Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: STEELY DAN
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
By the time Steely Dan recorded their sixth album they were reduced to the core duo of singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, who surrounded themselves with the best studio musicians of that era, each hand-picked for particular tracks. With five Gold or Platinum albums under their belts, and success with both mainstream pop audiences & more discriminating FM radio listeners, they were primed for the album of their career and they delivered in a big way with Aja. This 7-song collection, their only multi-platinum release, is a sophisticated blend of rock, pop & jazz that defies categorization, but what makes it truly special is the songwriting talents of Fagen & Becker. They always had a knack for killer melodies, incredible musicianship & incisive lyrics, all of which are in full force on an album that’s as close to perfect as an artist can get. Two 7+ minute tracks form the beating heart of the record: “Aja” and “Deacon Blues.” The former is a musical journey that features immense solos from drummer Steve Gadd and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, while the latter is a smooth midtempo gem dedicated to the “losers” of the world (“They 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’”). Album opener “Black Cow” has another slinky midtempo groove, slick horns, female backing vocals and a lovely electric piano solo.
Original Steely Dan touring vocalist Michael McDonald, who by then was spearheading the Mach II incarnation of The Doobie Brothers, adds his inimitable voice to two funky tracks, “I Got The News” and hit single “Peg.” Both of these show off the group’s playful side while still being smooth enough for them to be part of “Yacht Rock” (with McDonald the common denominator), a tongue-in-cheek classification of mellow ‘70s artists created a decade ago. I previously discussed “The Purdie Shuffle” in the 2nd part of my Toto series, a drumming groove played by Jeff Porcaro on “Rosanna” in honor of its originator, Bernard Purdie. Mr. Purdie shows how it’s done on “Home At Last” with his subtle rhythm driving the song forward. Becker’s guitar solo is another highlight, and it’s a shame this song didn’t receive the kind of airplay that most of the others did. The album closes with the funky “Josie,” a Top 40 hit that’s become one of their signature songs. I could write multiple paragraphs about the specific performances that make Aja so special, but I’m trying to keep these summaries as concise as possible. I suggest you look up the musicians as you play each song and marvel at the artistry on display. I enjoy the fact that a band named after a fictional sexual device created one of the most sonically stunning records of all time. Although I love most of their prior releases just as much, Aja is a special record that’s as fresh & inspiring today as it was four decades ago.
To read more on this classic album I recommend the following:
Geoff Stephen’s succinct review at 1001albumsin10years
Bruce Jenkins’ characteristically thorough overview at Vinyl Connection