“Aja” is generally considered Steely Dan’s greatest work. Seven tracks of studio-engineered perfection. Each track brilliantly orchestrated and executed by a cast of musician’s musicians. The lyrics were “languid and bittersweet” and if you didn’t like ‘em then “drink your big black cow and get out of here.”
“Aja” is chock full of moments. Bernard Purdie’s shuffle on “Home at Last.” Jay Graydon’s guitar solo on “Peg.” Michael McDonald’s one-word three-part self-harmonized background vocals also on “Peg.” And, Steve Gadd’s greatest moment ever as a studio drummer on the title track “Aja.”
If you can get past the stock footage, the DVD “Classic Albums – Aja” gives the full story on this great collection of songs in rich detail. Complete with snarky comments by creators Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
Then there is “Katy Lied.” That sweet beauty of an album with the insect on the cover creating a bad joke (Katy Lied…Katydid). Cameron Crowe writing in Rolling Stone said it best describing Dan’s fourth album as “Anonymous, absolutely impeccable swing-pop. No cheap displays of human emotion.”
Amongst the Dan Illuminati, well-documented DBX problems aside, Lied may be their most excellent effort. Katy clearly was the harbinger of what was to come with “Royal Scam,” “Aja,” and “Gaucho.” It also was a significant step forward from their earlier “Pretzel Logic.” No clunkers like “Charlie Freak” or “With a Gun” on Lied. All the songs were great delivered in a variety of tempos and feels. There was also better strategic placement of session musicians. Finally, there was the emergence of Walter Becker on “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers” as a lead guitarist and a peer with the greats that came before him (Randall, Dias, and Baxter).
There is just so much to this album.
Nineteen-year-old not-yet-legendary drummer Jeff Porcaro provides a clinic in setting a rhythmic foundation through many song styles. Jeff swings through odd time signatures in “Gold Teeth,” unveils his soon-to-be-signature shuffle on “Black Friday,” does his best Jim Gordon on “Chain Lightning,” and adds John Guerin flourishes on the fade out of Dr. Wu. Anyone wondering why “the groove-master” is remembered with such awe after his untimely death can see why on Katy Lied. It wasn’t until the new millennium that Becker and Fagen would again rely so much on just one drummer.
Grammy-winning producer-pianist Michael Omartian provides restrained and always-perfect melodic flourishes throughout the album. He is all over that record. Omartian perfectly compliments the song, never drawing attention to himself or his instrument. His contribution to the overall tone of Katy cannot be overstated. His playing is beautiful.
Nor can contributions of guitarist Dean Parks be overlooked. Listen to “Rose Darling” and pay attention to his passing tones. He swings, keeps the song harmonically centered, and manages to provide a tasty solo as well. It’s understated and brilliant at the same time. This is why Park’s resume has thousands of gigs literally. His support is all over that record – yet Parks is often overlooked by fans in favor or the flashier axemen on Lied. Scream “Injustice!” as you go back and listen to the guitar in the background throughout the album.
Hang on Sloopy’s Rick Derringer provides a jaw-dropping blues solo on “Chain Lighting” begging the question, “Rock and Roll and Hoochie Koo? Same Guy?” Elliot Randall saves the weakest song, Throw Back the Little Ones, with his solo. Denny Dias bebops his way through an impressive bridge of changes, all with swing and melody, on “Gold Teeth part 2.” Walter Becker simply astonishes with the range showed on his Blues based shredding on Black Friday (what a tone!). Becker gets tasty the lyrical every-note-counts break on “Bad Sneakers.” We also see the first appearance of soon-to-be critical (think 5th Beatle) Larry Carlton who lays down some Crusaders scratch and funk on “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More.”People like to call Royal Scam “the guitar album.” Not so sure about that, this album is full of great guitar.
Unknown-at-the-time Michael McDonald makes his first appearance on vinyl, providing his distinctive backup vocals that would become ubiquitous 10 years hence. His remarkable multi-tracked in-tune-with-himself work on Bad Sneakers, Black Friday, and Any World that I’m Welcome is still amazing. This was a very talented find for the Dan, and “Rick Jarred Productions” whoever the heck they were. I suppose someone profiled in the book Hit Men. Still wonder why that had to be included in the credits.
The world’s most recorded drummer, Hal Blaine, sits in on “Any World that I’m Welcome To” and shows how rim taps are done and conclude with a tour of his toms on the fade out. Chuck Rainey is also on board, although I suppose the low bass mix might be a frustration from the DBX, it is hard to hear. Check out the bass on Black Friday, if you can, it’s fantastic.
Fagen sounds excellent in all his double-tracked glory. He proves once again to be perhaps the only person who can deliver the Dan’s very wonderful lyrics (are you crazy, are you high, or just an ordinary guy?) which are everywhere on the record. So too is the humor (I’ll bet she’s in Detroit with lots of money in the bank, although I could be wrong) and so is that most frustrating of Dan adjectives, irony (everyone’s gone to the movies, now we’re alone at last). It’s all there, in very tight, mostly under four-minute packages.
So are the weirdest liner notes I have ever read. An inside joke to which no one but Becker, Fagen, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger Nichols understand and get. Payback for the DBX problems I guess. When you make a record as good as this one, you are entitled.
While this 1975 release went Gold, it had no singles that charted higher than #37 and was destined to become what it is today: the hidden gem of Steely Dan.