Aja was the best album produced by the Steely Dan. With the sixth album by the group, driven primarily by keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen and bassist Walter Becker, the songs became more sophisticated and oriented towards the individual songwriters. In fact, Fagen and Becker never really intended to have a band at all, just a songwriting team for ABC Records and producer Gary Katz. But when it became apparent that the duo’s songs were too complex for the average ABC artist, they enlisted four more musicians and formed Steely Dan (named after a sex toy in William Burrough’s poem “Naked Lunch”) in 1972. Although Katz and engineer Roger Nichols would produce all their classic albums in the seventies, the musicians surrounding Fagen and Becker would change rapidly. In fact, by 1974 the band had ceased touring and concentrated on studio work.
For Aja, Fagen and Becker decided to utilize the vast amount of session musicians available in the Los Angeles area, especially top-notch jazz and rock musicians. In all, nearly forty musicians would perform on the seven-song album, including six different drummers, seven different guitarists, and eight to ten vocalists. Fagen and Becker were sonic perfectionists, not compromising on their envisioned sound. With the musicians, they obsessively employed a two step process that involved first perfecting their part and then getting beyond to where it sounds improvised and natural. For most of Aja they accomplished this well.
The album became the group’s best-selling album and their first to go platinum. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording in 1978 and has become regarded by most as Steely Dan’s finest work. Last April (2011), the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry and deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.
The album crashes in with the simple bass and key groove of “Black Cow”, modern sound by 1977 standards. But with the introduction of the fine chorus made of multiple voices, it is clear this is Steely Dan. The song gradually builds through a vibraphone lead by Victor Feldman, later swelling into some fine brass which adds a much more jazzy touch to the already upbeat tune. Although the writers claim a “black cow” is simply a milkshake from their childhood days around New York City, it may be a jazz metaphor on 1970s nightlife. The main riff of the song was reused for the hip hop “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz.
The title song “Aja” follows as a progressive jazz suite that hops skips and jumps all around the musical palette. It incorporates elements of Caribbean music, progressive rock, and swing within the eight minute epic, which incorporates pieces of older, unreleased songs. The song is the longest and most musically complex song that Becker and Fagen ever attempted and it features several virtuoso performances, including those by drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Denny Dias, and tenor sax by Wayne Shorter that is the purest jazz Steely Dan ever recorded.
“Deacon Blues” is the absolute pinnacle of the Steely Dan sound. It is built of complex piano chord patterns that never really seem to repeat and flavored with just the right amount of brass, laid back at some intervals, forceful and pulling at others. There great vocals throughout, starting with the perfectly delivered lead by Fagen and the ensemble of backing vocals during the choruses. The drum beat by legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie is perfect, a guide rail along the tour that keeps all moving at a constant pace despite the ever changing sonic surprises throughout the song’s duration. Becker described the lyrics as “close to autobiography”, about suburban kids looking for some king of alternative culture, imagining what it is like to be a jazz musician or beat poet in the city. The song contains the memorable lyric;
“They’ve got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues…”
Here they use the analogy of college football success (Alabama Crimson Tide) and failure (Wake Forest Demon Deacons) in the 1970s, stressing their desire to be with the losers, the outsiders, the alternative. “Deacon Blues” was also a rarity in being a complex and extended piece which also became a popular hit, peaking at #19 on the Top 40 charts.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in 1977The biggest pop hit from Aja is “Peg”, which contains a funky guitar riff, lead horns, slap bass, and layers of jazzy vocal harmonies led by Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. Even this relatively simple song, has a jazz oriented edge and an uncanny melody. Ever the perfectionists, the song’s guitar solo was attempted by seven different session guitarists before Fagen and Becker agreed that Jay Graydon‘s version was the best. Still, Graydon worked on it for about six hours before they were satisfied.
“Home At Last” is a nostalgic look back at New York after Fagen and Becker relocated to California. The song once again features Purdie on drums (doing his famous “Purdie Shuffle”) as well as Chicago blues-man Larry Carlton on guitar. “I Got the News” follows as a typical mid seventies Steely Dan tune, perhaps the most uninspired on this album.
The album concludes with “Josie”, the most rock-oriented song on the album, albeit heavily funk oriented. In fact, the album’s liner notes refers to the song as “punkadelia”, a fusion of funk with a more sardonic lyric. The recording features several more studio innovations ranging from the incorporation of synthesizers to the inclusion of a garbage can lid by drummer Jim Keltner.
Aja is a measured and textured album, filled with subtle melodies and lush instrumental backdrops. On this album Steely Dan would reach heights that they could not replicate in the future, as they would release only one album (1980′s Gaucho) over the following two decades. Aja was Donald Fagen and Walter Becker at their finest.
Upon first listen, it may be difficult to actually pin down why Aja is considered to rank among the best albums that the legendary decade of the 1970’s has produced. Being best described as “easy listening” music, not many things immediately stand out. All the different sounds, styles and influences are being blended into one simple, easy digestible package which sets the mood perfectly for a moment of peace and content.
This is an album of zero extremes: you won’t find fast riffage, long-winded guitar solos, frenetic drumming or a bombastic wall-of-sound. Lyrically, deeply personal thoughts or screams against the establishment are also absent. Again, why is it then that Aja is considered to be an absolute 70’s classic?
The answer is: just because of the very things it omits. Seemingly living on its own isolated musical island, separated from the continents of glam rock, punk and proto-metal, Aja resulted from Steely Dan’s deep love for all things jazz. Although early albums already hinted at that love, they went to the next level on this record. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (the only constant members of the group) recruited a whole army of guest musicians, all masters in their respectable fields, to make sure the combination of those jazz influences with their already established brand of soft-rock would be nothing less than magical.
Although they played live shows in their early days, in essence, Steely Dan were a studio band. The studio was their natural habitat, their playing ground. Both Becker and Fagen were classically trained musicians, who put equal parts knowledge as heart and soul in their music. Practically nothing you hear on the record results from improvisation, and every guest musician that was given a spot, was selected after a long series of auditions.
If you look at the production notes, you’ll also rarely see the same two musicians appearing on different tracks. That knowledge and technicality may come off as very sterile and it may seem as if the album would be a very boring accomplishment as a result, but in fact it’s what gives Aja such a timeless character.
What further amplifies this, is that the replayability of this record is unbelievably high. Smooth guitar licks are rapidly and seamlessly followed up with extremely funky bass lines, organs straight out of that crimi TV series, which was popular in the day, and piano parts which complement perfectly with that whiskey you just ordered in that shady bar downtown. The lyrics are splendidly sardonic, but also paint a canvas of vivid imagery in your head.
What at first listen seems to be a fairly simple but enjoyable listen, evolves with each consecutive listen into a real treasure hunt for small delights scattered across these seven tracks: the perfectly harmonized vocals on the opening track “Black Cow”, for example, and the buildup to the brilliant chorus in “Peg”, followed by the legendary guitar solo of Jay Graydon. Or the tempo changes, xylophone melodies and, ultimately, the utterly beautiful saxophone moment, provided by none other than Wayne Shorter!
In the hands of lesser gods, this would all have probably turned out very disjointed and gimmicky, but Becker and Fagen’s studio wizardry has made Aja a very cohesive album, in which the whole is still better than the sum of its uniformly quasi-perfect parts. It also should come as no surprise that the production and sound quality of the songs here is downright excellent. Although the description of jazz-meets-pop would make many a purist jump out of their skin of rage, this is not at all a case of the style being dumbed down for the masses. In fact, over the years, the record has gotten its fair share of critical acclaim, even from the jazz world and rightly so.
Aja is very close to being the perfect pop album, being both enjoyable for people seeking a lighthearted tune and music enthusiasts in search of unpredictable and amazingly executed compositions. But most of all, it’s a testament to all the great studio bands, who spend years trying to achieve perfection through countless hours of hard labor and gallons of blood, sweat and tears, and proves that such a process actually can result in a true masterpiece.
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.
Aja Is The Third Steely Dan album since songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen discarded a fixed-band format in late 1974. Since then they have declined to venture beyond the insular comfort of L.A. studios, recording their compositions with a loose network of session musicians. As a result, the conceptual framework of their music has shifted from the pretext of rock & roll toward a smoother, awesomely clean and calculated mutation of various rock, pop and jazz idioms. Their lyrics remain as pleasantly obtuse and cynical as ever.
Aja will continue to fuel the argument by rock purists that Steely Dan’s music is soulless, and by its calculated nature antithetical to what rock should be. But this is in many ways irrelevant to a final evaluation of this band, the only group around with no conceptual antecedent from the Sixties. Steely Dan’s six albums contain some of the few important stylistic innovations in pop music in the past decade. By returning to swing and early be-bop for inspiration — before jazz diverged totally from established conventions of pop-song structure — Fagen and Becker have overcome the amorphous quality that has plagued most other jazz-rock fusion attempts.
“Peg” and “Josie” illustrate this perfectly: tight, modal tunes with good hooks in the choruses, solid beats with intricate counterrhythms and brilliantly concise guitar solos. Like most of the rest of Aja. these songs are filled out with complex horn charts, synthesizers and lush background vocals that flirt with schmaltzy L.A. jazz riffs. When topped by Fagen’s singing, they sound like production numbers from an absurdist musical comedy.
Music this sophisticated wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the consistently tasteful employment of top studio musicians. Aja features two Miles Davis alumni (Wayne Shorter and Victor Feldman), Bernard Purdie, Tom Scott and a slew of others. In particular, Becker and Fagen have showcased a number of crack guitarists (Becker included), many of whose recent efforts elsewhere have been fairly bland (Elliott Randall’s New York. Larry Carlton on recent Crusaders’ albums, most of Rick Derringer’s material). But with Steely Dan they are given strong melody lines with original chord changes, resulting in some of the finest guitar solos ever recorded — try Katy Lied’s “Gold Teeth II,” “Kid Charlemagne” on The Royal Scam or “Peg.”
The title cut is the one song on Aja that shows real growth in Becker’s and Fagen’s songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It is the longest song they’ve recorded, but it fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux. “Aja” may prove to be the farthest Becker and Fagen can take certain elements of their musical ambition.
Lyrically, these guys still seem to savor the role they must have acquired as stoned-out, hyperintelligent pariahs at a small Jewish college on the Hudson. Their imagery can become unintelligibly weird (Frank Zappa calls it “downer surrealism”); it’s occasionally accessible but more often (as on the title song) it elicits a sort of deja vu tease that becomes hopelessly nonsensical the more you think about it. Focus your attention on the imagery of a specific phrase, then let it fade out. Well, at least it beats rereading the dildo sequence in Naked Lunch.
The last album, The Royal Scam. was the closest thing to a “concept” album Steely Dan has done, an attempt to return musically to New York City, with both a raunchier production quality and a fascination with grim social realism. The farthest Aja strays from the minor joys and tribulations of the good life in L.A. are the dreamy title cut and “Josie,” which hints ominously about a friendly welcome-home gang-bang. The melodramatic “Black Cow” is about love replaced by repulsion for a woman who starts getting too strung out on downers and messing around with other men. “Deacon Blues” (a thematic continuation of “Fire in the Hole” and “Any World”) exemplifies this album’s mood: resignation to the L.A. musician’s lifestyle, in which one must “crawl like a viper through these suburban streets” yet “make it my home sweet home.” The title and first lines of “Home at Last” (presumably a clever interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey — I don’t get it) put it right up front: “I know this superhighway This bright familiar sun I guess that I’m the lucky one.”
More than any of Steely Dan’s previous albums (with the possible exception of Katy Lied), Aja exhibits a carefully manipulated isolation from its audience, with no pretense of embracing it. What underlies Steely Dan’s music — and may, with this album, be showing its limitations — is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics. Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.