Just occasionally, simple is best and that’s certainly the case with ‘Fire in the Hole’ (Moule Recordings, 2006) by Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist, two Swedish singers in their forties who have come together to record an album of Steely Dan covers using mainly unaccompanied keyboards and their own voices.
There are 12 tracks in all on this short-ish album, all drawn from Steely Dan’s key period – roughly 1971 -1980. The band were always renowned for their sophisticated arrangements and their ability to slide seamlessly from one sub-genre to another, often thanks to input from the best musicians around at the time. The likes of Jeff Baxter, Wayne Shorter, Dean Parks, Steve Gadd and Michael McDonald have, over the years, all brought their talents to bear on Becker and Fagen’s artful compositions, but Isakssson and Törnqvist offer us something just as compelling by stripping away all the horn arrangements, percussive fol-de-rols and slinky guitar parts.
Rebecka Törnqvist (L) and Sara Isaksson (R)
It is, in fact, the very simplicity of the arrangements that works in their favour, helping to expose the skeleton of the songs and emphasise the (often) astringent lyrics. What quickly becomes clear, if we weren’t already aware of it, is the fact that Walter Becker & Donald Fagen are very fine songwriters and the songs themselves are muscular and powerful enough to withstand this stripping-down process; indeed, it enables us to re-experience them anew and appreciate them all over again.
As for Törnqvist and Isaksson, they have both experienced some success domestically in various rock and pop bands since the 1990’s and were both previously members of a band called Gloria, who had a good deal of success between 1999 and 2003. They have toured domestically around the success of ‘Fire in the Hole’ but the enduring popularity of Steely Dan and the simple effectiveness of the album have led to a good deal of interest from overseas.
On paper, the idea of two mature Swedish female singers recording an album of 30-year old Steely Dan songs seems like a recipe for commercial disaster, but somehow it just works. Stand-out tracks for me would be ‘Don’t take me alive‘ and ‘Pearl of the Quarter’, but I guess everyone will have their favourites. If your interest is piqued, the album is available here: