Analogue Productions Gives "Pretzel Logic" a Double 45 AAA UHQR Release
third in the Dan series from Analogue Productions
A perfect black and white frozen New York City cover for an album released February of 1974 when winters there were still really cold and "pretzles" (sic) were 15 cents. The master tape images in the fold out containing Donald Fagen's notes show that the mixes were finalized on February 5th, lacquers cut at The Mastering Lab on the 6th and the record released for sale on the 20th. That's a pretty fast turnaround!
Speaking of fast, compared to the first two Steely Dan albums, the jazz-inflected, melodic songs here are short, orderly, and adhere more closely to commercial pop song structures. The entire album, which begins with a riff (gently) lifted from Horace Silver's "Song For My Father", runs a bit over thirty four minutes. Almost as if it keys off the sweet sentiment of Silver's tribute, many of the songs on Pretzel Logic like "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", and "Any Major Dude Will Tell You"—even acerbic ones like "Barrytown", "Charlie Freak" and "Through With Buzz"—have an uncharacteristic (for Steely Dan) sweetness and empathetic feel.
Fewer things are more hilarious than reading attempts to mine the meanings of Steely Dan songs. According to some, "Barrytown" is "Tarrytown" and about the "Moonies", "Through With Buzz" is an anti-drug song, and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is about a misplaced joint. All nonsense. Barrytown is Barrytown, a small town near Bard College where F&B went to school and the song was written before the "Moonies" set up shop nearby.
I"Through With Buzz" featuring a lovely, Hunky Dory-ish Jimmie Haskell string arrangement—a Steely Dan rarity—is about a bitter breakup between friends and not at all about drugs and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is about a besotted Fagen and a girl named Rikki.
The core touring group of Becker, Fagen, Baxter and Dias adds the late Jim Gordon on drums on all but "Night By Night", on which Jeff Porcaro plays, and Wilton Felder and Chuck Rainey on bass. A splendid cast of top L.A. studio musicians including Dean Parks, Plas Johnson, Ernie Watts, Michael Omartian and David Paich add luster to the arrangements. Original drummer Jim Holder relegated to backing vocals here, makes his final appearance.
To prepare for this review, which, after all is about the sound as much as anything, I listened to an original ABC pressing (ABCD 808), a 1978 Japanese reissue (YW-8051-AB), tracks off of the Elliot Scheiner produced, Bob Ludwig mastered Steely Dan/greatest hits (AK-1107/2) double LP and from a friend I obtained two FLAC file tracks pulled via a Sony PlayStation from a 2014 flat transfer from the master tape done for a Japanese SACD.
In his annotation Fagen identifies the odd instrument that opens the record as a "flapamba" played with mallets by the great late percussionist Victor Feldman. That's easy enough to hear since it's a solo, but after that it used to completely disappear from the mix—at least on my systems from 1974 until the mid 1990s when a friend brought over a Peter Mares Connoisseur phono preamplifier (a crazy design hand-wired in "3D" with no circuit board involved). The design was eventually bought by the Stig Bjorge and Jonathan Carr of Lyra cartridge fame and for a short time they made a manufacturable version of it...but my point is that with that unit for the first time since I started playing this record in 1974 I could clearly hear that "flapamba" playing in multiple places on the track. I hate to use the phrase, but the Mares was a "game changer". I only bring this up to point out I've dissected this fine production through the years.
Regarding this UHQR: first, you have to crank it up to get the desired results, but that was true of the previous two. The low UHQR noise floor allows for a relatively quiet cut, which doesn't mean the dynamics are limited, it just means the cut didn't have to be "pushed". But if you don't turn it up it can sound lackluster.
And even when you do turn it up, depending upon your system, the top end can sound somewhat muted and lacking in sparkle and transient "snap", without comparison to anything else, but especially if you do compare it to a clean original pressing made when the tape was fifty years younger, or if you compare it to the flat transfer made nine years ago (which you're not likely to have or be able to get), which though 'digital' sounds far more alive and more like the original record, so honestly I do not know if the sound here is because over the past decade the tape has deteriorated (there's a note on the tape box saying it was 'baked' December 8th 2007—I probably was that day too) or if this "relaxed" top end and generous middle and mid-bass is a purposeful equalization designed to appeal to "audiophiles" or what? The Japanese pressing, obviously cut from a tape copy, sounded most similar to the UHQR.
But the lack of snap and crack and a generally soft high frequency transient response was obvious from the first rim shot on "Rikki...." and the subsequent bell tree strike and especially the snare smacks. The snare too is soft and tubby. If you like this track, you'll like the entire record. If you don't like "Rikki..." you won't like any of the record.
That said, the midrange is full, rich and satisfyingly bold and the bottom powerful. The strings on "Through With Buzz" sound better than I've ever heard them and overall so do the vocals. Understand, right now I've got four arms and cartridges set up on three turntables running through various phono preamps and the results varied somewhat but ultimately had I had but one of these rigs to use—any now of them—the reaction would have been the same.
Not even Analogue Productions can "knock it out of the park" every time. This one gets on base, but it is not a home run. Whether or not you like it depends upon your system's sound and your sonic tastes.