Review Summary: Steely Dan tweak and fine tune their trademark light jazz-rock and (mostly) succeed.
By 1977, Steely Dan was already heralded as the preeminent jazz rock band after releasing such classics as their debut Can't Buy A Thrill
and Pretzel Logic
. It seemed like they could do no wrong, seamlessly releasing five top quality album featuring their unique brand of jazz-flavored soft rock, sometimes even coming off as pop-tinged. But even after maintaining a consistently stellar sound, Steely Dan's compositions peaked on the 1977 release of Aja
. One of Steely Dan's greatest strengths is their uncanny ability to spin a wonderfully catchy, yet still instrumentally complex and lengthy song. Usually a band possesses either the ability to write an instantly gratifying tune, or a longwinded, convoluted grower, but Steely Dan have found a balance showcased to the fullest on Aja
The qualities that make Steely Dan such an alluring band are apparent right from the beginning on the excellent opener, "Black Cow." From the first second it locks into a seductively enticing groove, with thick bass and synthesized trills. Minimalist horns accentuate the jazz influence, but at its heart, "Black Cow" is mostly a pop song. Its first three minutes are so tightly performed in a way that usually would never be found in jazz, but it morphs into a more horn-driven, flowing piece in such a relaxed fashion. At five minutes, it's the perfect opener, exemplifying the sound Steely Dan employs on the album. Things are taken to a completely different level on the title track, sounding just as laid-back, but with more of a jazz atmosphere. Being eight minutes long, much of the track is instrumentally driven, which is one of Steely Dan's most apparent strengths. They boast an instrumental section like no other band, with highly technical interplay from the keyboards and guitars. The vocal melody falters compared to the strength of the technical playing, screaming the fact that "Aja" might have been more successful as a completely instrumental song. Nonetheless, it's great, even if the vocal sections are a bit weak.
The third track, "Deacon Blues," is a mix of the two first tracks, combining pop and jazz to an even higher level, thus achieving perfection. Complete with smooth keyboard lines and soft atypical guitar chords, "Deacon Blues" is simply a joy. It's surprising that such a jazz-oriented rock band could write songs with such souring, sing-along choruses, but if there was any song that showed Steely Dan could do it, it's "Deacon Blues." The chorus is simply brilliant; it boldly shows off their fluid vocal harmonies and gorgeous horn lines. While repetitive, it's original melody makes it a highly replayable listen, and one of the best on the album.
Unfortunately, the strength of the first three tracks overshadow the last four; not that they're all weak. They just don't show the same qualities that make Steely Dan such an original and exciting band. "Peg" is mellifluous and tight, yet shows little of the stellar instrumentation that sets Steely Dan apart. It's such a fun track though, so you can hardly fault them. "Home At Last" is pretty yet slightly uninteresting, again lacking the brilliant keyboard solos and intricate guitar work. "I Got The News" is the only song that's truly banal on the album. It wallows in jazz- filled pedantry, unable to truly be as loose as the rest of the album, instead coming off as contrived. "Josie" is somewhat of a return to form; it's a short, foot-tapping piece, an ode to a wild, promiscuous girl. While a slightly disappointing choice as the closer, "Josie" is memorable enough to not be truly underwhelming. Musically similar to a more upbeat "Aja," it would work better as a mid-album interlude, but still engaging.
Steely Dan managed to perfect their soft genre hybrid to wield seven mostly appealing tracks complete with lush instrumentals, highlighted with textured production and sophisticated instrumental riffs. Aja
detaches Steely Dan from the music fads of the time; they wanted nothing to do with the dance-oriented style of disco, or the burgeoning rebellious genre of punk. Instead, they created another solid album with their classic attributes, one soft enough for pop fans to enjoy, but technical enough for jazz aficionados to appreciate. While the first three tracks of the album definitely outweigh the shorter last four, Aja
is consistent and substantial enough to be another heavyweight in the essential catalogue of Steely Dan.