STEELY DAN — The Royal Scam (review)

STEELY DAN — The Royal Scam album cover Album · 1976 · RnB Buy this album from MMA partners
3.5/5 ·
Sean Trane
Second album for the studio-era Dan, and finally the Becker-Fagen duo comes to realize their potential fully, easily surpassing their previous best Countdown To Ecstasy. And just like Ecstasy, this Royal Scam has few and longer tracks, six tracks over 4 minutes, including two nearing the 6 minutes, thus allowing for what every proghead yearns for, instrumental interplay. With the usual cast of suspects supporting the duo, the album is the first of Dan’s brilliant trilogy. Released in early 76 with an incredible artwork, one that hits the gloomiest of thoughts (for some colourful reasons I always think of Giger’s works on BSS or Magma’s Attakh album) that fits well the disillusion slowly entering the North American public

Starting on one of SD’s proggiest song Kid Charlemagne, with its incessant rhythm breaks and that dreamy piano that Alan Parsons would make his. The funky groove is also perfect in accompanying the burial of the hippie dreams/ideals lyrics that were still pervading in many youths (including yours truly, but I wasn’t listening ;o)))). No-less excellent is the non-prog but full-blown brass-rock Altamira Caves, where a superb brass section at the start and end of the song and shows that SD can do normal songs of theirs sound interesting. The album doesn’t seem to slow down one bit with the guitar-laden Don’t Take Me Alive, where there is some dramatics involved, the only glitch being the usual Dan backing vocals (yes, these that make SD soooo special that you instantly know you’re in a SD song) that are a bit too encumbering. The following funky Sign In Stranger is probably the album’s weakest track, but it would probably be a highlight in Pretzel or Thrill, but the funky-reggae tune has some fun lyrics moments, but ultimately doesn’t cut the mustard with its acoustic piano except around the end. Closing side 1 is the ultra-funky The Fez, a track that is content in staying in the groove except for one break, and has weird synth tones lying above the schmilblik. Not the most fascinating but holds its own on this album.

Opening the flipside is Green Earring with its jazz-funk that most black groups of the era would’ve love to call their own if it was for more soulful vocals. Not that it’s proggy or something, but it’s got arguments for itself. The reggae-ish Haitian Divorce is definitely another highlight and allows much space for interplay between a vocal-effect guitar, some rhythmic vibes and a pulsing bass that grows as the song grows longer. After another weaker track (Everything You Did) that would easily fit as a highlight onto Pretzel or Kati, the album is closing on the fantastic self-titled finale which has definitely seen SD come as one of the forces to be recognized with during the second part of the 70’s. The track is quickly installed with an incredible groove and some wild jazzy horns covering everyone of your living room’s corners, while Fagen tells us of the great American dream turning into a royal scam. The artwork fits quite well these lyrics as there are monsters atop the four Manhattan skyscrapers, ready to strike anyone trying to come up the echelons of an already too crowded pyramid top and all to ready to send you back on the subway station bench.

While never being a complete head-over-heels fan of SD (I wouldn’t place a SD album in my top 300), it is clear TRS is clearly one of their better albums, the first of a trilogy that no self-respecting proghead should ignore, some 30 years later. I know I sure as hell missed the SD wave back in the 70’s for their songwriting was about writing songs, instead of numbers, epics, tracks or pieces of music, and their sometimes too-similar song structure to the industry standard didn’t appeal to me who was still a teenager, while SD was the epitome and probably the best example of Adult Oriented Rock, a movement that they probably invented with Thrill, but would take a few more years to invade Adult Oriented Radios that would flood the airwaves in the later 70’s. In the meantime, those progheads not willing to accept SD as a prog group, should probably do so after re-listening carefully to TRS, Aja and Gaucho.

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