The Canadian art-rock quartet's rendition of a Steely Dan classic is a cracking good effort that nevertheless comes up lacking when compared to the source material.
Taken in isolation and judged by it own merits, the Darcys’ third LP is an expansive and mesmerizing exercise in post-millennial indie-informed art-rock. But matters are not that simple regarding this particular release, for what the Canadian quartet has put out happens to be a full-blown track-by-track cover rendition of Steely Dan’s 1977 full-length Aja. With any cover album, comparisons with the source material inevitably arise, and in the Darcys’ case those comparisons knock their offering down a few pegs.
The original Aja is a masterwork of the fusion genre. Its seven tracks are long, unfurling numbers, where Steely Dan and different assemblages of supremely talented session musicians lay down deft, slick performances that were virtuosic without being showy. Howver, the Darcys aren’t interested in Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s very Me Decade melding of smooth R&B, jazzy cool, and melodic soft rock (this was an album that featured Michael McDonald providing backing vocals on “Peg”, after all), so they have instead reconfigured the record through the prism of Radiohead-style alt-rock. The 2011 incarnation of Aja is dominated by generous guitar textures that crackle and sparkle, as well as desolate electronics for added color. Rhythms are thoroughly and steadfastly straightened out, on occasion beefed up to serve restless rockers (“Peg”) or abandoned altogether (the first half of “Black Cow”, the forlorn beat-less take on “Josie”). The most recognizable elements are the vocal melodies -- virtually identical to their forefathers found on classic rock radio playlists -- which retain the Dan’s (now incongruous) soulfulness.
Certainly, the Darcys deserve commendation for putting together a cracking good record here. The group dynamic is impressive: listening to Aja, there’s a clear sense that these guys work diligently on their arrangements, making sure every member plays the right thing at the perfect precise moment for maximum emotional impact. There are some missteps along the way -- the wintry Warp Records-informed take on “Deacon Blues” closes out with a gratuitous length of silence at the end -- but overall the band avoids the pitfall of equating “arty” with “pretentious” or “self-indulgent”. Aja simultaneously is incredibly focused and yet at ease with itself, taking the exact time and space it needs (no more, no less) to explore the compositional template afforded to it by Becker and Fagen.
All is well and good until you compare the two records and the realization dawns that the Darcys have effectively white-washed Aja. Steely Dan wasn’t adding little dabs of non-rock styles here and there to their record. Jazz, funk, and soul imbued its every measure and informed its rhythmic and melodic character. Though the vocals retain some of those qualities and a funky guitar solo appears in “I Got the News”, the Darcys have largely seen fit to expurgate them to better fit the songs to their own aural aesthetic. Stripped of the smooth, gliding funk that defined its grooves, the Darcys’s Aja in comparison feels staid, rigid, and unadventurous, a pale (both figurative and literally) approximation of a complex and nuanced synthesis of black and white musical forms.
For all the merits of the Darcys’ LP, there’s something disconcerting about reworking one of the landmark ‘70s fusion recordings in a manner that makes it more palatable to the collegiate indie rock crowd. On a more conscious level, there’s a safeness to the Darcys’ approach that’s more apparent when the two acts are contrasted, one that necessitates the Canadians bringing the songs into their domain instead of venturing out to meet Steely Dan further out, in unusual and more daring territory for themselves. The music of the Darcys is more my wheelhouse than that of Steely Dan (whose output positively screams “polyester and beige tones” to my ears), but putting them side-by-side I find the Dan’s Aja is the more commendable and visionary effort. One version of this knotty, nuanced spread of an album is genius and the other merely pretty damn good. Though both are praiseworthy categorizations, they are not the same thing.