I decided to use my Mondays to review albums that, for one reason or another, failed for me. That’s sort of the spirit of a Monday, right? I’ll kick off that policy with Steely Dan’s 1972 release, Can’t Buy a Thrill.
Some folks out there may be looking at me like I’m an idiot for suggesting that the album ain’t up to scratch. After all, it’s on Rolling Stone’s top 500 list at number 238 – it made the top 50%. Well, I could say some things about those top (x) album of all time lists… they tend to be shortsighted and focused more on who’s hot now than on who actually made a good album. Both of Tommy Bolin’s solo albums are absolutely amazing, but neither of them made it to a top 500 list. I think both of them are better than this album, but Bolin’s dead and can’t promote his work, so there we are.
Of the ten songs on the album, I only like four, and two of those are flat-out amazing. “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” deserve a better fate than this album. If they took “Kings” and “Change of the Guard” with them to start a new album, I’d wish them the best of success. The other six tracks reveal how insecure the very early Steely Dan was with itself. David Palmer, the lead vocalist on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” is just not right for the songs crafted by Becker and Fagen. He was brought in because Fagen had issues with stage fright and the execs at ABC records were worried that Fagen’s voice wouldn’t be commercial enough. Shows what they know, right?
I remember hearing “Dirty Work” when I was a kid and I took an immediate dislike to it, particularly the vocals. By contrast, I kinda liked the sly wit in “Do It Again” and I thought the vocals were perfect for that little number. Imagine my surprise when I got the boxed set of Steely Dan and hit the former song immediately after enjoying the latter song. I tried to reconcile the paradox, but failed. As a result, I skip right over “Dirty Work.” In a modern context, that means I never bothered to rip that song from the CD to my hard drive. Same thing for five other songs off the album.
As an EP with just the four songs I like, Can’t Buy a Thrill actually works out well. “Kings” seems to foreshadow Watergate in an eerie way and “Change of the Guard” has a good vibe through it that points towards “Time Out of Mind” off of Gaucho. “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again” are classic rock radio staples, but they remain as fresh to me today as they were when I first heard them. I attribute the quality of the lyrics and songwriting to their staying power. If I had to purchase this album with today’s technology, I’d download individual MP3s of the songs I liked, unless I could find a copy of the CD for less than $4, shipping and handling included. Given S&H prices these days, it looks like a digital download as the best way to go if one insists upon an album-by-album purchase.
Don’t let the lameness of six of the tracks scare you away from buying Steely Dan’s boxed set. Citizen Steely Dan is a great one-stop shop of all of SD’s greatness from 1972-1980. I’ve been very happy with my ownership of that product. I suppose my satisfaction is enhanced by the fact that I only ripped the 48 tracks I like the most and left the other 18 on the CD. Two of the tracks I disregarded were live performances that are nice from an archival perspective, but not eminently listenable. That leaves 16 studio tracks I didn’t care for, and six of those came from this album. By comparison, I only skipped three out of eight from Steely Dan’s second album, 2 of 11 from Pretzel Logic, 3 of 10 from Katy Lied, 2 out of 9 from The Royal Scam, and no skips from the excellent Aja and Gaucho.
But if you’re looking for a thrill in Can’t Buy a Thrill, you’ll find it all right, but the cost may be too high if you have to carry the deadweight on the album. Overall, it’s a sad little 4 on a 1-10 scale. If it was an EP with the four songs I liked off it, that rating would be higher. Listening to it makes me so glad Fagen got over his insecurity and became the voice for Steely Dan.