Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Walter Becker and Dan Hicks weren't household names two decades ago, when they had reason to be, so never mind if their monikers barely ring a bell. The 44-year-old Becker was half the brains of the long-lost Steely Dan, but 12 Tracks of Whack (Giant) is his first solo album. The 53-year-old Hicks was a retro cult hero who sang wacky songs with the Django-styled Hot Licks, but the live Shootin' Straight (On the Spot) is his first release in 16 years. And although neither record will create a belated superstar, both go to show just how entertaining old dogs' old tricks can be.

Granted, 12 Tracks of Whack isn't exactly fun. But diehard Steely Dan fans who still crave frequent fixes of sardonic, jazz-steeped sophistication should find it more perversely satisfying than 1993's long-awaited opus from front man Donald Fagen, Kamakiriad. The opening tracks, Down in the Bottom and Junkie Girl, swing with what amounts to visionary despair, and although the lyrics fog up some and Becker's stony voice starts to wear, what follows leaves no doubt just whose bad attitude those diehards used to find so bracing.

In contrast, Hicks is a cheerful cuss whether the subject is little green men, lying Laurie, drowned sorrows, or the deaths of his favorite relatives--sardonic, too, but in a gentler way. The old-timey folk-jazz complements his nonsense as expertly as ever. And the layoff has given him plenty of time to freshen his songbook. By the time he's 70, I bet he'll be good for another one.

Fast Cuts: Speaking of acoustic jazz, not to mention cheerful, The Jazz Age: New York in the Twenties (Bluebird) is a time-tested collection of infectious tunes by four seminal white jazz groups. Among the players are Red Nichols, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Phil Napoleon, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller, and while I wouldn't swear they always swing, for sure they jump around a lot.

Playboy, Nov. 1994

Oct. 1994 Jan. 1995