Recorded at tiny home studios throughout New York City, Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos is his most intimate and quirkily entertaining album since 1982′s The Nightfly. At times recalling Steely Dan’s classic Gaucho and The Royal Scam albums, Sunken Condos glows with comfy R&B grooves, lovely, ear-wrapping melodies and Fagen’s sharply droll lyrics. Populated with an amusing cast of characters, including a bowling alley “queen” (“Miss Marlene”), Runyonesque gangsters (“Good Stuff”), an interloping IT repairman (“The New Breed”), and Fagen’s usual entourage of young women (“Slinky Thing”) and ghost lovers (“I’m Not The Same Without You”), Sunken Condos also features what Fagen dubs “an Ashkenazi recasting” of Isaac Hayes’s “Out of the Ghetto,” the original’s blaxploitation strut transplanted, via wailing folk horns, to Warsaw, not Harlem.
Lacking the corporate budget of such mid-’00s Steely Dan albums as Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, Fagen instead focused on getting the most bang for his studio buck on Sunken Condos. Produced by longtime SD multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart, Sunken Condos radiates warmth through relaxed vocals and an overall softer production style, built on lush Rhodes piano, organ and synthesizers; glowing vibraphone; female background vocals, and Leonhart’s delicate, Herbie Lovelle-styled drumming. As always, popping brass arrangements and wry guitar solos frame Fagen’s songs like twin Borscht Belt comedians trading barbs on a Catskills weekend.
Opener “Slinky Thing” puts Fagen’s aging mojo to the test, the 64-year-old fielding harangues from homeless men and hipsters alike admonishing him to “hold on to that slinky thing,” an updated “Hey Nineteen”-styled girlfriend he describes as “a lithe young beauty.” “I’m Not The Same Without You” blasts Fagen out of his funk, a disco-driven burner promoting the joys of being single, but coming from this grizzled curmudgeon you don’t believe the feel-good sentiments for a second. Sunken Condos is so colorful and quirky, with its eccentric characters and catchy songs, it could make for a fantastic series of one-act plays. Donald Fagen continues to work below the radar, an exceptional observer/craftsman in true Brill Building style.