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Alan Lewens
Steely Dan
Writing Credits:

A vivid portrait of a '70s record that is still as fresh and memorable today as when it was released more than two decades ago. Pioneering pop/jazz band Steely Dan, formed by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in the early seventies, had already secured five Top 40 albums before the release of "Aja" in 1977. "Aja", however, was to prove to be the biggest selling album of Steely Dan's illustrious career, reaching Number 3 on the Billboard chart and spending a year in the Top 40. Becker and Fagen, renowned for their relentless perfectionism in the recording studio, recall the history of an album that was a year in the making, but rewarded with a Grammy Award and three hit singles. Steely Dan's "Aja" has proven to be one of the most outstanding jazz-rock albums in the history of popular music and now its story is told in this fascinating documentary.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English PCM Stereo
Not Closed-captioned

Runtime: 60 min.
Price: $17.99
Release Date: 3/28/2000

• Biography
• Discography


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Classic Albums: Steely Dan - Aja (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 9, 2005)

One of the more enigmatic bands of the Seventies, Steely Dan made what some folks called “Mensa Rock” due to their songs’ often intricate and clever lyrics. They also took rock into a jazzier form that made it unusual. 1977’s Aja was likely their biggest hit, and it receives attention in this episode of Classic Albums.

I’ve enjoyed all of the prior entries in this series that I’ve seen. I found myself impressed with the presentation of the albums, as the discs involved provided a good look at their recording. We heard from virtually all the main participants – at least those still alive, which left out some like the Who’s Keith Moon – and they gave reasonably detailed accounts of their work, along with cool demonstrations of the mixing possibilities, some live performances, and other elements.

Aja follows the same blueprint. We hear from main members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, producer Gary Katz, bassist Chuck Rainey, guitarist Dean Parks, songwriter Ian Dury, journalist Andy Gill, drummer Rick Marotta, engineer Roger Nichols, backing vocalist Michael McDonald, guitarist Larry Carlton, guitarist Denny Dias, drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

A few modern instrumental performances of Aja tunes come from the studio. In that setting, we hear “Josie”, “Home At Last” and “Peg”. A few numbers pop up with filmed footage of concerts from the Nineties, but these use album audio, so we don’t hear the live renditions. Steely Dan never toured behind Aja in the Seventies, which means that we don’t get any shots from them in that era.

That’s too bad, as it’s always good to get a feel for the material in its original period. Nonetheless, we find notes about the beginning and evolution of the band, moving to Los Angeles and working in the studio there, the constantly changing lineup of musicians and the predominant use of session men, and various working methods.

When it comes to album specifics, Becker and Fagen chat about the elements of six songs: “Josie”, “Peg”, “Deacon Blues”, “Home At Last”, “Aja” and “Black Cow”. This occasionally means introspection about the lyrics, but usually they focus on a dissection of the musical pieces. A lot of the tunes are stripped down at the mixing board with Fagen and Becker. They go through the isolated elements of “Josie”, “Peg”, “Deacon Blues” and “Home At Last”. Those nicely depict the details of the various components and are a lot of fun.

For additional clarity, we hear some of the musicians play specific instrumental parts and inform us about their creation. For example, Rainey plays the “Josie” bassline. Becker and Fagen also get into the various attempts at the “Peg” solo.

As usual, the bits at the board are the most interesting. I always enjoy hearing the tracks broken down into their components. Becker and Fagen help elaborate on the work, and it’s very cool to hear alternate takes as well, such as the unused “Peg” solos.

Unfortunately, Aja occasionally seems a bit flat due to the studious manner in which Becker and Fagen chat. They exhibit a wry sense of humor, and that means a really low-key tone to the piece. The material they offer is good, but the laid-back atmosphere makes the program feel logy some of the time.

Also, Aja continues a Classic Albums tradition in that it doesn’t discuss all the record’s songs. I could better accept that for expansive releases like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but Aja only includes seven tunes! This means the omission of “I Got the News” feels almost spiteful. They couldn’t toss in a few minutes of chat about that number?

The absence of real live performances also hurts Aja. Again, I accept the absence of archival clips since the band didn’t tour in the Seventies. However, we couldn’t get something from the modern Steely Dan? It’s frustrating to see live shots without the real audio. The studio instrumentals aren’t very interesting either, as the absence of vocals makes them less compelling.

Overall, Aja fares as another pretty good entry in the Classic Albums series, but it’s not one of the best. The programs evolved over the years and became more expansive, which means more recent entries work better than some of these older ones. Nonetheless, we get a generally entertaining and insightful look at a great album in this enjoyable piece.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus D-

Classic Albums: Aja appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As with other Classic Albums releases, this one presented acceptable visuals that never threatened to become stellar.

Aja differed from most Classic Albums packages due to the paucity of archival film. Most of them offer a fair amount of vintage footage, but very little of that showed up here. That meant higher than usual picture quality, though, since the majority of the program consisted of new shots. Sharpness remained consistently good. The piece could be slightly soft at times, but mostly it depicted elements that were acceptably concise and detailed.

Only minor issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I noticed no edge enhancement. Again because it lacked many archival shots, Aja didn’t include many source flaws. The Nineties live clips were somewhat messy, but the rest of the show mostly presented clean images.

Given their studio settings, most Classic Albums releases stick with subdued palettes, and Aja followed suit. Occasional glimpses of brighter tones occurred, especially during some poolside clips, but otherwise the colors lacked much vivacity. Nonetheless, the program replicated them acceptably well. Blacks were also reasonably tight and firm, while the low-light shots were smooth except for some of those Nineties live shots. Ultimately, Aja wasn’t a visual powerhouse, but it looked fine.

Similar thoughts greeted the PCM stereo soundtrack of Aja. Not surprisingly, this mix largely hewed to the original stereo presentation of the music. Virtually everything other than the songs stayed in the center; I detected no evidence of effects or dialogue from anywhere other than the middle speaker. The music showed good stereo separation, though I expect some of that may have resulted from the original production of the album. Overall, it seemed like the music provided clean spread across the front.

Audio quality was positive. Dialogue sounded a little muddy at times, but for the most part speech was reasonably natural and distinct. As for the effects, there really weren’t any; this production featured music and dialogue almost exclusively.

Of course, the songs were the most important aspect of the mix, and they came across well. The original tracks from Aja fared well, as they showed good clarity and depth. The tunes sounded dynamic and rich. In addition, the new studio performances presented similarly strong audio. Nothing about the soundtrack really excelled, but it replicated the source material in a fairly positive manner.

Aja came fairly early in the Classic Albums line. Later entries included substantial collections of extra footage, but unfortunately, that’s not the case here. When we look at the DVD’s extras, we only get two. We find a short but reasonably informative Biography as well as a Discography that covers releases through 2000. This listing simply relates the album titles and their years of release.

Steely Dan’s excellent Aja deserves the appellation of a “classic album”, so it’s a good entry in the Classic Albums series. The program delves into various aspects of making the record as well as background issues connected to the band. The DVD presents perfectly acceptable picture and audio but lacks many extras.

I liked Aja but can only recommend it if you find it for a good price. For $15 or so, you don’t get much for your money. However, you can purchase Aja in a three-pack along with Classic Albums releases for Phil Collins’ Face Value and U2’s Joshua Tree. This package retails for $20 and can be found cheaper than that. All three titles are good, so I definitely recommend that set.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6666 Stars Number of Votes: 6
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