Revinylization #49: Steely Dan's Aja

In the 1970s, Steely Dan produced hit records for a listening public that could care less about the band's cryptic lyrics. Those early Dan fans responded to their songs' epic choruses and glistening hooks, awarding chart-topping success and a global audience.

From 1972's Can't Buy a Thrill to 1980's closing act Gaucho, Bard sages Walter Becker (1950–2017) and Donald Fagen occupied a place in pop music as unique as their songs' references to "wild gamblers," "midnight cruisers," "bodacious cowboys," and a female protagonist who "prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire." Much later, Becker and Fagen returned to the studio, issuing Two Against Nature to an audience still hungry for their singular R&B-and jazz-based music.

Music Matters founder Ron Rambach told me years ago, in an interview for DownBeat magazine, that he hoped to reissue the Steely Dan catalog. But UME/Geffen decided to do it themselves, releasing digitally sourced vinyl. For audiophiles, they outsourced LP production to Analogue Productions, which has produced all-analog UHQR versions. Production was overseen by remaining Major Dude Donald Fagen.

Aja, Steely Dan's 1977 masterwork, was produced by Gary Katz and engineered by the dream team of Bill Schnee, Roger Nichols, Al Schmitt, and Elliot Scheiner. Sparkling with perfectionist sheen, Aja is packed with quixotic songs performed by the Dan and such elite session technicians as Jim Keltner, Victor Feldman, Joe Sample, Chuck Rainey, and Larry Carlton. Aja has been recently reissued in two distinct versions: the digitally sourced Geffen series (Geffen/Ume B0035028-01) and all-analog Analogue Productions UHQR (AUHQR 0014-45). The digitally sourced LP was remastered and cut by Alex Abrash. The Analogue Production version was remastered and cut by Bernie Grundman.

"Our signal path was the most straightforward way that could be used to cut the lacquers," Bernie Grundman wrote in an email in response to my query about the AP version. "We went straight into the cutting system"—a Scully lathe—"and used our diamond stylus for the cut. The signal path was really clean. Our system was built to be as clean as possible, as electronics added to the signal path can cause losses in quality. All the gear we use was built by our techs or customized. Thomas 'Beno' May is our chief tech."

I received both Aja reissues. An original 1977 Aja (ABC Records AA-1006), a 1980 Mobile Fidelity LP (MFSL 1-033), and a 1980 Japanese cut (MCA Records VIM-4039) were on hand for comparison.

Adding to its broad stereo spread and precise image placement, the original Aja is packed with iconic sounds: Rainey's coiling electric bass; Fagen and Sample's glowing Clavinet, Rhodes, and synthesizers; Feldman's vibraphone radiating Ellingtonish chords over "I Got the News"; Keltner's reverberating trash can lid in "Josie." The OG Aja delighted everyone from Maggie/McIntosh-espousing audiophiles to 8-track connoisseurs.

The gatefold jacket of the MoFi Aja was heavy and thick, predating the Music Matters/Tone Poet rage by 46 years. This version soups up Aja's top and bottom ends. It brings airier resolution to cymbals and guitars and battleship weight to electric bass and bass drums. On "Peg," Rainey's bass guitar was revealed in all its slapping proficiency. In "Home at Last," Bernard Purdie's original bass drum "thud" is replaced by a seismic, slamming punch. The MoFi has greater soundstage width and depth, but there is something unnatural in its drastic peeling of the music's tonal extremes. It is great fun, nonetheless.

The Japanese Aja brings thick cream and candylike goodness, as if my toes are running through an orange shag rug as I recline in a plush Naugahyde sofa. But what's not to love? As substantial as the MoFi but with added sweetness and depth, this record sounds warm and wet, at times muffling bass instruments but pleasantly goosing the midrange like the soft center of a Three Musketeers bar. Not the last word in resolution but with excellent presence and impact, MCA Records VIM-4039 is easy to enjoy.

The two new Ajas, which sound similar, bring everything into greater focus, with a stark but naturally clean presentation, boundless dynamics, and noticeably more energy. These new versions have weight and extension similar to the MoFi and Japanese versions but additional viscosity, instrumental separation, front to back layering, newly exposed details, and surprising texture. This Aja sounds quieter, richer, riper.

It makes me want to dance—and Kenny don't dance! I can hear only minimal flaws: occasional digital glare and transients that sound a little bit unnatural—a small price to pay for this much excitement.

Dead silent and uncluttered, the UHQR uncovers a wealth of new detail. Each instrument occupies a larger physical space, like the effect of a good SET amp. There's more depth, improved sustain, and improved definition of instruments within the ambient space. Instruments possess more personality—there's more sonic information—from Rainey's bass through Carlton's guitar to Fagen's quirky Rhodes and synths. The UHQR's deep silence uncovers surprising subtlety and nuance in Fagen's typically squeezed, nasally vocals, making him sound more '60s Beat Poet, less snarky LA hipster. This Aja has a deeper focal point and a more relaxed presentation, facilitating a more immediate and satisfying experience.

The OG Aja still sounds great. The Japanese version is pure '70s velour and Kodachrome. The new digitally sourced LP brings the record into the modern era. The UHQR, though, imbues this timeless music with new grace and beauty. There will never again be a reason to "go back, Jack, do it again," though no doubt someone will.

beave's picture

How much less could they care?

partain's picture

We share a dislike of illogical, inaccurate statements.

Axiom05's picture

I know that these articles have focused on the new vinyl editions, however I would like to mention that the HiRes downloads of these new masters are excellent. The sound quality far surpasses anything that has come before in digital format, even the new Aja is improved over the fine SHM SACD (2010), previously my favorite Aja.

partain's picture

Especially since there'll be scores , perhaps hundreds of folks listening to them without a turntable.I can only assume the TT users spend a lot of time and money procuring unsliced bread .

Severius's picture

"...responded to their songs' epic choruses and glistening hooks...".

Absolutely. Those poor simpletons - caring about just music - imagine that! What morons. We superior 21st century humans focus on what's really important. Words. More words. Babble. Our motor mouths never stop cRapping. As long as there's a beat and babbling, who cares about the music? Any recycled melody will do. Thump thump thump. Rock on