Happy 25th Anniversary to Donald Fagen’s second solo studio album Kamakiriad, originally released May 25, 1993.
I’ve been thinking about road trips a lot lately. Maybe it’s the spring air, the theme of a dream a friend told me about, the need for me to shake up something stale and grey inside my soul. The thrill of the open road is almost a cliché in rock music, but leave it to Donald Fagen to do something entirely new with it.
Fagen’s second solo foray Kamakiriad is an examination of aging, heartache, writer’s block and redemption via a sci-fi roadtrip in the steam-powered Kamakiri. Produced by Walter Becker (who also played bass and guitar), the recording of the album re-ignited rumors of a Steely Dan reunion, and the two treated us to one of the hottest-selling concert tours of 1993.
“Trans-Island Skyway” kicks off the album with a smooth kind of jam and a chorus that, unfortunately, goes from catchy to elevator music a little fast. But most elevator music doesn’t describe a car wreck in the second verse (“lots of blood and broken glass”), nor does it involve picking up a survivor “with dancer’s legs and laughing eyes” and then adding your dad to the mix as you head on towards Five Zoos, the first destination on this mythical journey.
“Countermoon” brings the funk back in, but it’s got a sneer on it, as all the women (Snakehips, perhaps?) turn on their boyfriends and husbands, leaving them weeping in payphones and pleading for a second chance against a nighttime force of nature. It’s got that wry, quirky charm we’re starting to see emerge as the hallmark of Fagen’s solo work, leaving the darker stuff to Becker. The bright, full melody serves as a precursor to songs like “Cousin Dupree” and “Gaslighting Abbie” on Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning Two Against Nature in 2009.
The Laughing Pines of “Springtime” pull a pretty neat trick—starting out sounding like you’re about to go to your death with a smoky drag, but quickly slipping into something a little more comfortable as our narrator relives some of his old romances, enjoying them even more this time around. The keyboard opens right up and Becker’s guitars come along for the ride, and although the threat of nostalgia is a dangerous one, the music never quite suggests that our narrator is in for anything but a little fun before setting off on the journey again.
“Snowbound” is one of those songs that gets better with every listen, especially in the wake of Becker’s death from esophageal cancer last September. Becker and Fagen have always exuded a quiet sort of male intimacy, what the kids today might call a “bromance” and this song really solidifies that. That’s Becker (with a co-writing credit) on guitar, reviving a song the two of them had written back in 1985. But more than that, as Snakehips and the other women have dropped off, it’s just our narrator and an unnamed friend alongside him in a frozen city. “Let’s stop off at the Metroplex / that little dancer’s got some style” is probably not something you’re going to say to your girlfriend.
This song also contains what Fagen says is his favorite line in the whole album, “We sail our IceCats on the frozen river / some loser fires off a flare, amen / for seven seconds it’s like Christmas day / and then it’s dark again.” It’s a bittersweet image, one I think about in late December as each year winds to a cold and quiet close.
The transition to “Tomorrow’s Girls” is somewhat jarring. Although the song is heavy on the sci-fi themes that populate the album, there’s a certain ‘60s sensibility that threads throughout (the hyper-suburban video, starring Rick Moranis, may be contributing to this feeling) that might have fit a little better on The Nightfly than on Kamakiriad. That being said, I love this song forever and his wire-tight inflection on “A virus wearing pumps and pearls” is one of my turn-ons.
The second co-writing credit on this album goes to Fagen’s wife, Libby Titus, on “Florida Room.” I swear Legend of Zelda ripped off some of this intro for the Fortune Teller’s intro in A Link to the Past. It’s a sweet enough tune, somewhat reminiscent in tone to “Lazy Nina,” which Fagen wrote for Greg Phillinganes’ Pulse in 1984. I passed a bar called the Florida Room while on vacation in Portland, Oregon this past February, and took great delight in texting it to my friend (and fellow Steely Dan fanatic) Matthew.
But things get dark for our hero when we wind up “On the Dunes.” Deceptively dreamy, he admits, “That’s where my life became a joke.” Loveless, friendless and considering ending it all, the song is eight long minutes of cold, beautiful bleakness.
The album ends with Fagen’s best closing track, “Teahouse on the Tracks.” Flytown doesn’t sound much better than “On the Dunes” (Flytown exists “where hope and the highway ends”) until he discovers a place where he finds old friends and good tunes waiting for him. The horns are at their hottest here, Fagen’s keyboards simultaneously crisp and flexible, each turn of melody delightful and unexpected.
I don’t think there’s a single other song in Fagen’s catalogue—or perhaps even the entire Daniverse—that makes me feel the sort of joy that this one brings me. It makes me think of my wedding, college parties, future plans for having all of my friends in one place for one more night of music and dancing and good times. “Someday we’ll all meet at the end of the street” is how I like to think of Heaven, although I still want to know what he means by “bring your flat hat and your ax.”
Original vinyl copies of this album are exceedingly rare, but my husband Ian got me a copy of this album on vinyl as part of the Cheap Xmas box set, which is easy enough to find and should be a part of your collection because it’s spectacular. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is probably my least favorite solo Fagen endeavor. Although “Snowbound” and “Teahouse on the Tracks” rank high in my post-Dan listings, the album’s whole sound is too slick, too lite-jazz to really land the way that The Nightfly or Morph the Cat does.
That being said, this will be a #RecordSaturday play sometime in the future. You know where to meet me.