Album Review: Steely Dan's fifth album, The Royal Scam, was a turning point for the band's sound. Before this album, Steely Dan really sounded like a band—sort of like "The Doobie Brothers with less country rock and more attitude." On The Royal Scam, Steely Dan's apt cynicism remained but the "band sound" was replaced with a glossier, more studio-oriented approach. When bands break new ground, they sometimes stumble onto "the sound they were always meant to have" and produce a masterpiece.
This is not exactly the case with The Royal Scam—perfection would have to wait until their next album, the amazing
But these guys were so good that even when they were not at their best, they were still very, very good. On The Royal Scam, occasional disappointments like "Everything You Did" or "Haitian Divorce" are more than compensated for with gems like "Green Earrings," "The Caves of Altamira," "Sign in Stranger" and the two best tracks on the album, "Kid Charlemagne" and "Don't Take Me Alive." The remaining tracks are interesting more for their film noire plot lines than their melodies or
instrumentation, but that's enough—Becker and Fagen definitely knew how to write intriguing lyrics. While The Royal Scam doesn't top the list of "best Steely Dan albums," it easily bests the Fagen-dominated, amelodic, "L.A. insider" albums that Steely Dan put out in the 2000s (though fans of these later albums
(Two Against Nature and
Everything Must Go)
will find some of the seeds of that sound on
The Royal Scam).
Whatever its minor flaws,
The Royal Scam
cannot be simply dismissed as a lesser work—there are too many great songs on it. There are seven classic Steely Dan albums—from
Can't Buy A Thrill through
this is one of them.