A Steely Dan fan recalls the evolution of his fandom in honor of the band's intimate theater date, while Nine Inch Nails remains relevant and ferocious with new album The Slip and its Lights in the Sky tour

Aug 13, 2008 at 4:00 am

A mere two months after unexpectedly unleashing the murky instrumental collection Ghosts I-IV, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor one-upped even himself by releasing a new studio album, The Slip, via nin.com — for free. This quiet appearance was in direct contrast to the promotional hubbub surrounding NIN's last proper studio album on a label, 2007's Year Zero, an album whose back-story encompassed fake Internet conspiracies and websites, alien invasions, leaked tracks and an intricate lyrical arc lambasting the U.S. government. In line with its stealth release, The Slip is far simpler; its lyrics address anger, confusion, frustration and defiance in flashbulb bursts of emotion. Sonically, The Slip is also more straightforward, foregoing the urban decay industrial onslaught of Zero for the nuanced synthpop of With Teeth and The Fragile's funereal instrumentals and heartbeat percussion. Somber, slow piano drowns out Reznor's barely perceptible murmurs on "Lights in the Sky," while the dull roars and eerie space of "Corona Radiata" resemble Brian Eno's ambient works, and white-noise distortion and jackhammering drum 'n' bass beats drive "Letting You." Best is the coy, gothic new-wave seduction "Discipline," a classic NIN single in the sense that its sinewy melody and pulsating hi-hat — along with lyrics such as "I need your discipline/You know once I start I cannot help myself" — suggest the torrid intermingling of sex and violence, restraint and passion.

The band's current tour (dubbed "Lights in the Sky") further blurs the line between NIN's ambient and aggressive side. At its recent Lollapaloza headlining slot, the band began by playing the first four songs from The Slip in order; the intensity built and built before peaking during "Discipline." Blinding versions of "March of the Pigs" and "Closer" (with an interlude of "The Frail") followed, revealing that time hasn't dulled the ferocious edges of those two Downward Spiral classics. But the set slowed with a mid-show break — featuring everything from twitching keyboard breakdowns (an electroshocked "Vessels") to Reznor playing the marimba (!) — which allowed the band to incorporate some of NIN's recent meandering material from Ghosts (as well as the über-creepy "Piggy"). All of this occurred in front of elaborate LED screens which projected various awe-inspiring scenes: an arid desert, orange-and-red sunspot staticky flameouts, a fisheye-camera-lens-filmed version of Reznor's face singing. Of course, it wouldn't be a NIN show without a big ending. And in fact, Reznor and Co. whipped up the intensity again with chaotic renditions of "Wish" and "Terrible Lie" — while the main set closed with the annihilating triumvirate "Only," "The Hand that Feeds" and "Head Like a Hole."
— Annie Zaleski

8 p.m. Wednesday, August 20. Scottrade Center, 1401 Clark Avenue. $32.50 to $52.50. 314-421-4400.

Reelin' In the Years
My experience as a Steely Dan listener began the same way as it did for most people my age: involuntarily. As a small child, my parents exposed me to countless doses of SD tunes, mostly from the first two records, Can't Buy a Thrill and Countdown To Ecstasy, as well as its magnum opus, Aja. As I grew older, my folks stopped spinning their old vinyl somewhere along the line, and I mostly forgot about these songs, filing them away in my musical subconscious along with other less-worthy offerings (Poco, Little River Band) and obscure gems (Nektar, Beautiful Day) alike. The Dan became a vague memory, a trippy, jazzy oddity in Mom and Dad's record collection. Aside from the occasional laugh at the goofball chorus of "Peg," I didn't think much about them until approximately two decades later.

In 2000, Steely Dan singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen reunited with his longtime writing partner, guitarist/bassist Walter Becker to release Two Against Nature, their first studio record since 1980's Gaucho. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, apparently wracked with guilt for whatever part they may have played in allowing the band to disappear for twenty years, showered the album with a whopping four Grammy Awards, infamously snubbing public favorite Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP for Album of the Year. I had a good chuckle at this at the time, but otherwise paid no mind, even when Fagen and Becker were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year.

Then a few more years passed and along came Yacht Rock, the wildly popular Internet comedy series which focused on late '70s and early '80s soft-rock artists (and SD contemporaries) like Michael McDonald and Toto. One episode portrays Fagen and Becker as indecipherable nerds who mercilessly force their studio musicians through endless takes in search of studio perfection. Intentionally or not, this depiction isn't too far from the truth. And while the show's basis is a pointed jab at the silliness of the "smooth rock" phenomenon to which Steely Dan's later catalogue will be forever linked, it also uses their songs as a soundtrack. The best snippets of Steely Dan's songs, singles and B-sides alike, are allowed to speak for themselves (series creator JD Ryznar ultimately points to his rediscovery of Steely Dan as the inspiration for the show). Some credit Yacht Rock with sparking a renewed interest in the soft-rock era and bringing the songs of Steely Dan and their contemporaries to an entirely new generation. I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say without a hint of embarrassment that it was true for me.

Which makes me wonder what the kids a few years younger than me — the ones whose folks didn't own all their records on vinyl, or hear them on the local "mellow gold" radio station — think about Steely Dan. I have to imagine that anyone who discovers SD on his or her own, and not as a tragically unhip hand-me-down, is probably pretty quick to recognize the greatness of Steely Dan's unique musical identity. And besides, all the hallmarks of cool are there: the drug use, the dark lyrical irony, the subversive sense of humor — hell, the group took its name from a fictitious steam-powered dildo. And, for a while at least, they rocked harder live than most people today realize, as recently surfaced Internet bootlegs can attest. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the next big trend in indie rock wasn't a return to jazz-informed, soft-rock epics.

I mean, stranger things have happened, right? Is anyone going to see Vampire Weekend next month?
— Mike Cracchiolo

8 p.m. Monday, August 18. The Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard. $55 to $128. 314-534-1111.