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Steely Dan but it's just my voice
Creativity, expression, and the irony of being earnest
Reproduced from my personal pub Le Valet d’Coeur.
The most misunderstood band of all time
Steely Dan’s music is ubiquitous, as close as a trip to the supermarket, your middle-of-the-road classic rock radio station, or your geeky audiophile acquaintance. I’d wager everyone over the age of 30 knows at least one of their songs and harbors strong opinions about them. Boring, over-arranged elevator music. Self-indulgent musical wankery. Wannabe jazz cats that are anything but cool. Or maybe you’re one of the initiated lifelong Dan Fans who debate the finer points of Skunk Baxter’s guitar tone as you scoff at the relative commercial accessibility of Aja, or smirk smugly to yourself as you catch the obscure pop culture or literary reference dropped effortlessly in a passing lyric.
What’s much more rarely discussed is the spirit of Steely Dan. Who are these hipster doofuses, and why did they make these songs? Why is smooth jazz the backing track to these bizarre and unserious lyrics? To paraphrase It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, no one creates art for no reason, who are they writing these songs versus? This is a duo that wrote an open letter to Owen Wilson mercilessly mocking him for daring to star in a movie that obliquely referenced the title of a Steely Dan song. They also sent public, unsolicited, and detailed advice to Wes Anderson in response to their perception of his declining career.
To name it is to kill it
Writing about music has famously been compared to dancing about architecture. But even beyond the normal challenges around the written interpretation of music, to attempt to decipher the mystique of the spirit of Steely Dan (the Dangeist if you will) only leads you to the used-up traces of a recently concluded rager. Why wasn’t I invited? you ask yourself. Well, because you were looking too hard. The problem with being cool is if you like or desire being cool, you’re no longer cool. And despite surrounding themselves with all the trappings of cool, Steely Dan mock “cool” relentlessly. It’s arguably the single thread running through their entire diverse catalog. Which is…kind of cool?
Enter the real interpreter
Enough of my flailing word vomit. When Steely Dan makes me gush about the music’s “real merit” I can hear myself losing the plot as well as my audience. I’ve long since resigned myself to experiencing it alone, and letting go of the illusion of understanding in this complex rhetorical context. Then I discovered the Holy Grail of Verstehen and my Steely Dan world turned upside down.
While searching fruitlessly on YouTube for a decent cover version of “Pretzel Logic” (one of my all-time favorite Dan tunes, a classic blues progression with lyrics vaguely referencing time travel), I found a poorly-drawn image of the Pretzel Logic album cover for a video titled “pretzel logic but it’s just my voice” from Australian user Imus1245and thought it would be a good laugh. What happened next shook me.
How to not take anything seriously while being more serious than anyone else
YouTube is full of meme-y videos whose concept alone warrants a click (start with “All Star but its <blank>” for an idea of what I’m talking about). They usually get a chortle or maybe if it’s really good, a share after listening to about half of it. I was fully prepared for that experience here. My first impression was surprise that this method was employed for the entire album, not just a single song that would have yielded the same enjoyment for much, much less effort on the creator’s part. Still, I clicked the timestamp to jump to the titular track and began listening. Ok, I thought, this isn’t just a guy badly singing along, he is recreating every sound on the track, from the intro organ, to drums, to glorious multipart harmonies. The sheer time and effort that it must have taken to produce this, even at 50% effort and doing no more than a single take, must have been…let’s just say impractical. And while the genre of the video (from the primitive recreation of the iconic album cover photo to the meme-compliant format of the YouTube title) put me in the mindset that someone was doing this for a laugh rather than an earnest acapella masterpiece, I found that the longer I listened, the more I found myself in awe.
I mentioned Imus1245 recreated the organ sound in the intro of the song. But the thing about the organ is you can play several notes at once with different fingers. When we sing along to instrumental songs say in the car, we pick one voice from whatever instrument we’re hearing and sing it out. Not Imus1245. He has more or less faithfully recreated every instrumental harmony that stands out to the ear (as well as every vocal harmony) to capture the spirit, if not the tonal perfection, of the source material.
What is a faithful reproduction?
It’s said that professional sound engineers will use the Steely Dan album Aja as a reference to test the calibration of a sound system, for its studio perfection and Steely Dan’s insistence on perfection. Dan front man Donald Fagen apparently refuses to listen to one of the band’s most famous albums Katy Lied because of an issue with the studio’s noise reduction system.
It seems clear from the first moment that Imus1245 possesses neither the vocal talent nor the desire to impress with his singing ability. Every part he records, both instrumental and vocal, sounds like he’s absentmindedly singing to himself while doing chores. Yet paradoxically, he puts forth the effort to do so for every single audible sound on each song for seven complete Steely Dan studio albums. He is clearly musically gifted, as these videos as well as his own original jazz compositions on the channel demonstrate.
But why do this for a joke? What explains the maniacal level of dedication required to see this project through? Sure, you could ask the same questions of Steely Dan proper, but at least they got paid and grew a large fanbase. Imus1245 gets neither. Most of his videos have received under a thousand views, though the scant comments on his creations are universally positive. What’s his angle? Who is he doing this versus?
You would be forgiven if, after listening to a few seconds of any of these videos featuring off key, spirited wailing, you came to the conclusion that Imus1245 was making Steely Dan the butt of an elaborate joke. After all, historically they have been easy targets. Their music lacks an edge, a rebelliousness, something that grabs your attention and forces you to reckon with it. Or does it? Maybe it’s just hidden in the subtext, discernable only through explication. Likewise, it seems to me that Imus1245 has bestowed upon Steely Dan his highest flattery, not via perfect imitation but from a faithful reproduction of Dangeist.
Imus1245 has uploaded a number of original music EPs to his channel that I would describe as “bedroom jazz fusion.” His first “but it’s just my voice” videos are single-take reproductions of Jacob Collier works, uploaded just over a year ago. He has a handful of other albums by different artists on his channel, but recently has focused exclusively on Steely Dan.