There is no question that Steely Dan is an unusual act. Even fellow rock and rollers and record industry people - many of whom are first-degree weirdos themselves - consider Steely Dan bizarre. The reason or the jaundiced eye is the band's rather unusual promotion approach (which wavers between little and none) and a rotating personnel list that causes pulmonary thrombosis among those who prefer a littl consistency.
Several things are consistent, though. For one, a Steely Dan concert occurs about as often as a flyby of the comet Kahoutek. ("We are not very career-oriented," Walter Becker said recently in an equally rare interview for Rolling Stone.) For another, Steely Dan will go out of its way to avoid contact with the press not exactly the easiest way to get publicity. Finally, their music is consistent dense, demanding, and among the best contemporary sounds being made.
Steely Dan's latest album, "Aja" (ABC AB 1006 - pronounced "Asia" is a fully realized effort, which is to say compelling and uncompromising. None of the seven new tunes sounds like an instant smash par for the Steely Dan course. (The group has had only three hits: "Do It Again," "Reelin in the Years," and "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" of which only "Rikki" went gold.) All seven tunes, though, display qulities that no other rock and roll band can match.
"Black Cow," "Peg" and "Josie" are funky musical hybrids with lyrics that are sometimes confusing, sometimes bitter and sometimes totally incomprehensible. Vocalist/composers /multi-instrumentalist Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and producer Gary Katz make up the basic band while a plethora of studio players and guest stars round out the cast.
Paco's Tim Schmidt backs up the vocals on "Josie" while Victor Feldman's electric piano beautifully balances the composition. Jay Graydon's stinging guitar solo and the vocal support supplied by former Steely Dan full-timer and current Doobie Brother Mike McDonald moves "Peg" at just right pace.
"Aja" is the hottest track on the album. This is mostly due to the drumming of Steve Gadd (currently with Stuff). Michael Omartian, formerly with the Loggins-Messina band, adds some exciting piano and Weather Report's Wayne Shorter shines on tenor sax. The mischievous lyrics add a further edge to the barely controlled lunacy lurking just below the surface of the melody.
"Deacon Blues" is the mellowest cut with some more lyrical abstracts ("They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues"). "Home at Last" is a complex piece with a shuffle beat that apparently draws its basic premise from Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" (even crazies can be literate).
On the whole, "Aja" is a work that demands more than passive acceptance from its listerners if they are to appreciate its full value, but even those who prefer sitting back and being blitzed by volume and simplistic ruffs copped from various older sources will identify with the infectious rhythms.
Frankly, Steely Dan acts as if it could not care less whether we like the music, but it continues to produce some of the best rock can offer. Maybe a loose screw here and there could help more needy performers, it hasn't hurt Steely Dan.