STEELY DAN Alive In America (Giant)

It had to happen, I suppose, and of course there had to be a CD of it too: chucklesome as is their admission that their return was so they could "fly around in a private jet for a month or two" it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that, with only three solo albums to show from their last 15 years of (in)activity, Don and Walt might need the money, too - perhaps more than we need noteperfect renditions of tracks taken mainly from their last three, least wonderful, studio albums (nothing from "Pretzel Logic" or "Katy Lied", criminally), no matter how interesting a new sax break here or a mild rearrangement there might be (clue: not very). There are, however, some redeeming features that lift "Alive In America" a little way above other contenders in the comeback live album genre, mainly from Walter Becker: his sleevenote essay is worth the price of admission on its own - his too-brief song analysis will confirm every Dan-interpreter’s long harboured suspicions - not forgetting "Book Of Liars", which suggests his solo album was unjustly neglected (by me, at least). But on the other side of the scales, the duo’s legendary perfectionism has ensured that you have a goodly proportion of this disc’s 66 minute duration already, such is the uncanny accuracy with which they reproduce the original arrangements in concert. "Slide into decadence or healing regression?" asks the booklet more than once: the former, I’d have to conclude. Steely Dan’s barbed jousting at the West Coast and its trappings is strangely diminished by idolatrous applause.

STEELY DAN Two Against Nature (Giant)

Never the most driven of bands, Steely Dan took twenty years off following the release of their last album, "Gaucho", peppering their vacation time with fitful solo careers, production work and the occasional water-testing tour and live album. Finally Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have regrouped, surrounded (it must be assumed, because the sleevenotes on this belatedly released and painfully thin vinyl pressing are conspicuously absent) by the cream of American session talent.

"Two Against Nature" doesn't really sound like anything previously released under the Steely Dan franchise. At the time of their hiatus Walt and Don had spent two albums iterating towards a freeze-dried amalgam of discretely perspiratory jazz rock and deep, penetrating cynicism. This post-millennial model is closer to the spirit of Fagen's second solo outing, the finger-popping whitebread conceptual funk of "Kamakiriad". Accept that, and "Two Against Nature"'s heavily encoded, clipped tales of pyromania, incest and fiftysomething urban paranoia make for crisply refreshing listening. However, at no time does anybody cut loose and display their jazz 'chops' (as on the title track of "Aja", for example), or a four minute nugget of pop perfection (see any of the Dan's first four albums for further details) haul itself above the impeccable coffee table bubble and froth. In fact the closest they get to an old school Steely Dan classic is the closing "West Of Hollywood", which could possibly be mistaken for a more comfortably upholstered version of "King Of The World".

Nevertheless, "Two Against Nature" is a slab of solid, quality craftsmanship that does nothing to disgrace the trademark. It's in an entirely different league to the depressing ritual of 'album-as-tour-supplement' releases that seem to have plagued just about every band treading the comeback trail (even those who never really went away), from The Rolling Stones to poor old Oasis. But is it unreasonable to expect something a little better than that?