Steely Dan

MCA Records, 1977


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


For much of the 1970s, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen -- essentially the heart and soul of Steely Dan -- worked on fine-tuning the songwriting and sound that would make their group legendary. On their sixth album, Aja, they nailed it.

Always using a mixture of jazz and rock, Becker and Fagen steered their musical boat closer to the world of jazz on Aja, and somehow came up with a slew of songs that have not only become legendary, but sound like they could have been recorded yesterday, not almost 30 years ago. There's a reason this remains one of their most popular albums; dig a little deeper into these words to understand why.

For starters, I've never been one who's been on the bandwagon of Steely Dan's cynical lyrics. Sure, you can occasionally pick up a sneer here and there, even on a casual listen. But while other reviewers tend to focus on the dark side of the band's lyrics, I've always been more interested in how the music seems to power the words.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Yes, you can hear this on the hit single from this album, "Peg" -- and it's rightfully a classic. I know this gets overplayed on commercial radio, and I can't help myself; I love this song. Maybe it's that absolutely tasty guitar solo, maybe it's the harmonizing vocals meshing with Fagen's lead line, maybe it's the uplifting tempo of the song. (For the record: props to Jay Graydon for his solo guitar on this song.)

Despite the popularity of this track, the more I listen to Aja, the more I find one or two others I like, if not even more, than just as much. "Deacon Blues" has been getting more airplay on "deep-cut" radio stations in the Chicagoland area, and for good reason. Despite its clocking in at just under seven and a half minutes, this could well be the defining track of Steely Dan and their jazz-rock style (and, yes, even the cynical lyrics taking the side of the Everyman). Likewise, the title track is one that is simply infectious, and you can't help but get caught up in its almost reggae-like rhythm in the chorus.

Another track just begging for re-discovery is "Black Cow" -- and I'll admit on this one you can almost feel the cynicism and sarcasm just dripping off of the speakers. Be that as it may, it's a track that defies you to find something wrong with it -- and the truth is, you won't be able to.

For all of the praise that I can heap on Aja, I almost feel guilty in saying that "Josie," another one of the tracks that does get regular airplay, isn't one of my favorites. Sure, I like it, but it's not one I found myself returning to time and time again on this disc. Maybe this one, thanks to oversaturation, has indeed worn out its welcome (albeit unintentionally), and time will re-charge its batteries in my mind. Still, it does capture the spirit of Steely Dan and the sound they strove to capture for the better part of a decade.

It's wrong to say that "Home At Last" and "I Got The News" are merely filler tracks, but compared to the magnificent work that surrounds these two tracks, they sadly don't quite hold up as well. This isn't to say they're bad; most likely on a weaker Steely Dan album, these would have been the standouts.

Anyone who really wants to discover Steely Dan without relying on any of the best-of packages on the market would be best served starting with Aja. Admittedly, I still have Gaucho to listen to as I write this review, but I just have a hard time seeing how Steely Dan could outdo themselves on this one.

Rating: A-

User Rating: A



© 2006 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.