Saturday, 2 July 2016

"Countdown To Ecstasy" by STEELY DAN (2008 and 2011 Japan Universal SHM-CD in 5" Mini LP Artwork) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...I Detect The El Supremo..."

How do you follow a debut like "Can't Buy A Thrill" - classy, precise, rammed to the gills with tunes that still stand up a whopping 44 years? And it had two-headed sucker punch of tunes - the Farfisa organ twinkle of "Do It Again" and Elliott Randall's Guitar pyrotechnics on "Reelin' In The Years". How do you follow one of the best starts? Simple – for round two - you go one better.

Yet their second platter of brilliance "Countdown To Ecstasy" (along with 1975's "Katy Lied") always seems to lag behind - overlooked for the obvious genius of 1976's "The Royal Scam" and especially 1977's meisterwork - "Aja". Yet of all the albums I play to death from that Golden Era - it's "Countdown To Ecstasy" that amazes me the most. With the twin vocalists of Don Palmer and Donald Fagen on the debut reduced to just Donald Fagen - this record feels like the first 'real' Steely Dan album - a Becker/Fagan album - their sound - their songs - done their way. Which brings us to this gorgeous Japan-Only SHM-CD reissue...

This review is for the 25 June 2008 SHM-CD Issue of "Countdown To Ecstasy" by STEELY DAN on Universal/Geffen UICY-93518 (Barcode 4988005518309). 

It comes in 5" Mini LP Repro Artwork (the US album on ABC Records) and includes a repro of the lyric insert that came with original copies (41:13 minutes total playing time). There's an outer OBI band with reissue details, the fold-out colour booklet that came with the 1998 Becker/Fagen CD Remasters (their caustic liner notes) as well as a separate 16-page Japanese booklet in white (all details in Japanese). Please also note that this SHM-CD of "Countdown To Ecstasy" was reissued 29 December 2011 with the same catalogue number and Barcode (to confuse matters) and there's been a further Platinum SHM-CD version too from July 2014 using a new remaster.

What is a SHM-CD and does it sound better than the standard 1998 issue that's available very cheaply? Some say yes, others say it's a con. It was developed in 2008 by JVC as a brand new form of CD with far better retrieval capabilities. The problem is that they are ONLY available in JAPAN and usually at considerably higher cost. Also one of the biggest arguments put forward 'against' them is that you need a high-end player to get the best out of these CDs. I don't agree. I own about 15 of these beauties and the sound on all is more than impressive - it's in the musicality - it's in the details. I would say however that if the remaster is recent - and its on SHM - and you've a half decent player - then the combo of all 3 will produce wonderful sonic results (see my recent review for James Taylor's "Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon" on Japanese SHM-CD). Let's get to the album itself and the Audio on this 2008 and 2011 SHM-CD reissue...

1. Bodhisattva
2. Razor Boy
3. The Boston Rag
4. Your Gold Teeth
5. Show Biz Kids
6. My Old School
7. Pearl Of The Quarter
8. King Of The World
Tracks 1 to 8 are their 2nd studio album "Countdown To Ecstasy" - released July 1973 in the USA on ABC Records ABCX-779 and September 1973 in the UK on Probe Records SPB 1079 (reissued October 1974 in the UK on ABC Records ABCL 5034). Produced by GARY KATZ and Engineered by ROGER NICHOLS - it peaked at No. 35 on the Pop Charts in the USA but didn't chart in the UK.

It opens with utter brilliance - "Bodhisattva". Described on their lyric insert as 'Diaz the Bebopper meets Baxter the Skunk beneath the Bo Tree in this altered Blues' - you're immediately walloped with the clarity of Jim Hodder's Drums and both Denny Dias and future Doobie Brother Jeff "Skunk" Baxter tearing it on their respective guitars. As Guitar Rock goes – it’s a stormer. The Victor Feldman Vibes and Donald Fagen Piano playing on "Razor Boy" is startling - that beautifully tight rhythm section too sailing out of your speakers with a sexy swagger. In August 1973 both ABC in the States and Probe Records in the UK put it on the B-side of “Show Biz Kids” as a 45 (ABC Records 11382 vs. Probe PRO 602). On the strength of the A-side – it peaked at No. 61 in the USA.

Brilliant is the only word to describe the deceptively simple Guitar run that works its way throughout the whole of "The Boston Rag". You can now also hear those Acoustic Guitars played by guest musician Ben Benay. I’ve still no idea what the “...Lonnie was the Kingpin...” lyrics are about - but given those guitar solos and clever keyboard breaks – I get the lyric insert explanation telling us that ‘several members of The Dan get to “stretch out”’ on the song. Side one ends with the seven-minute chug and shug of "Your Gold Teeth". A wickedly groovy keyboard jaunt with Donald disdainfully sneering as he sings "...Torture is the main attraction...I don't need that kind of action..." I'd also forgotten how good the guitar flicks throughout are - that keyboard solo - and the treated backing vocals of Sherlie Matthews, Myrna Matthews, Patricia hall, David Palmer, Royce Jones, James Rolleston and Michael Fennelly - it all sounds amazing on this SHM-CD.

Probably the bitterest and most self-knowing of songs in their amazing repertoire – "Show Biz Kids" lays into self-obsessed party types and showcases the extraordinary Slide Guitar of Rick Derringer who gives the song the kind of muscle and magic Elliott Randal gave to “Reelin’ In The Years”. As the girls chant "'s only life's wages..." and sing "...while the poor people sleepin' with the shade of the light...all the stars come out at night..." - many of them wearing Steely Dan teeshirts as they make films about themselves. The chipper "My Old School" features a four-man Brass Section arranged by Jimmie Haskell and was also chosen as an A-side on both sides of the pond in November 1973 (ABC Records 11396, Probe Records PRO 606). As it jaunt and funks along like its Tower Of Power meets Steely Dan - the lyrics tell us that Daddy is going to be "...quite surprised to find you with the working girls in the County Jail..."(nice). “My Old School” is a brilliant little bopper and an emotional upper on a largely sarcastic album.

The lovely pedal steel of "Pearl Of The Quarter" (the B-side of "Show Biz Kids" on both sides of the pond) bolsters up a gorgeous melody and the closest the album gets to an actual 'love song'. The audio on this baby perhaps impresses most. It ends on the weird yet thrilling wah-wah rhythms of "King of The World" - treated guitars and keyboards while Jim Hodder keeps it so tight on the drums. The Remaster brings out all those guitar and keyboard parts as Fagan sings " marigolds in the promised-land...there's a hole in the ground where they used to grow..." And that stomping break towards the end is f**king brilliant...

Even now - with a distance of 43 years - I'm gobsmacked at the musical accomplishment on "Countdown To Ecstasy". Rooted in the brilliance of their October 1972 "Can't Buy A Thrill" debut LP and yet advanced a million miles away from it in less than nine months.

You can get the 1998 CD for peanuts - but if like me you have to have the best when it comes to the best band of the Seventies - then these dinky Japanese SHM-CDs are the 'gold teeth' for you...

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