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Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Five Essential Steely Dan Songs

Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Ruban Nielson in the center (photo by Neil Krug, PR)

Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Ruban Nielson in the center (photo by Neil Krug, PR)


[Update for April 2018: Unknown Mortal Orchestra released its fourth album this year, Sex & Food, a record that found singer, songwriter and guitarist Ruban Nielson traveling the globe, far from his native Auckland, New Zealand and homebase of Portland, Oregon. During a chaotic time in the world, Nielson found some peace when recording internationally, bouncing between cities like Reykjavík, Hanoi, and Seoul. And yes, a jazzy hint of Nielson's beloved Steely Dan gently ripples through new tracks like "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays" and the tender "Hunnybee." Unknown Mortal Orchestra is on tour now, landing at New York's Brooklyn Steel on April 25 and 26].

When Unknown Mortal Orchestra's singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Ruban Nielson was recording the band's critically acclaimed 2015 album Multi-Love, one of his big influences during the making of the record was Steely Dan.

As Nielson explained during a 2015 FUV Live session, "I love Steely Dan ... They are one of the gold standards of arrangement and meticulous craftsmanship. I grew up around [Steely Dan's music] too. It was more my dad's music for a long time and then as I got more into music, I appreciated it more and more."

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's music became a bridge between Nielson and his father, the jazz musician Chris Nielson, and Ruban asked his dad to play horns on a couple of tracks on Multi-Love, including "Necessary Evil."

Unknown Mortal Orchestra released a new single this past spring, called "First World Probems," and also tackled the Grateful Dead's "Shakedown Street" for The National-curated, 59-track Day of the Dead compilation that came out this year too. But for the bulk of this year, Ruban Nielson and his bandmates have been tirelessly touring the world, still supporting Multi-Love.

When FUV asked Nielson if he might have time between gigs to write about some Steely Dan tracks that meant a lot to him, he sent along this discerning list that included some deeper album tracks:

Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson: Five Essential Steely Dan Songs:

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You," Pretzel Logic (1974)
I think the last time I listened to this song it was with Mac DeMarco, taking the Uber aux cable in Paris. Made me like him more. Bam! There's your damn story. Such a beautiful song. I thought for this thing I should share some slightly less well known Steely Dan songs.

"Kings," Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)
Probably my favorite SD song. Kind of a deeper cut. I love the way the chords move and it makes you feel great in the morning. Donald’s voice is usually the last thing mentioned in the list of assets available to SD but this song has a really cool vocal. Probably the weirdest guitar solo of any SD song.

"King of the World," Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
I decided to go with another King song. This one is deep. I really love the mono synth sound on this song. Like a moogsploitation record kinda sound.

"Charlie Freak," Pretzel Logic (1974)
Cool song about a homeless guy having a hard time. The layers of electric guitar symphonic strings add some extra vibe.

"Aja," Aja (1977)
This is a really strange and beautiful arrangement. It’s kind of like SD’s prog epic. Steve Gadd’s drumming is both spectacular and “spectacular” as well. There is a famous saxophone solo by Wayne Shorter that is so full of drama and mystery it makes you wonder what’s going on in his mind. The outro is cool too. All these really weird synth sounds layered the way Brian Eno and Bowie might have f**ked around and done.

Lyrically, SD aren’t really confessional or anything; it’s more like a bunch of well-crafted screenplays and escape fantasies. I think this song is about a fantasy of escaping to a quiet life with a hot girl. Interesting there’s what I think of as a kind of “early draft” version of this song on the album Katy Lied called “Doctor Wu.” They’re like Asian-themed sister songs. That’s my theory. Sticking to it.

- Ruban Nielson
October 2016

Read all of FUV's Five Essentials.