Steely Dan – Aja

Summer Smiles

Between 1972 and 1977 Steely Dan released an album on an annual basis. All of their works during this period were praised by critics and general audiences alike. Most bands with such a massive output go through ups and downs in terms of musical creativity, but Steely Dan can be seen as an exception. Interestingly enough, Steely Dan had been putting out better music each year and their 1977 classic Aja is seen by many to be their highest peak. Going into Aja Steely Dan consisted of five members, after the album was completed there were only three.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are cited as the driving forces behind the conceptualization of the music. The album took over an entire year to create and it drove the two to their breaking point. Recording sessions consisted of long and hard six-hour work days. Often times studio musicians were brought in to play certain parts for certain songs that fell in line with the vision of Becker and Fagen. If one studio musician failed to fulfill their vision, they would bring in another and another until they found who they wanted for a particular song. For instance, on the single “Peg” the band went through SEVEN different guitarists to play the solo until they found the musician that they wanted. Almost every song on this album has a completely different band playing alongside the two. The creation of this album was nothing short of being painfully meticulous and monotonous. The first few sessions of the album were recorded in New York, but eventually the two opted to finish up the album in California because they found that the studio musicians out west had a different sound.

What’s absolutely fascinating about Aja is that you can tell from start to finish that the album was recorded in California. This album makes me feel like I’m on a beach in the 70s, soaking up the sun and enjoying life. I’m not able to pinpoint why it makes me feel that way, but I have a feeling that it’s the lyrical content combined with the texture of the music. (It’s similar to how The Mollusk by Ween feels like its underwater despite only mentioning the ocean a couple of times) With all of that being said, how do I actually feel about the album? I think that AJA is the best jazz rock record ever recorded. Not only does it offer the three classic singles “Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie” but every other cut on the album is just good. The opening song Black Cow starts the album up perfectly with the line

/ In the corner /
/ Of my eye /
/ I saw you in Rudy’s /
/ You were very high /
/ You were high /
/ It was a cryin’ disgrace /
/ They saw your face /

Every time I hear that line It puts me into such a good mood. The lyrics on this album are absolutely fantastic. Each song on Aja has an unforgettable chorus and Steely Dan also has a special way of creating melodies for their verses. The music almost never feels like it doesn’t know where to go and everything about these songs feel natural and intentional. The chord progressions flow seamlessly despite their unusual combinations. For instance the song “Aja” has a bunch of what almost seems like random chords throughout the verses but steely dan pulls them together so well that nothing sounds off about them.

The production of this album is absolutely fantastic. Everything sounds crisp and clean and there are a lot of small attention to detail subtleties buried in the mix. The keys almost always have some sort of cool effect on them or there’s always this slight reverb that fills everything out so much more. The album also has a lot of dynamic range which helps to accentuate the more climatic moments on this record.

All in all this album is an absolute smooth jazz rock gem. It not only captures the sounds of 70s California but it also manages to raise a gigantic smile to the listeners face. I have no complaints and I can’t recommend Aja enough.