When all my dime dancin' is through...
Not much need be said, at this late date, about Aja as a musical masterpiece: the apotheosis of the S.D. sound and sensibility. Some accuse the album, and Steely Dan generally, of “soullessness.” The band was certainly super-slick and sometimes slid perilously close to soft-jazz fusion, save for Fagen’s earthy troubadour’s voice. But soulless? How could anything featuring Bernard Purdie playing drums be soulless?
If you’re an audiophile, not much need be said about this album sonically either. Becker and Fagen were (and still are) notorious sticklers, in the studio and the mixing room; and while their albums couldn’t be said to have a “natural” sound, their artifice is certainly vivid and pleasing.
Aja was one of their best-sounding recordings. Yet, compared with my original pressing (purchased in 1977, when the album came out), the Cisco reissue sounds better, in every way. The drums are more dynamic; the cymbals have more sizzle. There’s more detail in the guitar work; the skylark strumming extends an octave higher and floats above the speakers. The bass is more tuneful; the original might sound deeper, but it’s also muddier. There’s a sense, or illusion, of depth; the instruments and singers in the background are way back there. And Fagen’s voice is clearer, more nuanced.
These differences are subtle. As my Stereophile colleague, Michael Fremer, wrote in his “MusicAngle” web site, the better your hi-fi, the more differences you’ll hear and the more those differences will matter.
Kevin Gray of AcousTech, who did the remastering, told me in a phone interview that the hardest part of the job was finding tapes that sounded good enough to work from. The original analogue master tapes are missing. This is true not just of Aja, but of nearly all the Steely Dan albums from that era. (Becker and Fagen, some years back, offered a reward for the tapes’ return, no questions asked; no one replied.) Universal, which owns the catalogue (after multiple mergers and acquisitions), hauled out three sets of reels before Gray found any tracks that were suitable. (He and Cisco’s proprietor, Robert Pincus, also intended to produce vinyl reissues of Katy Lied and Pretzel Logic, but the copies in Universal’s vault, or at least the ones the archivists could find, sounded terrible, beyond even Gray’s bag of restoration- tricks.) He added some EQ to make the tracks sound as close as possible to a particular pressing of the album that Pincus likes best. (That’s another quirk about super-hit LPs from that era: different pressings, or stampers, often sounded different, sometimes very different.) Then he put it through his famously excellent cutting lathe, stamped out the copies on 180-gram virgin vinyl (far superior to the early OPEC-era’s flimsy slabs). Et voila, an Aja for the ages.