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Steely Dan - Aja CD (album) cover


Steely Dan

Jazz Rock/Fusion

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The Pessimist
5 stars 1. Black Cow - 5:10 2. Aja - 7:57 3. Deacon Blues - 7:37 4. Peg - 3:57 5. Home at Last - 5:34 6. I Got the News - 5:06 7. Josie - 4:33

Undoubtedly, the pinnacle of this great band's career. I've always seen SD as being a prog band through and through, and now that Miles Davis has been added to PA's massive discography, it has made way for more and more jazz rock bands that are not as highly recognised in the prog world as say, Mahavishnu Orchestra. I am very pleased with this, and the direction PA's now going in. Now on to the actual tracks.

There isn't a single bad song on this album, as with all legendary albums of any era. Black Cow is a stunning chilled out number with what sounds like Bernard Pretty Purdie on drums, splendid Fender Rhodes and some great backing vox. This is one of my favourite songs by Steely Dan. But then comes the all time classic, arguably one of the best song EVER, Aja is a masterpiece in the highest of rights. From the very first notes on the piano, it is the perfect progression that demonstrates the songwriting genius of Donald Fagen. The jazz style guitar is truly brilliant and the drum solos... Oh my god! The drum solos, courtesy of the great Steve Gadd, are world class and should be listened to by every self-respecting drummer! I really mean it. Enough said, you have to listen to it yourself: a true epic.

Deacon Blues eases down into mainstream territory, but still keeps the musicianship of the previous two songs on a high. A fantastic tune with one hell of a saxophone solo to close it off. Only Steely Dan coined this style of song perfectly, and if you like jazz then you will, without a doubt, love this. Peg is a funky number that puts me in a good mood everytime. The rhythms portrayed by Bernard Purdie and Walter Becker are truly dancing quality and extremely tight. Complex vocal harmonies elevate the chorus to the standard of the rest of the album, so this is yet another strong SD track and a favourite at live shows.

Home At Last is a ballady type number with some tasteful piano and quite a cropped arrangement, once again a skill that is easily recognisable in Donald Fagen. I Got The News is another funky number with some splendid electric guitar and some really solid jazz influences. Underneath the vocal line, i perceive this as quite a complex song with a very classy rhythm in the backing. It almost reminds me of the small jazz groups of the 50s like The Dave Brubeck Group etc... Josie tops the album off very nicely indeed, and is a personal favourite of mine out of the entire SD catalogue. Some brilliant rhythm guitar is a pleasure to listen to, tight drumming and a stylish use of brass even more so. Recommended!

Altogether one of the best albums of all time, for jazz, rock, pop and even prog, there is something for everyone. Of the prog community, you will probably favour Aja the most for its progressive jazz nature, but all the songs are splendid in their own right. 5 stars, a masterpiece of music, let alone prog.

Report this review (#180690)
Posted Sunday, August 24, 2008 | Review Permalink
5 stars The Perfect Album

Ever since I picked up Aja, many years ago, it has never failed to impress me, more so than any other Steely Dan release. Start to finish, there is no song that is weak. My favorite is the title track. A moody and changing and somewhat epic at almost eight minutes highlights the Fagen and Becker's creativity at the cusp of Progressive Rock. Not to mention, the lone album appearance of Steve Gadd on drums is a treat, especially near the end of the song. On USA radio, every song is known. Few albums can tout this.

Another short review from me, but I highly recommend this album. This is the Steely Dan release all CD collections MUST have. Get it.

Report this review (#180699)
Posted Sunday, August 24, 2008 | Review Permalink
5 stars AJA.

''Black Cow'' is the album's opener, and wow, what a song! The chorus is very catchy while still managing to put a new twist on typical song structurer and direction. The drumming featured in this song is quite contagious (go, Paul Humphrey!), while the rest of the instruments are on top of their game, as well. The vocal harmonies work extremely well here, and not one note sound out of place. Truly wonderful.

''Aja'' - is the album's title song, starting out with some of the most beautiful jazz piano work I have ever heard, and the punchy bass lines along with vibraphone really helps fill out the sound. The guitar work here isn't bad, either, and the mysterious, moody vocal melodies can't really be beat. The riff tham cones in at 02:20, then comes to full realization at 02:30 gives me true shivers, and the bluesy guitar solo that immediately follows sends me into a trance. If this album is anything, it is proof that Steely Dan, whatever incarnation, can always play their instruments with an equal amount accuracy and passion. A very beautiful song, complete with sax, keys and some mad drumming from Steve Gadd by the time it's all over. This song is quite the epic, as well, clocking in at nearly ten minutes. The chorus is so dreamy and pleasant that I don't see how anyone could dislike these guys or this album, but hey, it takes all kinds, so perhaps AJA's bad review has yet to be written. You certainly won't see it coming from me, however. As an entire album, Aja truly works, but the title song alone is enough reason to buy it. I truly mean that. Everything dies down with a hauntingly weird yet appropriate keyboard riff helping encase all of the madness during the final fadeout.

''Deacon Blues'' is already wonderful within the first ten seconds of the track. Great, great riff. May I add that the guitar playing on this record is unrivaled in places? No, not in speed, but in emotion. Some really great stuff to be found here across the entire board, but the guitars especially really add something to the exprience. This is a very uplifting song at its core, yet it could be taken as meloncholy if not in the correct mindset at the time of listening. Probably my favorite track on the whole record, along with the title track. The simplicity of Aja also should not be overlooked. The guys in Steely Dan are managing to make these tracks feel extremely epic and 'full' without having to over-play. That is something few other prog bands (or indeed, ANY bands) have been able to pull off over the decades, so it is always a treat to hear it pulled off so effortlessly here.

''Peg'' is probably the most straightforward 'jazz' song to be found on the record, sounding incredibly random at times while also remaining together and never feeling unorganized. The main riff playing so eloquently in the background really gives me a sense of rhythm and joy that sends my heart soaring every time I hear it. Again, a track that COULD be taken as being a 'bummer', but when listened to in the right mood on the right day, nothing could be more enjopyable and uplifitng. ''And when you smile for the camera, I know I love you better, Peg.''

''Home at Last''. Ooh, great, and I mean GREAT piano work here at the start, and all throughout, really. Much mellower and chill, this track is potentially the weakest on the record, and that is saying something indeed, since it's still of fantastic caliber despite the shortcomings. I guess my biggest complaint for this one is that it has already gotten repetetive for me. There isn't enough substance or growth to justify its length. That's just my opinion. The tune is still lovely, and the playing is top-notch as always, but except for the synthed-up bridge in the middle, I don't find it all that compelling or interesting. At least not enough to sit through five minutes and thirty-five seconds of it. Still, on its own, the song could rival anything on the radio these days, so these complaints are trivial, frankly. Still much better than most stuff.

''I've Got the News'' - The drum and bass work here is truly groovy. I think this song gives the best example of Rainey's prowess on his instrument. Ed Greene does great cymbal smashing work as well. Overall, a good track. Very compelling, always adding layers. I never got bored.

''Josie'' serves as the album's closer, and something about it is very 'seventiees' to me, for whatever reason. I like it. I like it alot. Not really much can be said about it other than the fact that it closes yet another master work that I am very proud to have in my collection. Gets many spins, this record. Well deserved, if you ask me. Is it Steely Dan's best? Perhaps, but for me the jury is still out, since I have yet to scourge through their entire back catalogue. Most likely, though. It's certainly the best of theirs I have heard so far.

AJA is truly a masterpiece, with just enough Jazz elements to keep us guessing, and all the rocking elements that make it worthy of being called 'progressive rock'. What truly great a debt we owe to masters like Steely Dan for not being afraid to completely start over in their line-up and sound. The result was AJA, and it was a monumental moment in music. Despite its couple of small hiccups, it is still perfect by most standards. I can't give it any less than a perfect score. Truly essential.

Report this review (#180704)
Posted Sunday, August 24, 2008 | Review Permalink
4 stars I think this album is a little overrated, that is, it's superb but IMO not quite an out-and-out masterpiece, apart from the title track which I rate up there withe Starless, And You and I and Karneval 9 for top-drawer prog.

Still, it's nice to see the Steelies here, recognising their originality and talent.

I expect a fair bit of commentary about the album so I'll add a few snippets that are relevant, especially from a drummer's or drum fan's point of view.

Overall, the sound is as slick as anything you'll hear, ultra-smooth jazziness abounds. At first listen many moons ago I thought it was too smooth, but I've came around and it was always on my turntable full blast as I drove my neighbours mad drumming along to it. (Literally mad. During one band practice a neighbour came around crying and actually screaming ... turns out she was bipolar but I did practice an awful lot back then *evil laugh*).

My piont, however, is that Steely Dan are the subtlest of bands, and more than any of SD's previous albums you need to look at the detail - the lyrics, chord structures, harmonies and the sneaky bits slipped in by all instruments - to notice the subversiveness.

The exception is the title track, which is for the most part out-and-out prog fusion - long, intensely complex in melody, harmony, structure and dynamics, and featuring virtuoso performances from Weather Report's Wayne Shorter on sax and top session man, Steve Gadd on traps.

'Peg', on first glance, is a simple pop song. However, Rick Marotta's drumming on the track is legendary in the drum fraternity. Like Terry Bozzio's much-loved mayhem in 'Black Page', Rick's drumming on Peg is one of those drum lines that stick wielders keep trying to replicate and put in YouTube. And, as with the much more overtly difficult Zappa number, the comments from viewers are invariably, 'Nice try, but ...'. It's seemingly so simple but almost impossible to replicate while holding the groove down. Apparently Donald and Walter went through a gaggle of drummers laying down tracks and none quite did it for them until Rick M walked in and nailed it.

'Josie' is an interesting number. It starts with an eerie riff before doin' the funk thang. Great groove, then a gorgeous interlude leads into a tasty guitar solo. Another bridge, then back to the eerie riff and, typical of the subversiveness of The Dans, a 7-count drum fill (also legendary within certain drummer circles for its awkward pseudo-simplicity) leading to a brass section outro.

Title track aside, 'Aja' seems to be based on a similar philosophy to that of Brian Eno; the album is as ignorable as it is listenable. I read an Amazon review by someone who thought it was musical wallpaper. Obviously that was one listener who's more interested in the overt than the subtle. Horses for courses ...

Report this review (#180762)
Posted Monday, August 25, 2008 | Review Permalink
4 stars In my review of The Royal Scam I stated that that album is along with this one the best of Steely Dan's entire discography. It really is in my opinion and that also means that 1976/77 is the peaktime of the band.

Take this album: it contains three smashing songs and four very good ones. The three best are Deacon Blues (great jazz !), Josie (very nice atmosphere) and of course the title track that is also the most progressive song they ever produced I believe. Peg is also a classic but a little bit less for my taste and the other three (Black Cow, Home at last and I got the news) are relatively new for me (few years ago) but sound absolutely fantastic maybe with exception of I got the news which is the least for me.

This means we are talking about a near masterpiece here, it ends up with a rating of some 4,4/4,5 so I will have to give 4 but that's not with pleasure !

Report this review (#180851)
Posted Tuesday, August 26, 2008 | Review Permalink
PSIKE Team & Band Submissions
4 stars It took quite a long time until I began to listen to my Steely Dan stuff again because it was pushed into the background by other music spontaneously in the past. I'm really convinced of the album's high standard. They started off in 1972 with catchy sophisticated soul and jazz drenched rock/pop music. First of all during the 70/80's they were highlights on parties and filled the dance floors with the debut album hit 'Do it again' and 'Rikki don't lose that number' from the album 'Pretzel Logic'. Donald Fagan and Walter Becker as the masterminds began to expand and modify their style noticably with their next album 'Countdown to Ecstasy'. 'Aja' from 1977 won the Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording and is the one with the most leanings to progressive rock for me.

Fagan and Becker are known for their meticolous work and the strong intention to reach perfectionism. They even have been able to drive some musicians to desperation whilst recording the songs. But it worked finally. This album proves their songwriting capabilities at the creative peak and they gathered the who is who of jazz (rock) for the recordings - for example Larry Carlton and Joe Sample (Crusaders) or such as Michael McDonald who is one of my alltime favourite vocalists. Speaking of vocals - they always have a dominant role in their albums and 'Aja' is not an exception even though we have longer instrumental passages here and there.

The lyrics don't contain very substantial messages - or they are using metaphors and I don't get it. The opener Black Cow for instance is expressing some sadness dealing with the common subject drug use - 'You were high, it was a cryin disgrace' - and of course with this special eponymous drink - vanilla ice cream combined with root beer - which I've never tried in my life (probably I have to come to the States for that?). Musically a typical SD track I would say - jazzy electric piano and brass dominated and comparable with the Crusaders output.

My favourite track Aja is truly prog, varied, fusion infected and nearly epic with a complex structure and more instrumental portions featuring Wayne Shorter delivering a great saxophone solo - extraordinary drum playing by Steve Gadd included. When you use your headphones you are able to catch all the details without being diverted - a moment of glory. Deacon Blues a very smooth jazzy song is often noticed as another album highlight and for the sake of clarity I listened to it again and again but can't approve this. A nice mellow one but also mainstream all through.

After that the band comes back to familiar surroundings - groovy songs with a high ratio of jazz are following, excellently arranged with catchy melodies and technically skillful without any doubt - Peg for example is convincing with the help of some well-known backing vocalists and together with Josie they are really candidates for animating people to enter the dance floor on your party.

Great album. An extensive prog rock collection should also contain some related examples though - why not? Four stars are well deserved for this extraordinary album.

Report this review (#180873)
Posted Tuesday, August 26, 2008 | Review Permalink
Chris S
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Like a sleeping giant. Aja is an album that oozes class. Jazz rock with heavier progressive inflections all over it make it debateably their most progressive album to date. Adding to their already perfectionist ' behind the scenes' studio indulgences, Aja took a different direction and in many respects followed on from the ' Royal Scam' track off the same titled previous release. Except Aja has no jagged edges, it is so smoothe you will probably slip off the couch just listening to it. ' Black Cow' sets the album off onto a quality note, great chorus work and note the ubiquitous prescence on Timothy B Schmit of Eagles fame adding vocal work. No bass this time but his voice contributing to the overall vocal sounds. The next song is ' Aja' and is the finest and most complex song off the album. Great keyboards, strong jazz sounds and this song needs to be listened to, to be fully appreciated. ' Deacon Blues' another firm favourite, great melody and distinct sounds. ' Peg' and ' Josie' are more returns to the jazz funky elements but for that steady slowburn emotion ' Home At Last' and ' I Got The News' revisit the Aja soundscape. As I said Aja is a sleeping giant, complex, slumbering but oh so smoothe. Seldom visiting my archives of sound does anything come close to being quite as slick and sophisticated as Aja. Unless you are familar with their following album Gaucho! A solid four and a half stars.
Report this review (#181148)
Posted Saturday, August 30, 2008 | Review Permalink
5 stars The 1970s were my decade. I was a relatively free adult, burdened with only a few responsibilities. Music was my world. I ate, drank, slept, lived and breathed music. I must have bought an average of an LP per week for those ten years. I listened to and absorbed all kinds of great (and not so great) aural art. So when I say that Steely Dan's "Aja" is the best American album from the 70s you'll know that I don't bestow that grandiose title lightly. It is the perfect combination of the high level of creative composition, musicianship, and studio recording technology that had grown by leaps and bounds since the revolutionary sixties came to an end. It has endured and aged incredibly well. It still excites my senses today every bit as much as it did when I first put needle to vinyl back in September of '77.

The humble, simple beginning of "Black Cow" belies the magnificence that lays in wait for your anxious ears. The ever-morphing entity known as Steely Dan creates a fitting, somber aura to surround the heartbreaking storyline that defines the song. It's about a man finally having to turn his back on the girl he loves with all his heart because he's come to realize that the object of his adoration has problems that his commitment to her will never solve. He has become her enabler. "I can't cry anymore/while you run around/break away/just when it seems so clear/that it's over now/drink your big Black Cow/and get out of here," Fagen sadly sings. Victor Feldman's electric piano solo flows effortlessly and Tom Scott's horn arrangement is subtle but effective. When Mr. Scott delivers his fluent saxophone ride over the female chorus's soft refrains of "so outrageous." you share in the poor protagonist's sorrow-filled surrender to the painful truth of the matter.

The mystical atmosphere of "Aja" is almost beyond description. I'll say this. Anyone who thinks that Steely Dan isn't prog hasn't really listened to this amazing track. Like all fine progressive music, the tune takes the listener on an eight minute journey and this one is as good as it gets in Jazz Rock/Fusion. Here Fagen & Becker let their words about fidelity and loyalty ("When all my dime dancin' is through/I run to you.") take a back seat to the wondrous collaboration of musicians they brought together for this recording. While the saxophone work of Wayne Shorter is brilliant, it is the heavenly bliss of Steve Gadd's drumming that ushers this piece into the sacred halls where legends dwell. It's not a drum solo. Not at all. He plays his finely-tuned instrument completely within the framework of the song, displaying not only awesome technique but an unbelievable ability to maintain the tune's strict tempo requirements. And that's just the halfway point! When Steve shakes, rumbles and rolls like a force of nature over the exciting piano accents and the near-psychedelic drone during the end segment and subsequent fade out it's like watching and hearing a powerful storm moving away over the horizon.

Donald and Walter's beautiful ode to musicians, "Deacon Blues," is next and it's my all-time favorite composition by that duo. It speaks to all artists who have dedicated themselves to their calling, but especially those who seek to manipulate sound waves. Opening with those intriguing "Steely Dan guitar chords" that you never forget once you learn them, this tune features Tom Scott's elite horn section as they create a lush background as full as a cathedral organ under Fagen's soulful vocals and the soaring female chorale that backs him. The message pulls no punches. If you are an artist, you will be an outcast in the eyes of society, not to mention your own family. You choose to live on the fringe. "You call me a fool/you say it's a crazy scheme/this one's for real/I already bought the dream," he admits. But what Gadd did for the previous cut, saxophonist supreme Pete Christlieb does for this one. He injects all the passion, blood, sweat and tears of a musician's life into his horn and it is sublime. It sends chills up my backbone. During the fadeout I always form a mental picture of a musician just getting off work at the nightclub, strolling down an empty street in the quiet pre-dawn hours on his way back to his modest, lonely apartment. Fagen's final verse always hits me where it means the most. "I cried when I wrote this song/sue me if I play too long/this brother is free/I'll be what I want to be." Amen.

"Peg" is one cool, funky dance number. (And it's okay for proggers to dance.) Here the rhythm track supplied by drummer Rick Marotta and bassist Chuck Rainey ignites the studio with their irresistible groove. If you don't understand why they used Chuck so often then take a moment and lend an ear to what he's playing on this tune. The words are a stinging, sarcastic poke at just one of the horde of disillusioned starlets they probably ran into on the streets and in the cliques of Hollywood each day. Michael McDonald's unique tenor is unmistakable on the chorus and Jay Graydon's spectacular guitar break is one that never gets old. The story is that for this song's solo he was the seventh professional session guitarist to attempt to dazzle Don & Walt and the only one that succeeded.

"Home at Last" has always been special to me. In that autumn of '77 I had turned my existence upside down by moving lock, stock and barrel to Los Angeles in a last-ditch effort to go nationwide. The first year out there went so splendidly for me that I easily related to Mr. Fagan when he sang "could it be that I have found my home at last?" I especially admire their use of open space between Feldman's opening piano jabs to build anticipation. The melody and vocal delivery are both superb and, once again, Tom Scott's horn arrangement creates a soft but dense wall of sound as deep as that of a Mellotron. In a rare occurrence, the writers step in to supply the leads with Donald tossing in some playful synthesizer and Walter displaying his underrated, nimble guitar style.

"I Got the News" is a very up-tempo jog through the suburban streets of the city with various instruments jumping in and out of the mix. The bridge, with Michael McDonald's trademark chops rising to the surface again, is a surprise turn and the lyrics about pretty ladies who believe they could get away with murder are very tongue-in-cheek. "Broadway Duchess/darlin', if you only knew/half as much as/everybody thinks you do." Fagen & company sings. "Josie," with its familiar chiming guitar intro, takes the album out on a celebratory note. This cut has a funky feel that's truly infectious and its catchy hook line made it a hit that will never leave the airwaves. I don't know who Josie is but the hometown folks are happy to see her return. "Strike at the stroke of midnight/dance on the bones till the girls say when/pick up what's left by daylight/when Josie comes home." (I might add that I didn't get that kind of reception when I retreated to the homestead after my California experience 3 years later. But few do. P.S. I don't regret a thing.)

True artists aim for immortality with their every creation. They are constantly driven to sculpt a Pieta, paint a Starry Night or compose an Ode To Joy with every try. For Steely Dan, this is their magnum opus. In a career that can only be considered extraordinary, this album of songs towers above the clouds like Mount Everest. I will never grow weary of hearing its magic and I suspect that it will still be respected and revered a thousand years from now. It exists forevermore on a lofty plane inhabited by only a handful of other albums and, thusly, it should most definitely inhabit a place on your shelf.

Report this review (#181370)
Posted Monday, September 1, 2008 | Review Permalink
3 stars I dont really understand why people have such a broad definition of prog. It really comes down sometimes, or so it appears, toif I like it, then its prog. Man, how can this be prog rock, if its barely even rock?!!! I dont know if the term even exists , but I would say this is something like pop-jazz with a lot of 70s vibe to it. Have you ever felt like dancing while listening to Rush, King Krimson, Genesis, Camel? No? Well, me neither. If this is prog rock, its the only one I know that makes me want to dance, sometimes cheek- to- cheek style. Somehow while I listen to this, pictures of black people with big afros on a dance floor flood my mind, maybe its just me. Now, is the music bad? Not at all, in fact, its very enjoyable, and has some very elaborate melodic easy-jazz segments, with great musicianship. But, does that make it prog? Not in my books, cos'it still makes me want to dance.... Im not saying this is bad, its quite good, but take my warning, this stretches the prog label until it starts to break. Three stars for the album in itself, but One star if youre searching for progrock
Report this review (#185071)
Posted Wednesday, October 8, 2008 | Review Permalink
4 stars 4.5; Steely Dan's crowning achievement!

Steely Dan has been a band I've always enjoyed since hearing some of their hits on radio when I was a little kid. Their music is great classic/soft/jazz/pop/? rock with an obvious uniqueness to it, evident from the fact it's hard to describe in precise language. So when I started downloading music (legally) a few years ago, I got a compilation of their and the band really grew on me from then on. About a year ago one of my best friends (in fact, the one who really introduced me to prog) let me borrow some of their full albums, this one included. I found this one to be my favorite of their discography, so I bought it last Christmas. And man, is it amazing!

The music here is pretty soft and steady, like most of their music, but this album in particular incorporates a more intellectual and artful (thus, prog) writing style. Something about this album is just hits the spot, I can't even really put my finger on it. It is the only album of their's I'd consider (just barely) full blown prog, especially the epics Aja and Deacon Blues (or at least epic for Steely Dan's usual song length). It's also quite relaxing, not really moving or developing very fast, but structured in such a delightful, interesting, and comfortable way. The groovy percussion, the jazzy saxophones, the proggy keyboard, the funky, energetic bass lines, the soothing vocals, the brilliant lyrics, everything just molds together so ingeniously! Even the solos are genus, and their usually the weakest part of the band's music.

This album has only a few flaws that keep it from being a complete masterpiece. One is the song I Got the News, the one spoiler mediocre track that can occasionally scar masterpieces. I don't really particularly care for the song, but even it is quite well organized and thought out. Also, it isn't exactly the proggiest albums around, and Steely Dan's inclusion in Crossover prog rather than prog-related is a subtle reflection of peoples' standards as to what can be considered prog. But this is definitely the band's proggiest and most carefully composed album, followed closely by The Royal Scam in both respects, another album I'd recommend to the more progressive minded listener.

This album was the piece of art in which everything just came together for Steely Dan. Songs Black Cow, the two already mentioned epics, and Peg are absolute classics, with Home at Last and Josie being almost as breathtaking and just as artistic. Highly recommended to anyone, especially fans of such jazzy pop rock artists like Supertramp. One of my favorite albums, and certainly my favorite album by this great band!

Report this review (#186315)
Posted Saturday, October 18, 2008 | Review Permalink
Sean Trane
Prog Folk
3 stars Aja is the album that introduced me to Steely Dan, although I must say that it's mostly through AOR FM airplay, and to be truthful I didn't think much of these slow/smooth jazz for the third age, or so I thought at 14. So I must say that outside the hit of Peg, that allowed me to peg down (pun intended) every other SD songs I'd already heard as SD, I set the group aside and vowed to return at retirement should I survive that long... Little did I know that the previous Royal scam was also a small chef d'oeuvre. But some 15 years later, a girlfriend got me to reassess SD's oeuvre although I certainly didn't start with this one. My new reassessment confirmed to me a few things, but allowed me to see that SD's music was always immaculate and the songwriting, although mostly standard, always impeccable and implacable, too professional in many ways. And indeed with Aja, SD reaches the top of the profession's professional peak: rarely has an album sounded so slick and smooth-gliding, so industry and radio-friendly, so commercially viable.. In a way sickeningly professional, although the album's almost all black artwork was intriguing, but not enough for me to find out what it was about.

I believe that more than half this album hit the airwaves in one way or another, and so I now realize that I have been very familiar to this album: indeed the title track (either edited or in its full length), Deacon Blues, Peg had gone to gain heavy rotation airplay, but even now I understand why I didn't like it at age 14. What puzzles me most, is that neither Becker nor Fagen play much on this album, Donald content on singing and playing the odd synth and Becker bassing it up once and taking three lead guitar solos. Minimal input, really!! For the rest, the album calls upon the usual suspect studio rats and therefore this album takes its whole dimension as a professional music industry product. With Aja, we are in 77 and next year is coming out Toto's first album, a similar product that will also hit the airwaves

After a relatively unremarkable opening Black Cow (another song about drugs), the lengthy title track is a relatively quiet, borderline boring jazz piece with some fake Caribbean feel (the percussions and whistle in the background) that only brightens up with a dynamic last minute ending with some diabolic drumming. But ironically that great ending is underlining just how twee and listless the rest of the track was: not bad per se, but they could've made it all so much better. Almost as long (and almost as boring, if not more so) is Deacon Blues, a song that filled the airwaves in all its length or part of it. , which will brig the same reaction

On the flipside, of course past the usual top 40 hit song Peg (and its usual awful Mike McDonald choruses) and its slightly disco/danceable feel, the album was certainly not going to waste itself entirely as the album's best track (IMHO) is the excellent Home At Last, a brass-laden jazz rock track that simply is irresistible and its lyrics flowing at an incredible rate, while the brass section is superb and Becker's guitar solo at the end is outstanding AND astounding. . The bimbo-dedicated I Got The News is a full piano and drums groove (most likely it's deceptively simple and very intricate) that doesn't do that much to change the album's generally smooth and gliding and it's not the closing Josie, which after a jazzy intro, sails on an intricate and complex funky and reggae-ish groove, a bit like its predecessor.

Fundamentally my mind hasn't changed much: Aja is still a boring album, but an impeccably-played album. And despite my relatively bad comments above, I still view this album as SD's apex, and it is certainly an excellent album by most standards, even those that progheads call their own, including yours truly!!! BUT, this album takes its whole dimension as a professional music industry product. With Aja, we are in 77 and next year comes out Toto's first album, a similar product and more proof that the music scene was moving away from freedom and into the industry's stranglehold that it had lost back in 65...

Report this review (#187220)
Posted Tuesday, October 28, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Aja is the sixth studio album from US pop/ rock act Steely Dan. Their last album The Royal Scam ( 1976) was a return to form after a couple of weaker albums and Aja continues the good laid back jazzy pop/ rock style of its predecessor.

The music is unmistakably Steely Dan but the technical level and the jazzy approach is a bit more obvious on Aja than it has been on any other of the preceding Steely Dan albums. All songs are well composed and even better performed but the title track does stand out with its tasteful and challenging instrumental mid-section. There´s even a fusion like ending to the song. Really interesting.

The musicianship is as usual excellent. There are so many layers in the music.

The production is excellent. Probably the best production Steely Dan ever had and that says a lot because every album from this band/ project is outstanding if you like polished and detailed productions.

I´m not totally blown away by Aja, but it´s as close as Steely Dan will ever get to making an excellent album IMO. 3 BIG stars is well deserved. I would start with Aja if I was new to the band.

Report this review (#189606)
Posted Monday, November 17, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars The Dan pinnacle, part 2: The favorite

"This is the day of the expanding man."

And that brings us to Aja. More than anything that preceded it Aja represents the culmination of where the boys wanted to be. On the perch, high above the other music of the day and finally on the receiving end of the near-universal acclaim they deserved. They had delivered their masterpiece and a piece of work they would never top again. The level of sophistication and elegance in the arrangements was staggering, the perfectionism of the sound pushed to positively fascist degrees. There is absolutely no trace left of the musical five o'clock shadow that filled their earlier albums. Aja moved further towards fusion and introduced more progressive elements with longer pieces and more elaborate jamming and yet is retains the pop sensibilities that gave the band such a large audience. As mentioned in my Royal Scam review this is where the music turned much dryer for better or worse, the dry sheen would carry into Gaucho making the two albums twins in style.

The album took a year to record with Gary Katz at the helm. The process was sometimes grueling as they would do take after take with various musicians looking for the one that was just right. Five of the seven tracks are radio favorites which gives the album a bit of a "Rumours" overkill factor for some, yet the songs hold up very well today. Both Fagen and Becker love "Josie", Fagen saying it reminds him of the great R and B he so loves, "stuff like Charlie Parker." All of these classic songs are beneficiaries of nuance and precision yes, but with the mission of also being something you want to hear. That's what they emphasized in the documentary I just watched. Yes, they were shooting for perfection, but they wanted to take it beyond that by loosening it up and making it an album that would be enjoyable to hear. Last, they noted that on their previous albums they were New York transplants in LA, writing songs about New York characters to help them deal with being homesick. They acknowledged feeling a bit like characters in a Woody Allen movie where LA made them neurotic and disoriented. Then by the time they were ready to head back to New York in the late '70s, they were writing songs about California and maintain that Aja captures that California vibe. You be the judge.

Lyrically the album is another ode to characters of all sort, women and nostalgic fountain drinks. They claim Deacon Blues is the closest to autobiographical as they would ever get. Familiar characters are discussed, some aspiring losers and fading hipsters they would acknowledge freely. But as Becker said, referring to his character's philosophies in these songs: "whose to say they're wrong?" Indeed.

Report this review (#190014)
Posted Thursday, November 20, 2008 | Review Permalink
Queen By-Tor
Honorary Collaborator
3 stars Smooth

Those familiar with Steely Dan know their style - pleasant jazz/rock with a hint of prog that makes for a very nice listen. While this is not what all proggers are looking for in their music it certainly makes for a nice combination and a good addition to the crossover category. Aja is often considered to be Steely Dan's best offering out of their limited discography, and it's not hard to see why. The euphoric blend of sounds makes for an album to sit back and indulge in, and while it may not be the most demanding piece of music ever written it still makes fora good time.

One of the most notable qualities of the music is just how 'unoffensive' it is. This works as both a plus and a minus, really - it means that you can put this album on in the background and walk away from it, let it play and come back a little bit later and comment how nice of an experience that was, but it also means that if you're looking for a sonic barrage that could be put on by the likes of Gentle Giant with their complexity, or the aggression of other groups then you're very much in the wrong place. Aja is quite radio friendly (which is probably the best way to put it), and while it may be high ranking on the list of sophisticated jazzy pop-rock it will never have the same amount of oomph as other, more dense records that catch on with the 10th listen and change your life when they do. With this album it's more of a ''what you hear is what you get,'' and while that is some good pleasing music, it never really makes you want to run home and slam the album on so that you can partake in its mysteries.

Still, what they do, they do very well. The musicianship on this album may not be wildly experimental like other seminal artists, but it is very tight and well written. The album is very 'soft' in its approach, but it does go strait to the heart with its melodies, so while it may not be an album that yells at you to listen to it again it does hit the spot when you finally find the time to put it on. The first side of the album is particularly impressive, with opuses like the magnificent title track, Aja and the melodramatic Deacon Blues carrying its sad notes throughout. The second side tends to be a little more 'accessible' with more traditional structures and songs that you've probably heard played to death on fm radio. Peg has some pleasing saxophone stings in the short and catchy tune while Josie is a little bit more upbeat and fun. Home At Last probably makes the best use of the sax in the context of the album, and moments of it even feel like more traditional jazz before coming back into the more rock aspects of it.

In the end this is a very good album. Worth many listens, but it will probably never grab the average prog head quite like other releases will be able to do. 3 stars out of 5 for a good album - recommended for those who enjoy some jazzy rock, but people who may consider the softer end of the rock spectrum to be boring should be warned, because they may just find themselves calling the album just that.

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Posted Friday, February 13, 2009 | Review Permalink
4 stars Wow--I'm surprised that Steely Dan is even on Prog Archives! I first started listening to Steely Dan a few months ago starting with my dad's vinyl copy of the Steely Dan sampler GOLD. I enjoyed it (especially the songs FM, Black Cow, and King of the World). Then I started to hunt down some of their studio albums. Within a week or so of first hearing GOLD, I picked up a CD of AJA. Having read reviews of AJA on (avg. customer review: 5/5 stars) and seeing that it was listed among the top 200 of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, I figured it would be the best choice for a newcomer to Steely Dan such as myself. I wasn't disappointed! Nearly every song on AJA is either great or good. It is melodious, catchy, and complicated (as complicated as easy-listening pop music gets). Personal standouts for me are Black Cow (mentioned above), the title track, I Got the News, and Josie. The sound of the album, both sonically and stylistically, is crisp, clean, and, rich. Though some aspects of AJA have dated since the album's release in the mid 1970's--i.e. the disco stylings of Peg--many parts of this album still sound fresh and (relatively) modern in the 21st century. Although AJA isn't exactly a progressive rock record by definition, it still contains a unique hybrid of sophisticated jazz and danceable, tuneful pop-rock that is good for dancing, concentrated listening, and (though not recommended by this reviewer) background music. If you have never heard Steely Dan, AJA is the best place to start because it most certainly displays Steely Dan (Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and over 20 additional session-men) at their creative and musical peak.
Report this review (#208440)
Posted Monday, March 23, 2009 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars Aja is best SD album, I think. It's jazzy comfortable, but very intelligent sound. Golden melodies, perfect arrangements. It is almost unpossible find weak points in album music.

Yes, I think it is not for everyone taste: clever pop-rock in very professional jazzy clothes. Warm and comfortable music, but it has more layers, than it looks from the first listening.

To be honest, it took a long for me just to accept Steely Dan in general. For a long it was just classy pop-band for me, and it wasn't very big mistake. If you never listened their music, I think that your first impression will be the same.

Don't be affraid of it, just take your time, return back when you will be ready to read deeper layers of their music.

One day I realized, that they are whatever you want: it depends on what you want to find there in their music. For classy pop-song or soft rock fans they are idols of the style. If you will try to find difficult arrangements and briliant technics under their catchy,but pop melodies- you will do it.

I think they are both: a bridge between pop-rock and jazz-rock of their own formula.

Report this review (#235030)
Posted Tuesday, August 25, 2009 | Review Permalink
Matthew T
5 stars They got a name for the winners in the world I want a name when I lose . Well that was not the case for the slick sixth album that was released by Steely Dan in 1977 with a sound that seemed just right for the time. Heavily influenced by Funk,Jazz and Rock and considered the bands best album by many of the critics.

Once again Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are at the helm and are Steely Dan as there is no one left but Denny Dias on guitar from the the original band and his appearance would be the last. Denny Dias was a true original as he could have been considered the actual founder of the band as it was he who advertised for the two main members. The three girls are here. Venetta Fields.Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King and a few others,including Mike McDonald doing backing vocals. There are seven guitarists alone making contributions to this album including Walter Becker and a different drummer is used on every song except Bernard Purdle ( Highly regarded session musician) gets to do two, Deacon Blues and Home at Last. Massive Production that had to be as close to perfect that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker could achieve as usual with thir approach to recording. An absolute giant of Jazz makes a contribution that being Wayne Shorter who provided the solo to the title track Aja and most likely at the time was glad to have the work.

Black Cow is the song that gets the album underway and is one funk cocktail from begining to end with the backing vocalists singing the highs and Donald Fagen doing the rest.. The title track is up second with a jazz and rock influence and Wayne Shorter leaves his stamp on the tune and could be considered the best track of the album but for me the following Deacon Blues and the song Home at Last are really the only primarily straight rock songs on the album and too this day are still my favourites as they were back in 1977 when I purchased the record. There is not a shabby track on this album either as the prevoius album The Royal Scam but this was the album that made the band a legend in modern contempary music.

I often wonder at the time of release if the music would have been funked up as much if the music scene at the time was not primarily disco and soul and that was really the only style getting the majority of airplay but whatever it really was a hybrid sounding album and one that I immediately liked and around then for me rock music and prog were in a bit of a decline.

Masterpiece definitely but no more than their other albums that I have reviewed and I started to miss the more rock and pop sound of the band from earlier days. All the same this is a must have album and one that I still play 32 years later.

Report this review (#263051)
Posted Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | Review Permalink
3 stars When jazz gets this smooth, we've started down a very slippery slope indeed.

Somewhere in the pursuit of perfection and precision, Steely Dan has lost a bit in the way of melody, texture and soul. Everything is just a little too perfect--the snare just a bit too tight, each vocal harmony just a bit too perfect, and each horn accent just a tad to in sync. The resulting sound have a very sanitized--perhaps at times bland--feel to it.

Of course, I wouldn't be complaining if the songs were great, but Deacon Blues is the only song from Aja that I would truly consider to be great. Peg is certainly toe-tapping, if formulaic, and the instrumental section in the title track is high quality, but I am excited by very little else on the album. There's is definitely nothing that's poorly done or a glaring weakness--indeed, far from it!--but the precision and production, along with the relatively simple rhythms, siphons most of the soul and energy from the tracks.

And so Steely Dan's conversion to the yacht rock genre is nearly complete with Aja, and in my opinion, to the detriment of true progressive jazz fusion.

Report this review (#317907)
Posted Saturday, November 13, 2010 | Review Permalink
The Quiet One
5 stars A-ha! The Greatest Pop Album!

Is it really blasphemy to call Steely Dan pop? Well, it really depends on your definition of pop. In this case I use it meaning that the music is instantly catchy, light/smooth in the melody department and tends to have the verse-chorus format. However, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker & Co. are not any catchy pop affair, they have really surpassed themselves and the "pop genre" with their 1977 release, Aja.

Not only the music is catchy and smooth, but the quality of the playing and arrangements is top-notch and that's what makes it one of the finest pop albums ever, in my opinion of course, though have in mind that I'm not the biggest pop aficionado. But Steely Dan not only played pop in a refined and talented way, it's damn original with its nod to jazz.

Donald's vocals, the smoothness, the catchy hooks and occasional original solo, it's just all perfect and up- lifting, it's really hard not to like this. Although Aja is strong throughout, there are definitely some highlights, as you should expect, these are the longer tracks, the title track and Deacon Blues where the musicianship really shines and you really can't say what is better, the hooks or the instrumental parts. Anyway, in terms of catchiness and groove, each listener will have a different favorite; all seven tracks are flawless pop music and of different kind.

The conclusion to this review is a no-brainer, this is simply a must-have record for music fans. Might not be a Prog fan's favorite, but undoubtedly it's an enjoyable ride for anyone. It's pop and it's awesome.

5 stars: sophisticated pop masterpiece with jazz tinges that I recommend to anyone who likes once in a while some really fine smooth music with groove and great instrumental playing.

Report this review (#327001)
Posted Saturday, November 20, 2010 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Though popular and get pop radio play, this album was, to me, a masterpiece of almost jazz fusion. I mean, look at the musicians involved with the project it reads like a Who's Who of the Jazz fusion scene in LA in the mid-70s: Joe Sample and Larry Carlton of the Jazz Crusaders, Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Jim Horn, Chuck Findley, Denny Dias, Jay Graydon, Steve Khan, Dean Parks, Lee Ritenour, Pete Christlieb, Don Grolnick, Michael Omartian, Richard "Slyde" Hyde, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Lou McCreary, Bill Perkins, Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Ed Greene, and Jim Keltner and Rick Marotta!!! FAgan and Becker orchestrating a fusin big band! Tight, one of the best recorded and engineered albums I had heard up to that point (so far superior to their previous albums in terms of sound engineering). The album sounds, to this day, like a sonic wet dream.

"Black Cow" (9/10) starts the album off with very cool groove. Once you've played this song you can't stop: you just have to play the whole album. Amazing background vocals and horns. Lyrically astounding. I love intellect in the lyrics. "Aja" (10/10) is without a doubt the coolest jazz song to get pop air play! The instrumental jam is mesmerizing! Love the electric piano and, of course, STEVE GADD's amazing work. "Deacon Blues" (10/10) like "Black Cow" just sucks you into the coolness of the groove, sit backand enjoy the story, enjoy the b vox and tight jazz performances. "Peg" (7/10) the "big" hit from the album is, IMO, the weakest song on the album. Tight performances can't overcome a bit too much repetition. Amazing bass line; sweet guitar solo, nice lyricon sax. Never liked Michael MacDonald's voice. "Home at Last" (10/10) a "pop" song about Ulysses! I was and still am blown away by this song. The extended instrumental parts are sheer magic and bliss. I want to be tied to the mast!! "I got the News" ( 7/10) sounds like a funked up "Kid Charlemagne"--nice piano, bass, and drum work--and very tight, precise performances, just not melodic or engaging enough. "Josie" (10/10) has one of the most infectious rhythm guitar riffs ever put to vinyl. Add to that the amazing bass and super tight performances and POW! a great song that hooks you in and never lets go. I always hated that this song had to end!

To be sure, one of the iconic albums of the 70s--with every song evoking memories of sunshine and ease (my college days). A masterpiece that stands up over time better than 95% of the stuff that came before or since.

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Posted Wednesday, February 23, 2011 | Review Permalink
3 stars Aja ? 1977 (3.5/5) 11 ? Best Song: Aja

They'd always flirted with it, jazz that is. They'd taken the easy listening approach to its ultimate peak without becoming silly, and some would say that the Royal Scam was just that. But where Royal Scam delved so deep into the slickly overproduced softness as to be boring, Aja?is exactly the same. But there's a difference! Aja, not only takes the experimental levels of jazz into account, it melds them ? flawlessly ? with the soft pop veil they've decided to drape every one of the songs in. So, in effect, the title track can seem like an excursion in awful elevator pop, taking away from the fact that it's actually an intricately performed jam session where the key ingredient is subtlety as opposed to flashiness like the solo strings in either Do it Again or Bodhisattva. It's along the same spiritual line, only filtered through a more ambient lens. No, Steely Dan haven't gone ambient, only taken into consideration the mood and atmosphere of an album. Sadly, this negatively affects the melodies, which don't make up for seven minutes of fluff, no matter how expertly crafted said fluff happens to be. And having both Aja and 'Deacon Blues' back to back is dangerous. They're the two longest, most toweringly inoffensive tunes, and they place em side by side? That can kill the flow of a record. Fortunately, the mood is just strong enough to carry the album along.

Report this review (#440491)
Posted Friday, April 29, 2011 | Review Permalink
Mellotron Storm
3 stars I was having difficulty explaining what it was about the "Royal Scam" that turned me off but one listen to "Aja" revealed the answer.1977 and 1978 were not the best of times for me being an insecure 16 / 17 year old trying to fit in and at the same time trying to find that special band or album I could call my own. Sure I had LPs of bands like HEART, STEVE MILLER BAND, STYX and other AOR bands that I liked but it wouldn't be until 1979 when all hell would break loose (in a good way) for me both musically and in my life. I soon found out that those bands I mentioned and many more didn't even compare to groups like RUSH, LED ZEPPELIN, PINK FLOYD, BLACK SABBATH and so on. I had found myself and my music. Is it a coincidence that it happened at the same time ? Liitle did I know that these bands were just the tip of the iceberg. Anyway back to "Aja" which unfortunately reminds me of that time as did "Royal Scam" to a lesser degree. I still remember working at this small airport (cutting grass and pumping gas) on weekends. I was 17, and at lunch time I would sit in my dad's truck he let me borrow and listen to all the crap that was on the radio back then. Well a couple of tracks on here really remind me of that time.Thankfully there are a couple of tracks on here I really like while the rest are just okay.

"Black Crow" is funky to start until the vocals join in. Horns after 2 1/2 minutes followed by piano. Horns are back late to end it. "Aja" is a top two track. I like the way the tempo picks up each time on the chorus. Nice little drums show as well before 5 minutes. Horns and guitar follow then the vocals return. "Deacon Blues" is not good for me at all. Shmaltsy is the word even if it's not a real word. I hated this song back in the day.The backing female vocals don't help either. "Peg" is okay, a catchy little number. "Home At Last" is pretty good, I like the drums, piano and bass. "I Got The News" is one I don't like in the least despite the good drumming. "Josie" is the other top two. I like the intro and the way it is reprised before 3 1/2 minutes.

Report this review (#454717)
Posted Monday, May 30, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars It's hard to give this any kind of a bad review. Maybe the pinnacle of Steely Dan's work and a favorite along with their first. While this is a little too slick and smooth to rate as perfect it certainly deserves an easy 4 star rating. "Aja", "Deacon Blues", "Peg", "Home at Last",..all great tunes whether prog, jazz, rock, or some weird combination of them all.There is no bad song on this entire album. I think I wore it out in high school. A great party album and also, as I recall, a great make-out album! Memories.....As a rock album, 5 stars. As a prog album 4 stars. Good either way. Thanks Don, thanks Walter.
Report this review (#516989)
Posted Wednesday, September 7, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars I readily acknowledge that Steely Dan - and Aja in particular - isn't for everyone. There are plenty of people who find the band's blend of smooth jazz and soft rock intolerable, particularly on Aja, which has so much studio polish it gleams with the stuff. Words like "overengineered" could be fired at the album with some credibility.

That's fine. Everyone's got their own tastes. Me, I can't get enough of this album. Sure, it's a slickly engineered product with crisp, commercial harmony vocals and poppish numbers like Peg and Josie rounding it out. But the compositions and their delivery are just too perfect not to win me over, particularly in the way they establish a calm, tranquil atmosphere quite at odds with the angry cynicism of the preceding Dan albums. Sure, it's plastic studio jazz-rock produced by an army of session musicians at the beck and call of Becker and Fagen, but sometimes slick 1970s yacht rock isn't all bad. Aja is one of those times.

Report this review (#556182)
Posted Monday, October 24, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars I find Aja to be the most laid-back and romantic Steely Dan album. The most mellow, smoothed out tracks go down extremely well, the opener "Black Cow" and "Deacon Blues" are real gems, with snappy lyrics too ("I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long"). Two other favoutites are "Home At Last" and "I Got The News". The melodies are beautiful, with gorgeous production and fantastic performances (as usual!) And also as usual, this album is full of subtle yet complex musical concepts. The title track "Aja" for example, takes you on a diverse eight minute ride of musical patterns that vary between rock and jazz moods, amplified by rich orchestration. We are also blessed with the presence of saxophonist Wayne Shorter. As well as the other guests on the album he brings in his own gifts to combine with a different environment. Some of the greatest studio players ever are here in fact, and at their best. I love the drumming on the title track too. The seven songs make up quite a classic set that seems to inject a lot of soul, and it is the sort that matures like an excellent wine.
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Posted Monday, December 19, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars One of the previous reviewers was wondering if it was appropriate to classify Aja as pop. I guess it is, in a broad sense, and as long as there is no condescending undertone to it.

Or, to be more accurate, you could call it smooth jazz-funk-pop. Elegant. Predictable. Reliable soul sound. Unobtrusive; perfect for the summer evening moods and nostalgic 1970's radio waves. The musicianship is quite competent and precise. A tad similar to AWB in their pre-disco period.

A friendly warning and a disclaimer: Aja is definitely not by- or for the people who thrive on restless, hazardous, creative chaos of the intense fusion a-la Mahavishnu Orchestra.

One might ask, how can one shift from the red-meat daily staple of late PT, KC and - more recently - Bacamarte to the Splenda-sweetened souffle of Aja. Varietas delectat, I guess?

One way in which Aja is said to be distinct from similar bands is their attention to detail in sound engineering. Frankly, having listened to Aja a few times, I couldn't find a wow-grade stroke of a genius in the mixing and mastering, but still it's a pretty well made album.

Report this review (#830818)
Posted Sunday, September 30, 2012 | Review Permalink
4 stars One such musical that transcends all boundaries.

I believe that there are works that, beyond the musical style is appreciated by every good music art lover. Defining the word here with art music, composition, interpretation, performance, production, arrangements and lyrical. And obviously, the musical progression is included in this spectrum.

While the basis or rationale here is Jazz Rock / Fusion, there are other stylistic ranges clearly expressed in the songs, Soul - Funk - Pop.

Not a minute filler, excelling Aja, Deacon Blues, Home at Last &. Black Cow.

Impress the quantity and quality of musicians collaborators in this work, each putting their two cents on a bit long and accurate work.

Report this review (#969442)
Posted Sunday, June 2, 2013 | Review Permalink
3 stars Sixth album Aja from 1977 is considered by many fans and listners their peak of their career. Well, I don't know, I really like Countdown to ecstasy and to me is their most consistent album from the catalogue. Aja as another reviewer said is not for everone, here the blend of smooth jazz and soft rock is very very polished and most of the time very hard to get into. For me this is my least fav Steely Dan album. Ok there are some ok pieces here like Deacon Blues or the Black cow but the rest are only ok to my ears, to smooth and slick to my taste. 3 stars is best I can give, good but far from the gretness of Countown.
Report this review (#973584)
Posted Saturday, June 8, 2013 | Review Permalink
5 stars We should use 5 star ratings very sparingly in our reviews. A masterpiece should be a rare thing, otherwise the term begins to lose its meaning and effectiveness. There are perhaps a dozen bands/artists listed on Progarchives which are deserving of a 5 star rating. The fact that I give two Steely Dan albums the highest honor demonstrates the high regard in which SD should be held. This introduction brings us to Aja. Aja, along with Pretzel Logic, represents the pinnacle of the Steely Dan mountain. They both get 5 stars.

I think Aja is Steely Dan at their jazziest and most progressive. There is more time dedicated to instrumentals than on just about any other SD record. This is especially true of "Aja" and "Deacon Blues", which are also the longest songs that SD ever recorded. The evidence is there in the drumming on "Aja" and the saxophone solos on "Deacon Blues".

If you forced me at gunpoint to pick a song I like less than the others, I would have to pick "I Got the News". It just doesn't strike me as much as the others do. But that's splitting extremely hairs. "Peg" and "Josie", on the other hand, are as catchy as anything Becker and Fagen have written. Pretzel Logic and Aja are essential albums, for their own reasons. Under the extremely broad progressive rock banner, it doesn't get any better than Aja.

Report this review (#1092173)
Posted Thursday, December 19, 2013 | Review Permalink
5 stars Whether or not you like Aja, or just don't like it as much as Steely Dan fans typically do, you can't deny that it is the album that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker tirelessly strove to make, the logical culmination of their style and approach to music. The duo have all but admitted as much and in any event, the lyrics of songs like Deacon Blues bear it out. Perhaps fighting a nagging feeling that they hadn't quite got to where they should have with their talent, Fagen and Becker made a last ditch effort at writing a masterpiece and, BOOM!, they came back with one for the ages. Aja is to Steely Dan as Paranoid is to Black Sabbath or Moving Pictures to Rush. You may argue that there are better albums to showcase these bands' greatness from a hardcore fan's point of view but they are, for better or worse, the albums by which the popular image of these bands has been defined and the ones that will ensure the bands themselves are remembered for a long time by rock listeners.

That being the case, it cannot be said that this was just another Steely Dan album that the press whimsically talked up for the 'gullible' record-buying public to faithfully lap up. While the essential Steely Dan style is very much in evidence here, there are also significant, even drastic, differences on Aja as opposed to their previous work.

Up to this point, Steely Dan tended to play the West Coast doppelgangers of Sparks, i.e, nerdy, playfully misogynist and daring but not emotional in the conventional sense of the word. I say West Coast to emphasise the difference between them and Sparks. Dan stuck to jazz-rock/pop and kept the basic formula safe and appealing, putting all the adventure in the chords while Sparks were outrageous even at a superficial level. Such music does appeal to, well, nerdy left-brained listeners who have grown tired of the myriad cliches reprised by pop to express a very narrow band of emotions (three words in fact: love, love, love). But perhaps there may be listeners who are not necessarily addicted to cookie cutter pop but not so nerdy as to prefer music without the emotions. They may still want to hear some pain, yearning, warmth in the music and both bands shut themselves out of that market with their approach.

I am not sure that Fagen or Becker have ever admitted to wanting to consciously change that with Aja. It may have been an outcome of their sheer confidence in their songwriting skills at the point combined with their desperation to break through. Whatever it was, for the first time (and possibly the last?), Steely Dan dropped their guard and let go on Aja. Gradually, feelings of love, longing and rebellion began to pour out from their music. But hold it, they were still very much the calculating LA cats (New York in point of fact) so they controlled the flow, resulting in subtly beautiful rather than cathartic music.

A case in point is in the title track. If you feel inclined to pass a jaded judgment on its lengthy interludes, just try listening to Aja on a cool, rainy evening. Preferably gentle rain, not a downpour. Chances are you finally make sense of the song or, rather, connect with its emotions. The sounds almost do seem to gently hit the speakers like little raindrops. Nowhere else does this parallel make more sense to me than Steve Gadd's incredible coda. He is playing complex and furious patterns but the sound is very beautiful and...atmospheric. Steely Dan have never been this expansive and contemplative. As they remark on the Classic Albums documentary (a must watch while we are on that), they were feeling really lucky that day and decided to go with the flow and get a bit more ambitious.

A few cliched ideas seep in on Deacon Blues but Donald Fagen sings it with a lot of heart. He is not meant to sound so melodic but he tries really hard anyhow and with a little help from their army of sessions musicians, pulls it off. The duo reveal on the documentary that it is almost an autobiographical song. Steely Dan plead that they would just like to be famous losers if they cannot make it. In the event, that was fortunately not required but the song reveals a mix of despair and defiance ("Sue me if I play too long").

Just in case you thought they really ought to be sued for playing too long, Steely Dan make it short and sweet again, but with their newfound depth of feeling, on Home At Last. It is often said to be their best song and it is hard to disagree. Beautiful guitar leads and horns bring up the jazz element, but it's all underpinned by a very bluesy riff. If Aja is the culmination of Steely Dan's musical philosophy, Home At Last in itself is the culmination of Aja. It maintains the unhurried, relaxed feeling that envelopes the album but with nary a note too many.

The other tracks are excellent but fall a bit short of the unusual introspection and awareness that the above three possess. Let's just say the smart cats hedged their bets anyway and put in some of the stuff that is bound to work for Steely Dan loyalists. Peg, Josie and I Got The News all have great guitar leads and Black Cow has some exquisite piano. Crucially, they balance the return to snide lyrics by maintaining the relaxed, atmospheric flavour of the album (especially Black Cow).

As an overall experience, Aja is sumptuously consistent and leaves you with the distinct feeling of having had a wonderful, memorable time and longing for some more. As alluded to earlier, Steely Dan achieved this with not a little bit of support from their fantastic session musicians. I repeat myself but do check out that documentary to get an insight into what they brought to the table; they weren't just robots blindly obeying the instructions of the masters, far from it.

At the time, it perhaps seemed like a new beginning. Having battled to earn their own place in the crowd of arena-oriented rock with fret-strutting guitar Gods, Steely Dan had finally triumphed with Aja. It could have heralded a new wave of popularity for studio cats working with brilliant sessions musicians. Instead, Steely Dan themselves ushered in the computer age with Gaucho (never mind that they utilised many sessions musicians for that one too) and musicians could put together the music they wanted on the computer without even having to depend on sessions musicians.

In hindsight, Aja wound up as a strange corporate rock swan song for prog and all that it stood for. It brought curtains down on an era of expensive recordings involving the best musicians and technicians (consider that some prog rock bands utilised an orchestra for some of their recordings). The age of obsessive perfectionism and excess in rock was over and there hasn't really been a revival. Maybe because an album like Aja is so hard to top. Five stars.

Report this review (#1149257)
Posted Monday, March 17, 2014 | Review Permalink
5 stars I have to admit that I came to this review with more than a little bit of trepidation. How does one even try to write about their favorite album of all time? Aja has been with me for as long as I can remember?through most every major and minor life event pretty much since childhood?so long that it's hard to know where to begin, and even still, try to do the music justice. But I'd still like to try anyway.

This album, of course, is the one that really put Steely Dan on the map, the one where most people agree that their particular style of jazz-inflected rock was best represented. I would have to say that's pretty right on; even considering that these guys never made a bad album, this one generally stands out for its elevated taste, polish, songwriting, horn and rhythm arrangements, engineering?I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It's no wonder, then, that the album was the highest-charting of their career, making it into the Top Three in America.

On a more personal note, however, it's also the album that I turned to probably the most often (along with the surrounding SD albums, The Royal Scam and Gaucho) in the midst of a sometimes carefree, sometimes dysfunctional childhood and family life. Somehow, to my 7-year-old self back in 1997, and for most of my formative years from then on, it seemed to be one of the only things that made sense to my confused mind at that time. Given the fact that this album probably has more to do with progressive rock than any other in SD's oeuvre, and because of its deceptively cloudy mood in general, I'm not exactly sure what that says about my personality or how musically advanced I must have been at that time (having started piano at age 3 and gone on my merry way picking out tunes since then). Whatever the case, this is just one of those albums that I can safely say that my life would be a lot poorer for its absence.

Anyway, onto the music. "Black Cow" opens with a smooth, funky, phased-out clavinet (played by the Crusaders' Joe Sample) and guitar sequence that sounds as milky as this song's namesake drink mix. The lyrics seem to fall under the typical Becker/Fagen subject of individuals who seem to have lost their way in life?social misfits, in a sense. What's truly amazing is how the music primarily does not reflect this way of thinking; it's mostly happy-sounding due to the major key tonalities, but with a subtle hint of melancholy throughout. Larry Carlton plays guitar in a supporting rhythm role and he also helped with most of the rhythm charts; future Lawrence Welk employee Paul Humphrey turns in his only drumming appearance with the Dan here, and Victor Feldman plays a classic Rhodes solo that actually skips ahead of the beat very slightly (see if you can figure out where). The song rides out a vamp, not on the original tonic chord, on top of which chief horn arranger Tom Scott blows a mean tenor sax solo. "So outrageous," indeed.

The title track is widely recognized as the Dan's all-time masterpiece, which is pretty difficult to argue with. At almost 8 minutes, it's the longest track the Dan would record for some time (until "West of Hollywood" on their Grammy-winning comeback album, Two Against Nature). Not a moment of those 8 minutes is wasted, though, starting with the piano-led intro which is once again the perfect mood-setter for what follows. I interpret the lyrics, at their most base level, as expressing a longing or even homesickness for the Far East and elements of same (which makes sense since "Aja" sounds like "Asia"), but I'm willing to accept the possibility that it goes a lot deeper than that. The lengthy instrumental section that follows is firmly in the mold of "prog" but occupies a space all its own, in the first part bolstered greatly as usual by Denny Dias' guitar solo (in his last-ever appearance with the band; he would officially quit after this album's release) as well as Walter Becker's bluesy fills in the reprise (by the way, Becker's co-conspirator Donald Fagen gets in an appearance on police whistle in addition to playing synths).

The second part, beginning at about 5 minutes, is immediately darker and tends to hang on one specific type of chord (minor 11th); tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who has always struck me as someone who saved his best stuff for other people's albums, continues the tradition of jazzers appearing on Steely Dan records; obviously, years of tenure with Miles Davis and Weather Report prepared him well for his solo spot, one of the Dan's best on any instrument. After a reprise of the intro and third verse, we return to the minor-key vamp from Shorter's solo, which is now a backdrop for the Dan's only recorded drum solo (from Steve Gadd, who remarkably needed only two takes to get this beast of a song down). Bubbly, atmospheric synths carry the track to its fade-out (intriguingly, fade-outs are shared in common by all seven tracks on the album). The perfect marriage of musicianship, lyrics, style and substance? Very likely.

Another mini-masterpiece follows with "Deacon Blues," briefer than the title track by only 30 or so seconds but longer on narrative. Opening with another evocative, Rhodes-led intro (with an "in-time" hold before the first verse), the song unfolds at its own leisurely pace, aided and abetted by drummer Bernard Purdie and bassist Walter Becker. The verse-chorus sequences are almost two minutes long but amazingly don't feel as long as they actually are; the horn voicings starting at the second verse are some of the crunchiest yet with the band. The instrumental section completes the trifecta on Side One by featuring yet another stellar tenor sax solo, this time by Pete Christlieb who was playing regularly on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show at this time. The lyrics, to me, paint a more detailed and slightly better picture of the kind of thing they were going for on "Black Cow," while still being typically impenetrable?is it about some poor schlub who's down on his luck, or a young upstart who wants to be a sax-blowing jazz cat (or both)? Who knows, but I always got a kick out of the "Alabama/Crimson Tide" reference even before I knew what it meant. Christlieb blows again, here and there, over the extended tag, almost trading off with phased-out guitar figures by either Carlton or Lee Ritenour. Viewers of the "Classic Albums" documentary on this album will delight at the discovery of a very faint bell-like synth part (originally meant to replace a flute) doubling the background horn line in the instrumental section. Overall, one of the Dan's best and most recognizable tracks.

Speaking of recognizable tracks, "Peg" kicks off Side Two and was one of three hit singles from this album (the others being "Deacon Blues" and "Black Cow"). The intro line is one of the few uses in popular music of the Lyricon, a primitive woodwind synthesizer, played by Tom Scott who would use it on several of his own albums. The tune itself is described in the liner notes by Becker/Fagen as a "pantonal thirteen-bar blues with chorus," even though it's actually not (by the way, in yet another nod to their jazz heroes, this is one of the few rock albums with detailed liner notes, such as might be found on a 50s-60s Blue Note record, with a complete rundown of who appears on what track). The lyrics are most likely about a pin-up girl or porn star, though probably not about anyone in particular. One-timer Jay Graydon's guitar solo is yet another celebrated instrumental excursion, and while it may not be the best guitar solo the Dan ever put on a record, it's certainly a lot better than every other solo they tried, as is borne out by the "Classic Albums" documentary. Michael McDonald, who was such an important part of 1975's Katy Lied, shares with Paul Griffin the harmony vocal, which underscores Becker/Fagen's love of thick chords. Graydon appears once more just before the fade-out. Also: as on "Don't Take Me Alive" from Royal Scam and "Babylon Sisters" on Gaucho, neither Becker nor Fagen actually appear on the track as instrumentalists.

The next track, "Home at Last," is still another instrumental (as in rhythm tracks) triumph for the group as well as one of the Dan's most literary sets of lyrics (based on Homer's The Odyssey). Based on Becker and Fagen's instructions, drummer Bernard Purdie (the only drummer to appear on more than one track here) essentially invented a new beat; the half-time shuffle, the innovations of which were later expanded and popularized by sometime Dan employee Jeff Porcaro, on Toto's classic track "Rosanna" (which itself also borrows from Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain"). Beginning with the previous track, the lyrics on Side Two are generally more direct and sparse than on Side One?a nice contrast. More instrumental goodies: Vic Feldman's acoustic piano on the intro and each re-occurrence of the pattern; the horn backgrounds after the second verse which may or may not be augmented by synths (after all these years, I'm still not sure), and Fagen's brief synth solo afterward; and one of Walter Becker's tastiest and most lyrical guitar solos (which stands in sharp contrast to the Dan's "comeback" years where he tried to fill in every available space with licks). Purdue substitutes the ride cymbal for the hi-hat on the fade-out, which raises the intensity slightly and almost seems to hint at the aforementioned "Rosanna."

"I Got the News" is a track that Becker/Fagen had had in the offing since at least the Katy Lied days (the demo recording from that period is completely different though). Ed Greene, another one-timer in the Dan drum chair, points the way toward rap music by contributing a bouncy beat that ends on the same cadence every two bars; my understanding is that this became a sort of running joke among the LA studio scene of which Greene was a part. ("Hey, we need that fill on this track, let's get Ed in here.") Anyway, this track is sort of a distant cousin of "Green Earrings" as it has some of the same elements lyrically, but with kinkier undertones ("Slow down/I'll tell you when/I may never walk again"), as well as the fact that this track also has two guitar solos. Larry Carlton is featured on the first instrumental bridge (after "Broadway duchess darling"), which stands alone from the rest of the song while still maintaining continuity; Becker makes an appearance in the second bridge ("Spanish kissin"). In a rare liner note gaffe, the clavinet on the first bridge is uncredited (although it's probably either Fagen or Feldman). One of those tracks that grows on you over time.

The finale, "Josie," is more similar to the tracks on Side One than the previous three. Featuring an intro guitar line that most serious Dan fans already have memorized by now, the track rides an overtly funkier backbeat supplied by LA "drum guru" Jim Keltner, who also overdubbed a garbage can lid as percussion in the breakdown after the second verse (proof that the best can make anything sound musical). Josie is the prototypical hell raiser, who comes back to town to see some old friends and cause trouble with said friends as a form of celebration ("Sleep on the beach and make it"). Becker has maybe his best ever guitar solo on this track, and Chuck Rainey, who appears on every track except "Deacon Blues," utilizes the upper register in his bass line, which is unusual for him.

I think one of the keys to the success of Aja is how well everything hangs together musically. Much like Miles' Kind of Blue, it is all of a piece, with everything flowing together in a completely logical way (although now that I think about it, this could very well be down to the fact that most songs are the same tempo), and nothing wasted in terms of songwriting, musicianship?everything just, well, works. Obviously the Dan following had been building for a long time, with each album becoming more successful and allowing Becker/Fagen to hire Irving Azoff as their manager?he was also managing the blockbuster Eagles of the "Hotel California" period, and as such, he could afford to spend vast amounts of money on Aja's ad campaign (which included TV commercials!) so I'm sure that played a part in their success as well. Certainly having Aja in their back pocket put them over the top, which was a long time coming; I'd like to think that more sophisticated listeners and fellow musicians took notice as well, most notably the Crusaders who were producing similar music around this time.

Whatever the case, this album firmly cemented the name "Steely Dan" in the eyes and ears of many discerning music listeners by the end of the 70s. It's a certified classic for several very good reasons, and no self-respecting music collection, particularly one maintained by an individual with a keen ear for jazz, should be without it. Highly recommended, with no reservations whatsoever. 5 stars out of 5.

Report this review (#1450034)
Posted Friday, August 7, 2015 | Review Permalink

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