Steely Dan: Two Against Nature

Steely Dan: Two Against Nature (2000)
Image Entertainment
Cast: Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Cornelius Bumpus, Jon Herrington

Brilliant, literate, and mercurial, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the duo who comprise Steely Dan, recently released their first album in 20 years with the perfectly titled, "Two Against Nature". In January of this year, they performed for two nights at Sony Studios in New York to invited audiences. The concert was filmed for broadcast by PBS with director Earle Sebastian adding interviews and backstage footage. Now Image Entertainment brings the result to DVD and it’s outstanding.

The concert is certain to please fans. There’s a terrific mix of old and new from the band; 5 songs from the new album and 9 great tunes from their illustrious catalogue. The band is brilliantly tight, starting with Becker on guitar and Fagen playing keyboards and reeling out his distinctive, funky vocals. Standouts from the band include Cornelius Bumpus, a saxophonist who periodically plays in the subways, and Jon Herrington, whose guitar work keeps fine pace with Becker. The 3 sexy backup singers beautifully lend a vocal richness, variety and sass to the vocals.

One of the distinctive pleasures of Steely Dan is that their music is difficult to quantify. There’s an obvious Jazz influence in their songs, but on any given album the music is seamlessly fused with R&B, Rock, Blues, Soul, Reggae, ad infinitum. Of equal appeal are the band’s lyrics; cryptic, dark, and oftentimes exceedingly funny. The new material fits perfectly as a logical extension of their previous work. This isn’t the stale attempt of a bygone band to fill their depleted coffers; this is choice Steely Dan; from the universal angst of "What a Shame About Me", to the implausibly humorous tale of intended incest, "Cousin Dupree".

On the visual side, the release is unfortunately not quite as impressive. The camera work is oftentimes static and uninspired and more importantly the lighting of the stage makes it almost impossible to distinguish band members, let away discern features for much of the time. Plenty of lens flare filters into the camera, making it impossible to see anything but shadows moving during many segments of the show. The lighting setup itself is also rather bland, giving the stage a very murky look without accents or colorful highlights. Only occasionally will you notice a brightly lit moment that makes use of the hues and tinges stage the lighting is capable of, only to shroud the stage into its shadowy darkness again moments later. The DVD features a <$PS,fullframe> presentation of the show with a mostly good picture quality. Interestingly it appears as if the show was recorded using high end progressive equipment, giving the image noticeably more detail than traditional live tapings – to bad the show’s production design did not accommodate the possibilities that were lurking here. The transfer is clean and free of artifacts. The compression has also been handled very well and compression artifacts are not noticeable.

The disk contains some documentary footage that was not included in the broadcast, though no extra concert material. The picture quality of this footage is of home video quality however.

The real revelation of this DVD, though, is the sound. I watched and taped this show when it was first aired on PBS and thought that the 2.0 Pro Logic Surround was terrific. It still is. The original sound mix is included on this release, but it pales when directly compared to listening to this concert in <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 or <$DTS,DTS>. The soundstage is used beautifully, placing you in the intimate position of being on stage amongst the musicians. It’s incredible. The fine resolution of the tracks is mesmerizing, making this concert a true experience for jazz-rock aficionados. Every nuance of Becker’s play is audible, every breath of the brass section, every ever-so-slight stroke on the keyboards is there.

Especially in the DTS audio version of the concert you will be absolutely taken by the clarity of the spatial information, the fine reproduction and clarity of the individual timbres of each instrument. Although the differences are most audible in a direct comparison, it becomes once again clear that DTS has the ability play its muscles extremely well as soon as wide frequency range material is offered, such as a very distinguished live performance such as this.

Fans of Steely Dan must have this. For the price of a disk, you can buy a thrill.