Classic Music Review: Aja by Steely Dan

2012-10-30-steely_dan_aja

This is one of the few times I’ve felt the need to go back and rewrite a review that I had already scheduled for publication. I knew this was going to happen someday because of the way I plan and write reviews.

Due to a very busy life, I have to schedule reviews months in advance. This means that by the time a review has appeared, I’ve moved on to something entirely different, often in a separate genre or from another decade. In this case, I had deliberately scheduled the Steely Dan series right before the Psychedelia series because I liked the contrast of the juxtaposition. The Psychedelia series was a big one with a dozen or so reviews that will last seven or eight weeks (details on Sunday), and so while you were reading about Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Steely Dan, I was immersed in no less than forty albums from the Psychedelic Era.

Contrast is too wimpy a word to describe the difference between Steely Dan and the bands of the Psychedelic Era. “Massive chasm” is more accurate. Wild, uncontrolled experimentation versus disciplined professionalism. Fairytale idealism and faux philosophy versus cynical street-smarts and deep insights into human nature. The one common thread is drug use, but the hippies were acid and grass while Steely Dan was more cocaine. And while there were some members of psychedelic bands who qualified as serious musicians, a surprising number had no discernible talent whatsoever. On Aja, Fagen and Becker assembled a cast of some of the best musicians of the time—and rejected the contributions of several outstanding musicians whose styles didn’t fit their vision.

So after spending a few weeks in Haight-Ashbury, I really needed to hear Steely Dan again to remind me what professional musicians sound like.

Much has been written about Aja, Steely Dan’s best-selling album. It’s a huge favorite with audiophiles, won the Grammy for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording and is the crowning jewel of Fagen and Becker’s endless pursuit of perfection. There are downsides, however. Sometimes the perfectionism goes too far and the music seems a bit sterile; like when you’re watching a play where the actors perform their roles with professional exactitude but fail to connect with the audience on an emotional level. Occasionally a melody or a rhythm change feels unnatural and contrived. I really dislike the choice to bring in Michael McDonald on some of the vocals because when he’s on, all I hear are the fucking Doobie Brothers. Most importantly, the constantly revolving door of session musicians means that the tightness and intuitive communication that blossoms from long-term collaboration—critical to jazz in particular—is lacking because the musicians never had time to really gel. While they selected pros who knew their way around the studio and could read quickly, Fagen and Becker had definite ideas in mind that limited other ideas that might have added some interesting textures to the music. In some ways, I think Aja could have been even better with less control, more holistic collaboration and a few more rough edges.

To place those comments in context, I think Sgt. Pepper could have been better if McCartney hadn’t been so impatient and waited for George Martin to return from a brief absence and arrange the strings on “She’s Leaving Home.” Both Sgt. Pepper and Aja are masterpieces of the recording arts and both are loaded with brilliant arrangements and impressive compositions. Both involve the fusion of music from different traditions and genres, with Aja integrating jazz values with the grooves of R&B and funk, with a few splashes of rock thrown in for variation. I’ve looked at the sheet music for all of the songs on Aja and rarely do you find a simple major or minor chord. Nearly all the chords are jazz-enhanced: sixths, sevenths, ninths, thirteenths, along with augmented variations. The intro to “Deacon Blues” contains more chord variations than you would hear in 99% of the pop songs ever created. While the sheer number and variation of chords is technically impressive, what’s even more impressive is the thematic unity of each piece. Fagen and Becker enriched their compositions with harmonic and melodic variety outside of the norm, but never lost sight of the need to create a satisfying whole. They also never lost touch with the need for a strong groove, and all the songs on Aja make you want to move.

In the first thirty-eight seconds of “Black Cow” you hear so many brilliant choices that you shake your head in amazement and admiration. Notice the restraint of the guitar, playing simple duplets and triplets over the relaxed funk rhythm and revel in the beauty of subtraction. Delight in the surprising introduction of female harmonies to Donald Fagen’s cheeky vocal and the superb choice to allow the ladies to take over on the last line of the verse, setting up something more complex and integrated than the standard call-and-response pattern. Meanwhile, in the background, the guitars are trading chord support in opposite channels and the horn section enters as smooth as silk, all without overcrowding the sound field. The introduction of electric piano adds more sonic diversity and texture, guiding the music to a new set of chords before resolving to the verse pattern. When the sax comes in on the fade, all you have to do is sit back, relax and revel in the interplay of a finely wrought arrangement.

“Aja” features an equally strong arrangement, and while I love listening to some of the sounds they create in the early sections, I simply don’t care for the song. The melody is a touch labored and I really loathe the cartoonish “sounds of China” in the extended instrumental section. “Deacon Blues” is a better and more coherent piece and features the best character sketch on the album. I found a pretty lively debate over the song’s lyrics on Songfacts, and I have to side with a contributor named Wolf who identified the narrator as middle-aged man going through his mid-life crisis. Desperately seeking something other than the ho-hum life he leads, he seeks validation not through life but through death—announcing to his wife that he intends to pursue an implausible dream of existence as a doomed jazz musician, whose immortality is accomplished through self-annihilation:

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whisky all night long
And die behind the wheel

The pathos evoked by this story is quite palpable. After a life of quiet desperation where he was likely ignored and belittled by all who knew him, our poor hero has finally snapped and bought the absurd dream that people will finally pay attention and give him the respect he craves if he somehow turns into the next musical martyr. While Fagen and Becker often bring out the sharp knives when they write about fools, here Fagen plays the role straight, allowing the fool to emerge without judgment. “Deacon Blues” is a lyrical masterpiece set in a perfect arrangement of horns, voices and a gorgeous saxophone solo . . . but the musical contribution I notice the most is the remarkably clean and clear acoustic guitar rhythm. On Aja, every part counts, and subtlety consistently triumphs over excess.

“Peg” was the big hit of the album, featuring a strong rhythm courtesy of the interplay between Chuck Rainey on bass and Rick Marotta on drums and an amazing cascade of chords and melodic progression in the chorus . . . but as I said, I have a low tolerance for Michael McDonald’s voice. Some voices just irritate the shit out of me . . . Thom Yorke, Tom Waits, Janis Joplin . . . and McDonald has one of those voices that make me cringe. My ears do get happy when Jay Graydon comes in with his guitar solo, a blessed bit of rough distortion and dissonance in the midst of smooth and silky. Do you realize that Fagen and Becker tried out at least seven top lead guitarists—including the exceptional Robben Ford—before choosing Jay Graydon’s version? And then spent six hours with him to get it right? While that kind of behavior defines the psychological connotation of the word “anal,” you can’t argue with the results. It’s a great fucking lead guitar solo.

“Home at Last” is a 1970’s update of Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” In that poem, the wandering hero has finally settled down into a comfy kingship and doesn’t like it one bit:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Later in the poem he says “fuck it” (well, actually he says, “‘Tis not to late to seek a newer world,” but I like my paraphrase better) and prepares to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield on the high seas. The Fagen-Becker version of Odysseus is more ambivalent: he’s not stuck to a tired old broad, but a nurturing type who attends to his pleasures:

She serves the smooth retsina
She keeps me safe and warm
It’s just the calm before the storm

Call in my reservation
So long, hey, thanks my friend
I guess I’ll try my luck again

Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last
Home at last

I love how they refuse to resolve the ambiguity, and why should they? The music falls on that knife-edge between smooth jazz and hot, reflecting both his comfort and his carnal desire. When you’ve got it good and the music feels so good, why hassle with anything else? “Home at Last” is a marvelously-constructed piece, the perfect marriage of musical and lyrical themes, each supporting the other.

“I Got the News” features my favorite piano piece on Aja, a Monk-like cascade of unexpected and arrhythmic fills that thrill me to the core and more than compensate for another drop-in vocal from Michael McDonald. Ed Greene’s drums are also remarkable, a hot mix of great fills and cymbal work. It’s the most idiosyncratic piece on Aja, the track that best demonstrates their ability to integrate jazz values into their music. “Josie” ends the album, a hot R&B funk number that conclusively places Steely Dan light years ahead of the other horn-oriented bands of the era. In the Classic Albums documentary, Fagen reveals that this is one of his favorite songs to play live, and his vocal on this one is his strongest on the entire album—-the man is feeling it, and more than perfectionism or the thousands of takes that went into the creation of Aja, it’s the feeling that makes it all come together in the end.

Aja proved to be Steely Dan’s high-water mark. The recording of the follow-up album, Gaucho, was cursed almost from the start by legal hassles, Becker’s love of the white powder, his hospitalization due to multiple injuries in an auto accident and the death of his girlfriend from a drug overdose in Becker’s home, which led to a lawsuit . . . a flood of bad karma. Gaucho is much more of a groove-based album with far less musical complexity, and despite the haphazard nature of its creation, is actually a pretty good record. It’s a good record because even when Steely Dan weren’t completely on top of their game, they had more talent in reserve than most of the other artists of the era. Lucky for us, it all came together in Aja, one of the truly great albums of all time.

View the entire Classic Albums documentary on Aja on YouTube.

 

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