The first Steely Dan song I ever loved was “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” I was in 10th grade, just getting into classic rock, and I absolutely fell in love with that song when I heard it on the radio. Luckily for me, my dad’s a Steely Dan fan, and he had their double-disc greatest hits collection Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972-1980, which ended up appearing on my original list of 50 favorite albums I made a few years ago. That was just a different time for me. I had just blown open the door to classic rock, and I wanted to get my hands on as much as I could, as fast as I could, so greatest hits albums were just a more convenient option. After a while, I really wanted to hear more Steely Dan and hear their complete albums, so I started with the three albums that appeared on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums list: Aja (1977), Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) and Pretzel Logic (1974).
I bought Aja and Can’t Buy a Thrill for my dad as a thank you for having Showbiz Kids, but for some reason I bought Pretzel Logic for myself …and I never listened to it. It was there — on my computer, on my iPod, and then on my iPhone — but I still didn’t listen to it. I had already listened to the hits from it on Showbiz Kids, and though I loved them dearly, I just felt like my Steely Dan appetite was satisfied somehow. I listened to Aja and Can’t Buy a Thrill instead, the latter of which made my original list but failed to make the cut this time around. (Yeah, it’s an honorable mention.) I was still drinking the classic rock Kool Aid pretty heavily back then, but now I view Can’t Buy a Thrill, their most “classic rock” album, to be the least interesting of their ’70s albums.
Beginning with Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), their sound became much more dynamic, as they became less of a band and more of a recording unit, inviting in the best session musicians in the business and sculpting their recordings with painstaking precision. Even today they are considered production gods. Listen to the tones, the textures, the perfect bass, the clarity. It reminds me of that line in Rounders (one of my favorite movies) when Matt Damon says, “I have what’s known as the wheel. It has earthy tones, smooth draw, and enough kick to win me both the high and the low.” Steely Dan sure know how to deliver the wheel. Pretzel Logic is Steely Dan’s brightest, lightest, and, at just over 34 minutes, slightest album in their catalog. I think that’s why I overlooked it for so long. I never listened to it hard enough.
Despite being so breezily entertaining, it’s kind of wispy and hard to fully grasp, like a piece of cloud. Now that I think about it, Pretzel Logic always seems even shorter than it is; it’s one of the quickest listens out there, with only two tracks longer four minutes. But I’ve never felt cheated in any way; I feel like it’s exactly as long as it’s supposed to be. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” turned out to be Steely Dan’s biggest hit, reaching number 4 on the Hot 100, yet it manages to fit perfectly into Pretzel Logic‘s lineup of songs that, for the most part, aren’t particularly commercial. They may be accessible and appealing, but there isn’t much single material here. “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” is delightfully old-fashioned, and “Through with Buzz” almost comes across as some kind of ode to the Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby.” A lot of the songs don’t seem fully formed, which is actually a good thing, since they have the musicianship and songwriting panache to pull it off. They simply move on instead of lingering. It’s a legitimate tactic when it works.