — both prominently and presumably. Notably though, there was a span of nearly 11 years between the release of his solo debut, 1982’s semi-autobiographical The Nightfly, and its follow-up, Kamakiriad, which made its bow on May 25, 1993. Steely Dan had been moribund for the most part since 1980 and wouldn’t resurface — formally at least — until 2000. Consequently, Fagen had plenty of time to consider his next move, making the pause between recordings all the more auspicious.
The truth was, Fagen was anything but inactive. He contributed to several film soundtracks, played a key role in the supergroup of sorts, the New York Rock and Soul Revue, and reasserted his bond with Becker by producing the latter’s first solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack. Becker reciprocated by producing and playing on Kamakiriad, leading even the most casual observers to wonder why the two didn’t simply decide to revive Steely Dan.
Why they didn’t do so remains a bit of a mystery, especially considering the fact that Kamakiriad sounds like a Steely Dan album. That’s evident at the outset, from “Trans-Island Skyway” through to such obvious Steely sound-alike as “Countermoon,” “Springtime,” “Snowbound,” and, well, every other track in this remarkably consistent collection. One might imagine that this material would found a marvelous fit on the Aja album, with certain songs coming so close to Steely standards like “Aja,” “Hey Nineteen” and “FM” that they could have been spun out originally at the same time and then left in storage.
Fagen’s affection for jazz informs all of these entries, and yet, like nearly any Steely Dan song, there’s no denying the accessibility factor at the same time. That said, Kamakiriad does swing a bit more, with “Florida Room” being one of the more obvious examples. So too, the sprawling “On the Dunes” sounds like one of those relaxed and reflective entries the Dan did early on, being effortlessly engaging in the manner of a swaying serenade. “Teahouse on the Tracks” offers another case of musical deja vu; it’s a song that boasts that certain sound, one that could be considered an accrual of borrowed bits culled from the Steely Dan songbook.
Notably, Kamakiriad was conceived as a concept album revolving around the narrator’s fixation with a futuristic car called the Kamakiri, which, translated from the Japanese, means “praying mantra.” Although a lyric sheet was provided, the theme mattered less than the music. Consider the fact that it was nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year.
VIDEO: Donald Fagen “Snowbound”
That’s significant, because while the similarity to Steely Dan never loosens its grip, in a sense, Fagen was simply reclaiming a sound that he had maintained and masterminded since early on. The obvious artistry, the seamless style and the comfort and competency displayed herein proved that his prowess was still fully fueled, lest anyone believe his relative absence indicated otherwise.
Granted, Fagen’s followers might defer to the Steely Dan catalog over his solo outings if ever they compile a list of Fagen favorites. After all, it’s hard to compete with those heralded classics. Yet, when given full considerations, Kamakiriad ought to be considered yet another example of Fagen at his finest.
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