Steely Dan – Aja: Round 68 – Tom’s Selection


Sometimes my willingness to be swayed by the word of others infuriates me. Curiously this phenomenon invariably seems to work in the negative sense…something I am convinced I would like gets struck off the list due to a negative comment here or a damning review there or the inevitable to and fro of opinions on the forums, or a raised eyebrow from Rob (conversely, it takes a lot longer and requires a much more emphatic and widespread response to convince me of something’s worth – more of that later). Of course, if you look hard enough, you’ll always find a naysayer or two and, as a result, I commit to far fewer acquisitions than I would if I was more impulsive and less drawn to the cut and thrust of cultural debate. There are advantages to my approach – I would be much poorer if I went and bought everything that caught my eye and I would have even more chaff in my collection than I currently do…but I may well also have a few gems in there that have passed me by!

The following story highlights the idiocy of my approach perfectly. If we’re sitting comfortably…

Many moons ago, my friend Clark Alston and I would go off on climbing trips around the country and, on said trips, we would pass the time talking about life, the universe and pretty much everything…but mainly climbing and music. Clark was a few years older and, at that time, those few years seemed to make such a difference. It was a time of great musical excitement for me as I was discovering that the late 70s and early 80s post-punk explosion was the motherlode…a time in musical history I would still rate as the most fertile and creative; anything seemed possible and listening back now it is remarkable how fresh, innovative, challenging and current much of that music seems today. And, unlike me (who had been easing into adolescence in a South Pacific island paradise), Clark had been there, living the dream, inhabiting those sweaty clubs packed to the rafters with spotty yoofs checking out the next Talking Heads or Magazine or Wire. And as a result, what he said (by and large) went.

So when Clark said that Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing was just about the best thing ever, I went out and bought it at the next available opportunity. When Clark waxed lyrical about the genius of Joy Division, I put aside my preconceptions and got Closer and Unknown Pleasures. And when Clark said Steely Dan epitomised everything he hated about music…well it has taken me 20 years to get past that one.

It may seem contradictory given my opening paragraph but the one thing that piqued my interest in Steely Dan was a recent artist poll on the ILM Forum. Suddenly there were all these people waxing lyrical about a band I had always told myself I would steer clear of. If the phrase ‘best band/album/song ever’ gets used often enough, eventually I will come round. So, after weeks of deliberation over whether to take the plunge and then which album to get, I found myself buying Aja online, trying not to think of Clark’s inevitably disapproving look as my mouse hovered over the ‘Purchase’ button on the website.

And now that I am well and truly obsessed with this breathtaking work of art, I have to say that it’s just as well Clark now lives in New Zealand or I would make it my mission to convert him to an album that is, admittedly about as far away a post-punk as you can get, but is surely as magical and inventive and soulful and exciting as any I own. In case you haven’t worked it out yet – I like it. But I totally get why you wouldn’t – the sound of Aja should be anathema to me, on the surface it’s so smooth and controlled and smothered, no rough edges or unpleasantness. If I had been subjected to the sound of Aja 20 years ago, I would probably not have been able to see past it. But experience can be a wonderful thing and now, a month or two in, I don’t even hear the ‘sound’ of the album. It sounds pretentious but I now listen from within the songs, they envelope me and I now find myself concentrating on detail, variation and musicianship, no longer hearing the sheen that so epitomises – perhaps misleadingly – Steely Dan’s production values.

Aja is seven long songs long and each one is a beauty. Side one is peerless – Black Cow, Aja and Deacon Blues all plough a funky jazzy furrow but are hook laden, make many twists and turns and, crucially, never just repeat themselves – each new verse or chorus holds a new surprise, an unexpected chord change, a melody shift, a missed beat, something to draw the listener deeper into the song, to reward the attention paid. Side two is almost as good and Peg (pretty much lifted wholesale by De La Soul for I Know) and I Got The News are possibly my favourite two tracks on the album. The guitar solo on Peg is a truly wonderful thing and Chuck Rainey’s bass work lifts the song to another level. The fact that Becker and Fagan auditioned five different session guitarists before choosing Jay Graydon (solely to play the solo on Peg) shows the depth of their shared vision – these guys knew what they wanted and were not prepared to compromise. The album took over two years to record. Listening to it, it’s not surprising such is the care and attention to detail evident throughout. A Guided by Voices album this is not!

So now I have taken my first steps in the waters of Steely Dan I am excited at the other wonders I have to discover – unlike many bands, there seems to be no consensus on their best album, it seems that any of the first seven (!) could be regarded as their best. So, what to buy next? It’s not such a bad problem to have!

Rob listened: I feel the same way about Steely Dan as Tom, in at least one respect. They represented one of the great landmarks of the overblown rick-kid music that most of the music I loved as an adolescent was supposedly trying to destroy. So, me, Steely Dan, bargepole. And no, I’ve never listened to them. Why would I need to?

But, but, but. If there’s one thing that Devon Record Club excels at, it’s overturning preconceptions, and Tom tends to supply the raw material them at a regular intervals. For me it’s the smoothness that tends to be the first turn off, but over the last 12 months or so both Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’ and John Martyn’s ‘Grace and Danger’ have wormed their way through my defences over the course of a single run-through. I didn’t fall quite so hard for ‘Aja’ but I can see where Tom’s enthusiasm is coming from.

He quoted one of the two principals describing their process as ‘playing together until we can play it flawlessly and then carrying on beyond that to the point where things start to loosen up’ or somesuch, and through that prism I can see how enrapturing ‘Aja’ could become. Tonight I didn’t get too far beyond the superficial sheen, but I can sense the depths that Tom is swimming in and who knows, maybe one day i’ll dive.

Graham Listened: No, no, no, I won’t submit to liking Steely Dan! I’ve been troubled enough by Donald Fagen’s ‘The Nightfly’ during the last year and I’m not putting myself through that again. In 1982 I was 16 and must have been a bit of a hipster because I thought ‘The Nightfly’ was brilliant, sophisticated, clever etc…. Anyway, ffwd to 2013, when I purchased a CD of the same and this caused me probably the biggest trauma of the year and that’s going some for 2013. Like Aja, it sounded too clean, too smug, too lift musak. There, I feel better now, guess tastes change.

Nick listened: I’ve never knowingly listened to a Steely Dan album, despite thinking “Eye Know” by De La Soul is one of the greatest singles ever released. Like Tom and Rob, they were just beyond the ken for me, something never even to be considered, let alone investigated.

That said, I was keen to have this playback of Aja lift the scales from my eyes and open up a while new world to me. I wanted it to sound like the best, most intricate, most musicianly music I’d ever heard, for it to slot right in with various other technically-proficient stuff I love, from Grizzly Bear to Polar Bear to Owen Pallett to various other things where chops are not frowned upon as they once were. But it didn’t quite happen; the only track that jumped out at me was “Peg”, the one sampled for “Eye Know”, which was both uncannily similar to and also just different enough from the De La Soul song to fascinate; the bits I assumed would be sampled from it weren’t always, and the bits I thought De La Soul might have made-up themselves were clearly direct lifts.

Nevertheless I’m intrigued; I sensed something in Aja that might reward serious revisiting. So maybe I will.

Ed listened: When Tom first put this on I wondered what had attracted him to this cheesy 70’s American TV sitcom music.  I kept expecting the room to morph into a brightly-coloured milkshake bar.  However on listening to it again, my first impression was way off.  This isn’t just some slushy muzak, there’s real thought and creativity in it.  Unexpected chord progressions, catchy motifs, great drums, all enveloped in a professional-quality sweet wrapper.  Like Nick, ‘Peg’ might be my favourite and the track that helps me to understand Tom’s enthusiasm, although unfortunately I can’t seem to quite get away from the taste of chocolate malt.



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