The driving force behind Steely Dan were (and continue to be) Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, both of whom looked more like a pair of creepy cannibals than a couple of extremely talented musical perfectionists. Originally neither of them had any real ambitions of performing, instead seeing themselves as songwriters on the payroll of ABC Records. But when that arrangement wasn’t working out, they decided to form a band, for want of a better word, preferring to record their own material, while bringing in other musicians as and when it suited them.
Aja, released in 1977, has long been considered by critics and fans alike as their highest achievement. And who am I to argue. Because I have to confess, that until I heard this album, I was never really what you’ll call a student of their particular school of music. Sure, there were a few songs I enjoyed, mainly what I heard on the radio, but except for those, not much else seemed to grab my attention. However all that changed once I put this album on. Instantly my antenna went up, and I began listening, for what felt like the first time.
Opener “Black Cow” jumps out of your speakers with a relaxed and uncomplicated bass line, whose technique has an almost AOR vibe about it. The first thing that strikes you (or at least this listener) is how pristine the production is. The sound is so clear and warm, to the extent that if someone had of so much as farted during the recording process, Messrs Fagen and Becker would have erased the whole thing and started all over again (being the pedants that they were). Some keyboards by Victor Feldman add a pleasant texture, while the brass arrangement is a little reminiscent of Blood, Sweat and Tears, after a heavy dose of Aropax. Tom Scott plays some tasteful tenor saxophone and, well basically, the whole song is pretty much faultless from start to finish.
“Aja”, the title song (in case you haven’t been paying attention) follows, and is something of a mini-epic, covering swing, progressive rock, as well as some minor Caribbean elements. The harmony vocals are just right as ever, while Denny Dias contributes some exquisite jazz guitar, followed by Wayne Shorter, who sprinkles some of his own magic over the composition, before a jazz-fusion like drum workout leads the song and everyone else out of the room.
“Deacon Blues” is another precision number as only Steely Dan knows how to do. For me it’s not so much the vocals that matter, but what the musicians themselves are bringing to the table which piques my interest. What the term “blues” is doing in the title of a tune as impeccable as this is beyond me, but it’s extremely enjoyable all the same.
“Peg” is based around some funky guitar and slap bass, with some very nice clavinet by Don Grolnick. And is that Michael McDonald, of the Doobie Brothers I hear singing lead harmonies? What’s certain is that one thing you can’t criticise Steely Dan of and that’s lack of taste.
“Home at Last” is another complex piece, featuring Larry Carlton on guitar (who’d played with The Four Tops, Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, amongst others), and whom for me, probably makes this song, and one which sees our boys reminiscing about their days in New York before their move to L.A.
“I Got the News” is a funk-based piece, and contains some almost avant-garde piano by Feldman. It’s more of an album track than anything, but enjoyable nonetheless, especially the brief guitar solo, which to me sounds like Lee Ritenour, but I could be wrong (although he did play on the album).
Concluding the LP is “Josie”, yet another funk oriented composition, and a fun and enjoyable way to close the curtain on what remains one of Steely Dan’s most successful and enduring albums. Sure, their approach to recording bordered on being anally retentive, something which must have driven Gary Katz, the executive producer, often to distraction, not to mention some of the artists themselves (I’m sorry Mr. Shorter, but your solo wasn’t quite in the right pitch. Do you think you can do it again?). And while the melodies themselves are wonderful, it’s the eclectic and finely crafted musicianship which is justification alone for investigating this much celebrated document of late 1970’s studio indulgence. But after listening to it, one can’t help but get the feeling that these guys are into Bonsai trees and Japanese gardens. Which I guess gets back to the whole anal-retentive thing. Perhaps.