First it was the Eagles. Then it was Fleetwood Mac. Now Steely Dan, the most enigmatic of seventies bands, has chosen to reform and cash in on the nostalgia for aging rockers. Dan alums Walter Becker and Donald Fagen will release their first studio album in 20 years at the end of the month, so it is not surprising MCA has decided to release re-mastered versions of all of the band’s previous studio efforts. It’s about time because the original releases of the Dan’s records sounded like they were mixed in a cave. These two re-issues solve that problem and finally give a generation raised with the inferior CD versions of these albums some notion of what was so hypnotic about the Steely Dan sound.
Musically, The Royal Scam and Aja are arguably the band’s two finest works. The Royal Scam (originally released in 1976) was the first step in the band’s move to the more sophisticated jazz-oriented sound found on Aja and the group’s last studio effort Gaucho. But this album also features some blistering rock guitar on “Don’t Take Me Alive” and some pre-disco funk on “The Fez.” The lyrics are clever and not as typically obtuse as most of Becker/Fagen’s earlier work. They even attempt a “story song” with the charmingly bizarre “Haitian Divorce.”
Aja (originally released in 1977) was easily the Dan’s biggest selling disc and set a musical standard that the band ultimately could not maintain. This re-mastered version pops out of the speakers just like I remember the original album did 20 years ago. The musicianship, production and mix of this album remain as sonically pure (some would say antiseptic) as any album I’ve ever heard. With Aja, the band dives fully into its fascination with jazz and employs some of the best session musicians working in the genre. Full of dense vocal melodies, complex guitar solos and soaring saxophone charts, the sound is not jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, but a kind of hybrid pop/jazz mix that works in the most unexpected ways. Every cut on Aja is excellent, but “Josie” and “Peg” stand out simply because they were the first Steely Dan song’s you could actually dance to.
These re-issues demonstrate that the music of Steely Dan holds up much better than most of their late seventies contemporaries. Unfortunately, if these CDs were released for the first time today they would probably have trouble finding an audience in our MTV-obsessed music scene. The band will probably have similar problems finding an audience for their new record, but at least their best work has received the kind of presentation that it deserves.