Thursday, July 11, 2013

If you like (certain) new Daft Punk OR Mayer Hawthorne, thank Steely Dan

From the moment their first album, Can't Buy a Thrill, debuted in 1972, Steely Dan was a band that defied traditional rock and roll tropes. Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, the duo behind Steely Dan, were frequently ahead of their time musically, preferring jazz influences, slick-sounding and complex production techniques and ironic, high-level lyrics. As a result, the sound they pioneered has remained an entrenched and elemental framework for indie music that only seems to get fresher with age. They've influenced everyone from Rickie Lee Jones to the Mountain Goats and their influence shows no signs of waning.

In fact, two of the summer's most-anticipated new releases feature songs that are clear homages to (if not downright imitations of) Steely Dan.

First there is Daft Punk's track "Fragments of Time" from the critically-acclaimed Random Access Memories:

Hear the synth-happy melodic hooks, the warm guitar riff, the nostalgic, post-collegiate lyrics? All of these are direct hallmarks of the Steely Dan sound, as evidenced on "Hey Nineteen" (which bears a remarkably similar tone and chord structure to "Fragments of Time," just at a slowed-down speed):

Now consider Mayer Hawthorne's "Reach Out Richard" from the soon-to-be-released Where Does This Door Go (click link to hear the album version via NPR or try this live version):

This song is such a direct imitation of Steely Dan's "Peg" that it would almost be easier to mention the things that are different about them:

Mayer Hawthorne's song has a slightly more traditional 12-bar blues structure than the complex chord changes present in "Peg," but the central rhythm, tone and shape of the song are remarkably similar to the Steely Dan song, written in 1974. Both songs are written from the perspective of a third-person narrator. Both songs employ a backing chorus that echoes the central rhythm of the song with harmony and melody. Hawthorne's verses are more connected, legato... but the chorus returns to a syllabic, staccato sound prevalent on the Steely Dan track. The influence is unmistakable.

So remember, if you like the new Daft Punk or Mayer Hawthorne, thank Steely Dan.