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Return of the gaucho amigos

Steely Dan goes Two Against Nature

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"She puts on a record, metallic cocaine be-bop." This line, from the harrowing "A.J.'s Annual Party" scene in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, seems a portent of the distinctive sound and ambience of Steely Dan, a band legendary for its cryptic lyrics, opium den demeanor and flawless musicianship. After 19 years wandering as shades in the classic rock radio netherworld, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have written yet another chapter in one of the most eclectic and eccentric oeuvres in pop music.

Steely Dan is most adequately described as the conspiratorial/collaborative nom de plume for Fagen and Becker. Drawing upon the black-humored Beats (they slyly cribbed their moniker from a dynastic line of dildos in Naked Lunch), New Orleans jazz and cerebral pop stylizations, Steely Dan produced a string of critically and commercially acclaimed albums from 1972 to 1980. After disappearing from view at the beginning of the '80s, Becker and Fagen resurfaced occasionally over the course of the next decade with their respective solo projects and collaborations, but it seemed the people's Steely Dan had become extinct.

However, the pair's ninth and latest studio album, Two Against Nature, marks the duo's long awaited return. Though standing virtually alone in terms of its individual artistic vision, the record does not veer tangentially from the Dan's trademark tongue-in-cheek delivery. Delving into the same sub-cultural dregs of their previous albums, Steely Dan has yet again offered up a set of deceptively understated tunes: sketches of drug-peddling quacks, vicious jail-bait ingenues and the goings-on in smoky dungeons on both coasts abound.

The latest roster of shady characters and ambiguous events in their newest crop of songs will doubtlessly inspire the same endless conjecture from fans, just as its predecessors have done. But according to Walter Becker, the yarns Steely Dan spins in their songs are largely symbolic. "Generally speaking, and almost without exception, the characters and specific situations in our lyrics are fiction," Becker says. "And as such, they are true to our sensibility and our sense of what life is, and the experiences that we've had."

Becker and Fagen, ever-fond of the insular world of the studio, swore off playing live in 1974 and Steely Dan remained absent from the stage until their impromptu 1993 tour, which was remarkably well attended. "We had an unusual circumstance in our career of having a long period of time in which we never played in public," Becker says. "So initially when we went out on tour in 1993, we had a backlog of songs we'd recorded that people wanted to hear. By the time we did the second tour [in 1994] we knew that we would need new songs."

A loose batch of tunes, which would eventually comprise Two Against Nature, had begun to take shape in 1996. "At some point we considered the idea that we should do something radically different from what we'd done before. We had talked about doing [this record] for a while," Becker says. "We decided at the end of 1995 that we were going to do this, and in the summer of '96 we did some writing and produced a couple of tunes."

The release of the new record and its accompanying tour have met with excellent reviews, though the Dan's sense of timing has left critics clamoring for "Reelin' in the Years" puns. Steely Dan's triumphant resurgence is something of a surprise, since Two Against Nature's closest relative is the group's acclaimed 20-year-old recording, Gaucho.

"Here are a couple of nearly 50-year-old guys who'd decided to renew their career in pop music after many years, and who were essentially trying to pull off the same trick they'd pulled off for so many years," Becker laughs. "My theory is that part of the reason [the new album] was so warmly received, aside from the fact that people obviously liked the music, stems from the substantial effort that went into it. We approached this record in pretty much the same way we did in the old days, in terms of how much time we spent on it, and how serious we were. I think this earned the goodwill of a lot of people. The general expectation is that a band who gets back together to do this sort of thing would do it in a perfunctory way, hoping to capitalize on former celebrity."

And the likelihood of future Steely Dan projects?

"It's very possible," Becker says. "I'm not sure what we'll do next, we've talked about all sorts of things. But after working on the record, we were looking forward to the situation that we're in now -- going out and playing these songs with a live band, and we have a big summer and fall of that coming up. I don't think we have any firm plans beyond that."

"But," he adds, "we've already made our wills, of course."

Steely Dan perform at Chastain Park Amphitheater on July 17 and 18. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $36.50-$86.50, available through Ticketmaster.

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