Is Steely Dan’s Gaucho Finally Worth Playing on Vinyl Again? The New 180g 1LP Geffen/UMe Edition Makes a Strong Case for It

To my ears, despite boasting an incredible lineup of more than 40 of the best musicians of the period, the smooth jazz textures of Steely Dan’s November 1980 album Gaucho initially felt like a musical letdown after the incredible one-two punch of its still stunning, ultra-dynamic direct predecessors, May 1976’s The Royal Scam and September 1977’s Aja. Of course, my opinion at the time meant absolutely nothing, as Gaucho became massively popular around the world, receiving general critical acclaim and becoming a platinum-selling Top 10 hit. It was a fitting cap on the first phase of the band’s career, since Steely Dan then took a two-decade break before returning in February 2000 with their multi-Grammy-winning comeback album, Two Against Nature.

Now, I don’t consider Gaucho to be Steely Dan’s No. 1 recording, mind you. Historically, I’ve leaned more toward the side of the band’s fans who find the album a bit sterile sounding — not to mention that the vinyl pressing quality at the time of its original release left much to be desired. (More on that in a bit.)

That said, my adult perspective on Gaucho has changed quite a bit over the ensuing four-plus decades, and I now appreciate it for the meticulously crafted recording that it is. My perspective began to change in the early 2000s when I got my hands on the fine SACD and DVD-Audio incarnations of that were issued in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Those releases opened up the music for me in many ways — so much so that I eventually purged my original vinyl copy of the album from my collection! Hearing this music in 5.1 surround sound went a long way towards increasing my appreciation for all its finely finessed details, so why would I ever consider spinning Gaucho on vinyl again?

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Well, the late-2023-released 180g 1LP edition of Gaucho from Geffen/UMe goes a long way in restoring my faith in the potential for this album to shine on vinyl. In 1980, when this album came out on MCA, there was always something that bothered me about Gaucho that I could never quite put my finger on, ultimately making it less enjoyable to listen to on vinyl. At that time, I was working in a record store in upstate New York while in college, and we had many returns on this album. Actually, we had a number of returns on many other MCA titles from this era as well, truth be told.

It was a time when the MCA label in particular was notoriously cutting corners, and quality control suffered. For one thing, I distinctly remember a customer returning a copy of Gaucho that had a piece of a paper label pressed through the vinyl to the other side of the disc! (I wish I had saved that LP return as a reminder of the times, but we had to send it back for store credit.) Thankfully, the new Geffen/UMe edition of is much, much better than that original edition.

The key stats for the new 180g version of Steely Dan’s Gaucho are intriguing — and also potentially a bit confusing, much like how the Aja reissue before it came to pass. From the band’s official Gaucho press release, we learn: “Gaucho has been meticulously remastered by Bernie Grundman from a 1980 analog tape copy, originally EQ’d by Bob Ludwig. All albums in the [Steely Dan reissue] series are being mastered by Bernie Grundman from the original analog tapes except for Aja and Gaucho (there’s no evidence the original tapes containing the flat mixes of these two LPs were delivered to the record label, and it’s presumed the tapes no longer exist). Lacquers for UMe’s standard 33 1/3 RPM 180-gram version will be cut by Alex Abrash at his renowned AA Mastering studio from high-resolution digital files of Grundman’s new masters and pressed at Precision. They will be housed in reproductions of the original artwork.” Finally, the SRP for this edition of Gaucho is $29.99.

So, we know there are at least one or possibly even two degrees of separation from the original analog master tape in the preparation of this new edition of Gaucho — one for Ludwig’s original tape copy, and another for Grundman’s new mastering on top of that (unless he did all of that new work digitally). In short, this new Gaucho master is made from at least a second-generation copy off the master tape — something that may be a mixed blessing, ultimately.

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To prepare for this review I did not go back to the original 1980 Gaucho MCA vinyl — as previously mentioned, I had long ago purged my copy as I never really liked its sound, nor did I consult the numerous replacement copies I have tried over the years, all of which left me similarly cold. Instead, I listened to my 2003 SACD (DSD) and 2004 DVD-A (24-bit/96kHz) discs along with a newer hi-rez stream on Qobuz (the latter of which was labeled as being 24/192 on the service, but showed up as 24/96 via my Mytek Brooklyn DAC).

It was really quite interesting for me not having listened to Gaucho in many years to play these recordings with effectively fresh ears. While I used to really enjoy the DVD-A version, I have to admit the SACD’s stereo layer sounded just that little extra bit warmer and natural.

But now, let’s get to the new Gaucho LP. Given my experiences reviewing some of Geffen/UMe’s earlier, standard-edition Steely Dan LP reissues (which you can find under the Album Reviews header right here, upon typing Steely Dan in the search bar and scrolling down accordingly), I must admit my expectations were not super-high for Gaucho — and things didn’t start off on a good foot, either. When I opened up the album and removed the disc from its simple oaktag cardboard inner sleeve, it was littered with white paper dust from the manufacturing facility. Fortunately, that dust cleaned off very easily upon using my trusty, vintage Discwasher brush. I immediately found a plastic-lined inner sleeve to protect the album from future dusty-detritus inner-sleeve offenses.

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Tragedy narrowly averted, once I put on this new version of Gaucho, the vinyl sounded — amazingly enough — super-quiet and well-centered! And you know what else? It actually sounded pretty darn good — great, even! Wonder of wonders, miracles do happen!

I was pleasantly surprised how enjoyable the whole album sounded overall on this new edition (which boasts an of-era MCA label style instead of the Geffen update other recent SD reissues have deployed). Perhaps a special combination of production elements are at play — triple-play, really! I suspect Grundman’s remastering of Ludwig’s EQ’d version of Gaucho, coupled with sensitive vinyl lacquer disc mastering by Abrash (again, from hi-rez digital files), achieved an ear-pleasing sweet spot for the final disc. To that, this new version may well be the perfectly fine and enjoyable vinyl option for those Steely Dan fans seeking a high-quality pressing of Gaucho without breaking the bank.

When I turned up the volume while playing this new vinyl edition, the music emerged warmly with that richer resonance I’ve always yearned for from Gaucho. I’ll put it this way: this version feels more like earlier Steely Dan albums such as Aja, a sonic palette which I find very appealing.

For those worrying about the impact of a digital stage, I experienced none of the sort of harshness that can often make a digitally mastered album hard to enjoy. I suppose there was some roll-off of those problematic frequencies along the way, but that in no way impacts the music’s dynamics. In fact, there are lot of nice details very apparent on this release.

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For example, Bernard Purdie’s soulful cymbal hits on “Babylon Sisters” (Side A, Track 1) fare very well on the new Gaucho LP, with a natural decay approaching that of the 2003 SACD. The Michael McDonald-sounding backing vocals by Frank Floyd and Zack Sanders on “Hey Nineteen” (Side A, Track 2) sound rich, round, and warming. Michael Brecker and Tom Scott’s tenor sax flourishes on “Glamour Profession” (Side A, Track 3) are lushly beautiful. And Mark Knopfler’s guitar solo on “Time Out of Mind” (Side B, Track 2) sits sweetly in its own little hard-panned, reverbed soundstage spotlight.

As far as the numerical ratings for this new Gaucho LP go, we here at AP have given the Sound an 8.5 (but note that the finicky ratings dial at the top of this review may only show an 8, so we wanted to clarify that distinction here in the text). That’s not only because the new LP sounds real nice, but it also represents an improvement from my vantage point over other versions of this album I’ve owned on vinyl.

Musically speaking, while I enjoy the music on Gaucho more today than ever before, I still hold earlier releases like the aforementioned The Royal Scam (my personal favorite) and Aja (AP editor Mike Mettler’s personal favorite) in higher esteem as an overall end-to-end album listen — and thus, it gets an 8 for Music.

Kudos to Grundman and Abrash for collectively finding the warm sweet spot for these recordings. While the upcoming 200g 45rpm UHQR edition of Gaucho will likely offer further sonic joys (and will be reviewed by Mettler when the time comes), The best compliment I can offer is that I’ll probably reach for this new Geffen/UMe vinyl edition for future plays of Gaucho in stereo before going back to the SACD for surround sound playback only.

I also can’t help but think that, dollar for dollar, bit for bit, and spin for spin, this new 180g single disc edition of Gaucho is a solid value, and it’s one LP most every Steely Dan fan can afford to add to their collections right here, right now.

Mark Smotroff is an avid vinyl collector who has also worked in marketing communications for decades. He has reviewed music for AudiophileReview.com, among others, and you can see more of his impressive C.V. at LinkedIn.

Music Direct Buy It Now

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STEELY DAN
GAUCHO

180g 1LP (Geffen/UMe)

Side A
1. Babylon Sisters
2. Hey Nineteen
3. Glamour Profession

Side B
1. Gaucho
2. Time Out Of Mind
3. My Rival
4. Third World Man

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COMMENTS
jazz's picture

The 8-11 distance in music quality between Aja and Gaucho (an album with the titles Babylon Sisters and Hey Nineteen), is quite something. I don’t want to scroll for the huge amount of more questionable music getting higher ratings ;-) I guess you rather rated within the SD catalog than in an absolute sense. Otherwise I appreciate the more extensive use of the rating scale (where random hard bop albums rather regularly than rarely settle between 10 and 11), it should just be done generally. But that’s a topic for all review sites.

Doors32's picture

The British first pressing is phenomenal and affordable. Vinyl is quiet and the sound is dynamic, spacious and smooth, and at a reasonable price! I haven't listened to this reissue, I have the excellent UK edition and don't feel the need to. I think only AP at 45rpm can bring some improvement here.

donholl's picture

About those late-'70s/early-'80s pressings: the two "oil crisis" instances in the '70s (along with the general economic malaise of the decade) lead to US record companies trying to make use of reground vinyl (from returns), to cut costs: the result was records with surface noise, right off the first playing (and some instances of defects like that label one: they apparently couldn't be bothered with trying to de-label them, before grinding them up).

At that stage, I was getting into punk/wave, with many of the artists only available via UK imports: considering how expensive the albums were, it was a relief to find they were not full of reground vinyl (confirmed by the "blacklight test", that detects it), compared to many of the domestic releases I bought in that period.

Anton D's picture

When I was a wayward youth,Steely Dan were regarded as subversive and their albums covers were frequently in contact with EZ Wider and Zig Zag paper products.

Now they have morphed into yacht rock staples.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, I guess. I hear Locomotive Breath while sitting in doctor's office waiting rooms.

I love Gaucho, the AP pressing will likely wind up in my shelves. The plan for now is AP pressings of Aja, Gaucho, and Royal Scam.

Peter Music's picture

They have not morphed; the music is still sardonic, subversive, cynical, etc. Certain people who aren't really listening have labelled it yacht rock. Obviously a misnomer

Very excited by this review, it bodes well for the UHQR

markmck12's picture

This is above my somewhat limited intellectual capacity - what are 'AP Pressings'?

Tom L's picture

Purveyors of superior LP reissues.

SLM's picture

Sound quality of this pressing is almost indistiguishable from the Grundman 24/192 digital file and a little brighter from the also excellent and somewhat quiter older 24/96. I haven't heard any of the "originals" nor can I imagine how could this edition be bettered by the forthcoming UHQR. 45s generaly tend to sound more open than 33.3s (not unlike hi-res compared to 44.1) but this has nothing to do with "special editions". In my experience excellent vinyl sound has nothing to do with price or hype.

Peter Music's picture

Have you heard the previous UHQRs? Can't Buy a Thrill, Countdown, and Aja are excellent. (Pretzel, not so much) I'm psyched to read this review, but I am not buying the LP--I am confident the UHQR will be better.

SLM's picture

Aja from a friend and as far as I can tell it is excellent - but not really different from the 24/192 digital file; a bit more open I guuess. Anyway I would go for the UHQR if money wasn't a concern. By the way I have recently bought one or two $17 sealed records of usurpassed sound quality.

mb's picture

Yes, MCA vinyl in the era of Gaucho wasn’t great. But to hyperbolically say a pressing mastered/cut directly from the master tape by Bob Ludwig (almost certainly with artist approval) is much, much worse than a new pressing on better vinyl of the same Bob Ludwig mastering moves (then modestly un-EQ’d by Bernie Grundman) but from at least a 2nd generation tape - and then to not even bother going back and actually testing hyperbolic memory - is what causes eye-rolls by so many of contemporary vinyl reviewers.

SLM's picture

the "originals" were cut from n-generation copy tapes and not from 1st generation masters - inevitable for mass production vinyl records of yore. For similar reasons modern reissues are cut from digital copies or produced in limited quantities in case of AAA. "Orinals always sound better" simply means "I wanna stick with my memories". Nothing wrong with that of course as long as it stays in strictly personal territory.

Dj57's picture

Hi,
I have three copies of Gaucho:
1980-MCA 6102-CDN
1980-MCA 1693-USA
2023-UMe Geffen-USA
Seems to me and my listening habits that my CDN copy seems more open than the two others but I have to agree that the 2023 release sounds clearer:that is a bad habit to have many copies that your ears are able to part the top ones..Thx for the review anyway!

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