Graded on a Curve:
Steely Dan, Aja

What do you do when a rock band you love with all your heart, because its songs are smarter than those by any other band in the universe, suddenly abandons rock for smoother than silk lounge jazz? With all the cool rough edges sanded off, leaving only the clever lyrics and lots of superslick playing by superslick smooth jazz studio hacks? This is the question that confronted me in 1977, when Steely Dan released Aja. And I’ll tell you what I did. I wrote them off as a bad bet, just another LA band that disappeared into pseudo-jazz hell, never to reemerge.

Cynical and sneering, but with a soft side, Steely Dan had always employed the best studio musicians to produce its carefully crafted tunes. But they were ROCK tunes, and cool even when they were hot. “Kid Charlemagne,” “My Old School,” “Dr. Wu,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” “Reelin’ in the Years”—they put out song after great song, and were by anybody’s measure one of the best and most consistent bands of the seventies.

I don’t care that Aja got great reviews when it was released; I like rock and I like hard jazz, but if there’s one thing I can’t stomach is a lukewarm hybrid of the sort you’d expect from a recording session that included the likes of the Tom Scott contingent of LA’s jazz lite community. With Larry Carlton on guitar and Michael McDonald on backing vocals, to name just a few of the dozens of studio pros, Aja sacrificed the band’s former rock orientation for a sound as polished and edgeless as a brass egg.

All that said, I have discovered, not having listened to it for some twenty years, that it has its pleasures. It may not rock, but most of its songs are pleasantly lulling, like a good Valium high, although the LP’s 8-minute title track Aja isn’t amongst them. Sung in a stilted hush, and filled with clichéd-Asian riffs, it goes on too long and it offers too little. It’s jazz fusion of the most irksome sort; even the guitar solo fails to impress. Everything is too tidy; it’s like a man who has perfected his comb-over. Compared to “Aja,” “Black Cow” is a funky marvel, which it isn’t, really. Less a salute to the mixed drink than to a loser who favors them, the song features a nice horn section and some excellent female backing vocals. But it’s every bit as smooth as the kahlua in the Black Cow, and features an almost perfectly dull electric piano solo by Joe Sample and a rather faceless tenor sax solo by Wayne Shorter, who’s capable of far better. In short, I’ll take it over “Aja,” and I won’t turn it off it comes on the radio, but compared to previous Steely Dan product it’s both too slick and too bland.

“Deacon Blues” I like, mainly because of the lyrics. It has a bit more propulsion than the album’s first two cuts, but it’s still a carefully performed piece of smooth jazz craft. Horns galore, some static drums, and more female backing vocals make it more laid back even than any Eric Clapton blues I’ve ever heard, and not even bebop saxophonist Pete Christlieb can pull it out of its rut. Which leaves the lyrics, in which Donald Fagen plays the loser: “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/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.” As for “Peg,” at least it has spunk. I’d love to hear the earlier Steely Dan perform this one, but ain’t gonna happen. That said it contains the one real moment of excitement on the LP, in the form of a guitar solo by Jay Graydon, and it moves faster than an Amish buggy, which is more than can be said about most of the songs on the LP. That said, the lyrics lack that good old cynical Steely Dan punch, which is too bad.

“Home at Last” is a nondescript nonentity of a no-account song by the fellows who gave us “Show Biz Kids.” But I’m being too harsh. On this one the band shows some gumption. Some jazzy piano, more horns—but just when you think the song has been buffed to death, Walter Becker plays a guitar solo that shows real spirit. As for “I Got the News” Becker comes through on guitar again, which is good, because the song’s funk lite is not improved by the discernible backing vocals of the anti-Christ Michael McDonald. Some tasteful jazz piano and a big rhythm section help, and it’s nice to hear at least one song where the horns don’t dominate. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t particularly sharp-edged, and I can’t help but wonder where the duo left their poison pen before the sessions.

“Josie” opens like a rocker, and even kind of acts like a rocker, and is the closest thing to an old school Steely Dan tune on Aja. It has momentum, even if the guitar riff that propels it is too smooth by miles, but once again Becker tosses off an actual guitar solo, and the lyrics (“When Josie comes home, so good/She’s the pride of the neighborhood/She’s the raw flame, the live wire/She prays like a Roman/With her eyes on fire”) are bona fide great.

Steely Dan always had jazzish inclinations—check out “Only a Fool Would Say That” off their first LP, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill—but why they threw in the towel and went over to the dark side of jazz fusion on Aja remains a mystery. One thing is for sure; by 1980’s Gaucho their soft jazz pretensions had ceased to captivate and begun to bore. Critics began to wake up; Dave Marsh called it “the kind of music that passes for jazz in Holiday Inn lounges,” and I dare anyone to tell me to my face that the title cut is anything but overwrought studio brouhaha produced by fusion obsessives with too much time and money on their hands. Why most critics, and the record-buying public, didn’t detect the same impulses in Aja is beyond me. Call me a prophet, because I saw exactly where they were going. Into the bottomless pit of Gaucho’s title track, while the people who loved them for “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” rent their garments and gnashed their teeth.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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  • Jon

    Not every fan who loved the early stuff rent or gashed. My guess is that most of us really enjoy their whole catalog and don’t bemoan their evolution. I grant that there was no real band, per se, after Pretzel Logic but as someone who has listened and loved from ’72, I can’t agree with your assessment.

    • Michael Little

      Ouch! I appreciate your comments, if not the gauche vulgarity. And I find it ironic that I should be labeled a rock snob when the Dan epitomized rock snobbery, by basically turning into bland but perfect lounge jazz. Guess they “evolved” out of rock, which is okay. But I grew up listening to their earlier albums, which blazed with genius an had real guitar hooks. All mistakes were mine and based on internet sources I usually find dependable. My bad. I expressed my opinion. It’s what I do. You’ve expressed your opinions. All I know is that a long time ago, before I ever wrote a single line of rock criticism, I heard Aja and felt betrayed. I love hard jazz and I love rock and wht I heard was neither. But I smelled polish. The LP reeked of polish. And I thought, “Good thing they invented punk, because everything else coming out of LA is toooo tooooo smooooth.”
      Have a good one, y’all.

      • Michael Little

        And I’d be the first to admit I can be a blowhard. I like blowing up sacred cows. Black ones, too. Peace.

  • Tabbycat

    Just another rock snob.
    Cliches?
    You are one.

    The electric piano solo in Black Cow was Victor Feldman, dipshit.

  • Fed-UP

    Wow! such disdain over a record…that’s a shame. I have never heard of you, I don’t know any band you’ve played in, or what your “expertise” in the field of popular music is…but I am a pretty entrenched music person – and I find great worth in it from a musical perspective as well as the technical excellence of the players on the album (Steve Gadd’s solo in the title track – are you kidding me?? it is EXCELLENT!). And if you had half the talent any one of the people had that appeared on Aja…maybe I might know your name. But, alas, no. So, therefore, your opinion of this excellent album means exactly JACK SHIT to me. Go whine and cry and pout somewhere else. I hope you didn’t get paid for your crap opinion! And Michael “the anti-christ” McDonald? What an assinine thing to say. Michael McDonald is a very nice man.

    • Michael Little

      I notice that 147 people like the piece and 4 find it highly objectionable. I don’t relish being in the majority, ever, but in this case it seems I am. If those 147 people are any indicator, lots of people found Aja a roaring bore.

  • Scott

    call you a prophet? how ’bout a blowhard.
    Funny how the entire point of your article is to slam the Dan for “suddenly abandoning rock”, yet one of the songs you use as an example of their earlier tunes that ROCK is Dr. Wu which was probably their first real foray into jazz and was recorded two albums prior to Aja. Sorry, but there’s nothing rocking about Dr. Wu… but there’s also nothing wrong with that.

    And get your facts straight. Wayne Shorter played on the title track only and the keyboard solo on Black Cow is by the mighty Victor Feldman, who played on every Steely Dan album of the 70s. To clarify, Shorter and Feldman (to name just two of the musicians on Aja) are jazz legends and musical geniuses, not “superslick smooth jazz studio hacks” as you smugly state. The guitar solo on the title track fails to impress who exactly? Founding member Denny Dias never sounded better as he trades solos with Walter Becker… who even you admit did nothing but fine guitar playing all over the album.

    You might despise Michael McDonald and sax solos over guitars, but guess what? Steely Dan rather enjoys them. McDonald was a hand-picked member of the band when they were still touring in 1974 and has continued to work with them on and off ever since. Pete Christlieb’s sax solo on “Deacon Blues” failed to pull it out of its rut? You should pull your head out of you-know-where and recognize what an achievement the song (and its solo) actually is. “Deacon” was a top 20 hit and over 7 minutes long… pretty much unheard of. They obviously did something right with that one.

    Don’t like Gaucho? Nobody cares. Many rate it as their favorite Dan album and for good reason. It is truly a zenith of sorts. The title track is a blast to play and quite unlike anything else in the catalog. It’s also fucking hilarious… even moreso than you calling yourself a prophet. Similarly, the lyrics to I Got The News are about as racy and tongue-in-cheek as The Dan ever got. How’d you miss that?

    Aja is Steely Dan’s best-selling album. It is universally regarded as the gold standard in songwriting and sound. The songs are timeless and the playing is unbeatable. As the brilliant Dean Parks said, they were working toward something beyond perfection. Not “smoother than silk pseudo-jazz” but great music that people actually want to listen to over and over. They certainly achieved that as Aja is still heralded as not only the Dan’s greatest album, but one of the greatest of all-time. Your uninformed and dismissive opinions nearly 40 years later do nothing to change the facts.

    Yet you aren’t alone in your dislike of the Dan’s fusion of rock and jazz. A lot of folks lost interest as the band evolved, but just as many new fans were gained by their maturing sound. It says a lot about a group that they can be so loved and so hated, often by the very same person. Personally I love it all. From the collegiate crunch of the early hits to the creepy cush of their most recent work, the Dan should be savored slowly and thoroughly to achieve maximum satisfaction. Don’t give up on Aja just yet… it could be your favorite in another 38 years!

  • moflicky

    Even grading on a curve, I give this an F. You say Aja didn’t have any rock songs like Rikki, Dr. Wu and Any Major Dude? as great as those songs were, they’re decidedly not the “rockingest” in the SD songbook. In fact, they’re AM easy listening radio staples. Not ever rock song has to have distortion and screaming vocals – Aja rocked hard front to back. guitars, bass, drums, keys, sax. all of it. The title tune is a good example. If you can’t appreciate Denny Dias’ impossible guitar work, Steve Gadd’s otherworldly drums or Wayne Shorter’s flawless sax solo (cut in one take)… smh.

  • A Room Without Windows

    Hehe. I love to see classic rock albums trashed. I can totally understand the opinion here, but I disagree with it. I think Steely Dan worked better as a sleek jazz-rock combo rather than a rock band. If you go way back to the pre-Steely Dan demos that Becker-Fagen did, there’s a huge Carole King-Laura Nyro-Todd Rundgren influence. But they had to rock things up to be trendy. I see “Aja” and “Gaucho” (my personal favorite) as the duo finally becoming the real them. And I like it.

  • JF

    I too have to disagree with this review. SD was NEVER strictly a “Rock n Roll band”. Sure, a couple of the songs you mention were rockers. But on every album, as the 70’s progressed, were more and more hints of the duos love for Jazz. Razor Boy, King of the World, East St Louis Toodle-Oo, Dr Wu were all jazz tunes. Show Biz Kids was too if you know anything about jazz. But you don’t know anything about Jazz. Which is why, as this band finally perfected their musical vision with Aja- you were finally ready to throw them aside as “smooth jazzers”. So even though you stirred up the pot with this review-your words are irrelevant. Musically you do not understand how this band developed from its earliest recordings. Or so it seems. In this case the emporer does have new clothes.

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