The power of Steely Dan always sprang from the clash between the sonority of their musical craftsmanship and the cynical, corrosive spirit that fueled their lyrics. So it's appropriate that the defining moment in this 60-minute look at the making of the group's 1977 masterwork Aja comes during a catty discussion of the guitar solo for the hit single "Peg."
Songwriting collaborators Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sit at a studio mixing board and moan about having to go through at least seven soloists before finding a guitar sound they liked for the song. But they don't stop there: They actually decide to play a couple of the solos they rejected. At one point, while enduring a particularly aimless, noodley performance, Fagen dourly says: "There you go." Becker, as usual, finishing his partner's thought, dryly responds: "It speaks for itself."
Such moments of crusty wickedness are what elevate this documentary above the typical self-congratulatory back-patting that can make the "Classic Albums" series a tough slog at times. Fagen and Becker know they're obsessive-compulsive assholes, and while they're not exactly proud of it, they don't make any apologies, either. In a way, the story of Aja is all about Fagen and Becker finally allowing their anal studio perfectionism to reach full flower.
Many Danheads prefer the group's early work, records like Can't Buy a Thrill or Pretzel Logic, when Steely Dan was still a band, a functioning live ensemble with its own set of idiosyncrasies. They'll argue that the dream team of studio aces Fagen and Becker paraded in for later albums scrubbed and polished the life out of their music.
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The argument may hold true for Aja's follow-up, 1980's Gaucho, but more than two decades after the fact, Aja holds up as the Steely Dan record that most perfectly wedded inspired material (the linking of separate musical sections for the ambitious title song is unique in the group's catalogue) with an uncanny sense of sonic nuance. As studio guitarist Dean Parks says of Fagen and Becker's working methods: "It was a two-step process. One was to get to perfection, and the other was to get beyond it."
Because of their attention to detail -- and the virtuosity of the players they hired -- hearing the tracks pulled apart in this documentary can actually be more exciting than hearing the final mixes. For instance, Michael McDonald's multitracked backing vocals on "Peg" are merely an afterthought on the record, but on their own, they're remarkably eccentric and brilliantly executed. On Aja, unlike most pop records, individual parts sound better the more clearly they can be heard.
Other revelations include drummer Bernard Purdie demonstrating the "Purdie Shuffle," bassist Chuck Rainey explaining how he slipped some slapping bass past the curmudgeonly Fagen and Becker, and recently deceased punk-era icon Ian "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" Dury copping to his love for Steely Dan's music.
But Fagen and Becker get antsy when the vibes get too positive, and they can't discuss their own work without a few acidic observations. During a playback of the bluesy "Josie," Fagen notes: "Guitar doubling the bass; common arranging tool of the Hollywood arrangers generation. Henry Mancini would have been proud."