Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Steely Dan Aja (1977)


Wow… now here’s one album that takes a loooong time to appreciate – but in the long run, it’s worth the wait; Aja succeeds where Royal Scam could never hope to. And why, would you ask me? Because history put it so that there are several different levels of its apperception. Initially, one might think of Aja as a nice, pleasant jazz-pop record that makes up for some good background music when you’re not too keen on paying attention – without any obvious banalities or excesses of overtly commercial pop bands. These tunes are quite danceable, and this time around, the Dan dudes come up with lyrics that are hardly offensive: they still tackle unordinary subjects, but, apart from occasional lines like ‘you were very high’, you’d hardly find anything to sue them about.

The second level is absolute disgust – like I mentioned previously in the review for Katy Lied, this album is way, way too smooth and polished to generate any true rock’n’roll excitement, hell, any excitement. It’s stuff to be played in the car! On a long long trip – preferrably in the mountains, when you shouldn’t be disturbed by anything while you’re driving! What a travesty. And this, of course, explains the immense radio popularity of the material from Aja. Which, in turn, irritates music lovers: not only is this stuff boring, it’s also overplayed. Double travesty. Even worse is the fact that you cannot really accuse the songs of anything. This is NOT CHEESE: the guys really did work hard on the album, hiring top-notch players, working on the lyrics, smoothing out all the edges, diversifying the arrangements, coming up with simple, but not cliched melodies… no wonder Aja has often been called one of the best-cared-for records of the Seventies. Triple travesty – you can’t even criticize it on a serious level.

So, how to get away with it? Now you might just as well take my advice, since, as expected, I skipped right over the first level of apperception and landed straight on to the second. In other words, my first listens left me completely unmoved – I was prepared to give this an eight, a seven, whatever. BUT – repeated listenings do manage to bring out the best in this stuff. However, in order to do so, you must be initially good-willed. If you do not want this album to turn out good (and want it with a flame and a stern will), it will never turn out good. If you feel like throwing this stuff away, better do so at once – better still, shove it under the bed, and one day you might find yourself wanting to give it one more try. Unless, of course, you hear ‘Deacon Blues’ every day on the radio, in which case there’s hardly anything to be done at all.

And thus an ounce of good will and half a dozen careful listens have slowly convinced me that this is a really good album. Now I must say a large percent of the songs still leaves me unsatisfied. The spirit of the album, as far as I’m concerned, resides in (a) its moodiness, (b) its slight, subtle menace. Therefore, tracks that are neither (a) nor (b) can go to hell for all I care. I absolutely despise ‘Peg’ – it’s actually nothing but a stupid, bland Phil Collins-style popster, and no intelligent lyrics about an (un)successful model can save it. Yeah, I know there were no Phil Collins-style popsters back in 1977; in which case they have wisely predicted a Phil Collins-style popster. And both ‘Home At Last’ and ‘I Got The News’ don’t really do much for me, either: they stick out too much with unsuitable arrangements – way too pompous for the former and way too dance-jazz-oriented for the latter, not to mention that they’re kinda generic and have no atmosphere.

The other four songs rule, though – definitely, and since they’re mostly longer than the others, this means that the great stuff really prevails over the shitty one. What I really enjoy about the first side of the album is how moody and enthralling it is – ‘Black Cow’, ‘Aja’ and ‘Deacon Blues’ are all able to send shivers down your back without sounding too dangerous. ‘Black Cow’, a story about a cheating wife (heh heh), features an incredibly heartwarming and comforting refrain, and even if I’m usually anxious about generic female backup vocals, here they sound just about right. And towards the end of the song, what’s that they’re chanting? ‘So outrageous’? Ever heard somebody chant ‘so outrageous’ in a jazz-pop song?

The title track took the longest time to get used to – but in the long run, the odd aura of the song, with Eastern-influenced vocals, mystical twangs of the bass, wonderful twirls of the keyboards, and short, but interesting solo bursts from numerous guest players, have got me under control. My favourite moment in the whole song, though, is the wonderful synthesizer riff that comes in at somewhere around 2:35 into the song – maybe because it’s the only passage on the whole album that could be called a ‘riff’, but maybe because there’s someone oddly curious and defying about it. Don’t know what, though. But the track really takes me places.

And then, of course, there’s ‘Deacon Blues’ – the number about an unlucky saxophone player who’s gonna make his name anyway. Again, a wonderful refrain and beautiful harmonies, although I prefer to concentrate on the subtle guitarwork: some of the licks in the verses are magnificent and bring me to tears sooner than the refrain itself. This might have been overplayed to death… but take me, I’m your ‘expanding man’ – I never heard it on the radio. They wouldn’t play this on Russian radio anyway, because no-one in this country really knows who Steely Dan are. (Have I unknowingly caused masses of American immigration to my country? Hope not.) Without radio overplay, this comes out as a terrific number, anyway.

But, so as to demonstrate us that they’re really the same Steely Dan that did all that murky stuff before, they finish the record off with ‘Josie’, the only more or less moderate ‘rocker’ on the whole record – a song about a gal who’s, well, er, ‘the pride of the neighbourhood’. Whether she satisfies everybody voluntarily or the song is indeed about gang rape, I don’t know, but it’s obvious this is no innocent matter of ‘Deacon Blues’. Sneering guitars, menacing synths and echoey vocals – everything is back, and if you’ve been bored to death by the previous three songs (like I was), this is a great compensation at the end.

In all, this is much, much, much more than just your typical radio fodder. You just have to get over the smoothness of the record and realize that smoothness is this band’s incarnation’s main schtick, like it or not. Smooth – atmospheric – intelligent – professional. After all, there are hundreds of other records to put on when you need real excitement. Be diverse. Get a life. Aja can be a satisfying atmospheric travel through the mind of the ‘common thinking man’, if you ever want to give it a chance.


March 25, 2013 - Posted by | Steely Dan Aja |

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