This profile of Steely Dan's elegant 1977 masterpiece, Aja
, is a feast for Dan fans, a thoughtful, satisfyingly detailed assessment of the album and its bejeweled fusion of jazz, R&B, rock, and pop. Better yet, the documentary's producers elicit atypically straightforward, revealing interviews from the group's stealthy principals, songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who jettison enough of their signature sarcasm to touch on the autobiographical threads, cultural anomie, and serious musical ambition audible in their work. In that respect, the production rivals any extant interviews with this proudly cerebral, occasionally evasive musical team.
The duo, along with producer Gary Katz, engineer Roger Nichols, and a generous cross-section of the crack New York and Los Angeles musicians featured on the sessions, dissect the sleek layers of the songs both musically and lyrically, both in modern performances featuring the original players and in control-room playbacks of the original multitrack master tapes. Becker and Fagen prove articulate, self-aware, and dryly funny subjects, and the subtlety and richness of the music offer an ample canvas for discovery. --Sam Sutherland
Originally produced for cable and home video as a documentary project, the Classic Albums series offers in-depth profiles of enduring rock and pop albums built around first-person interviews with the artists, producers, and musicians that created them. That audio focus creates an ironic, largely perceptual problem for DVD release, since the segments aren't intended to replace the original audio recordings, only to expand upon them: these are conventional DVDs, not harbingers of true audio DVD optimized for sonic resolution, and they are not mixed to exploit surround playback. If you haven't heard these albums, nearly all of them landmarks in late-20th-century pop, then this isn't the place to start, and Aja
magnifies that issue through the very high standard of the original audio recording, itself a true audiophile work. If you do know the album, however, the Classic Albums presentation is a handsomely produced, revealing companion. --Sam Sutherland