While it’s frequently mentioned at the bottom of my posts – the “Music” that’s playing during the writing of it, along with what book I’m reading currently and whatever vague mood seems to be lurking overhead at the time but un-connected to whatever the post was about – the aural quality of my world is pretty damned important to me. I attempt to fill it with things which will provides accompaniment to a task, augment the mood I’m in, or simply provide wonderful melodic background for whatever I’m engaged in. I like it, it seems to like me, and the subjective quality of its performance is important (for instance, I’ve taken to the lossless FLAC encoding system instead of the Musepack format previously used, because the former provides a fuller tonal range to my ear).
This, clearly, makes me a prime candidate for the music of Steely Dan, seen by many to be the gear-heads’ musical favourite; mostly due to their multiple studio accomplishments (although I only know of them being really fanatical to high fidelity recording processes and insanely complicated guitar lines). When I want to hear a little something intelligent, jazzy, and exceedingly tasty in its musical accomplishment, I turn to ‘The Dan’ (or Brian Eno or Jeff Beck). Thus, when hearing that the Toronto independent rock group The Darcys were covering the entire Steely Dan album Aja, I was fascinated to hear what they had accomplished.
The problem that any musician doing a ‘cover’ of another group’s work faces is that it’s a song they love, and probably love everything about the original version. However, the reason they do their own version is to bring something new to it, or at least it ought to be the reason. If all they do is duplicate the original’s arrangement, then there’s no inducement to listen to the new recording instead of the original. While this hasn’t stopped classical musicians doing the 378th recording of Mozart’s 12th symphony, or countless other works, there’s a difference there as we haven’t a clue what the original performance sounded like, so there is no ‘definitive interpretation’ which is tied to the composer in the same way that Dark Side of the Moon or Abbey Road have one specific version in the collective awareness of the listening public.
The original version of Aja (pronounced like ‘Asia’, by the way) is considered by some to be the “best recorded pop album in the 1970s”, which is either rejected as being of “too much intelligent content to be considered ‘pop’ music” or else “given much of the material recorded in the 1970s sounds like it was taped in a public swimming pool using a tin can, it’s hardly a tough thing to be at the top of a chart for technical achievement, is it?” Whichever, it’s often used for testing samples and recording reproduction fidelity to demonstrate the tonal range of vinyl vs. CD vs. digital file formats of various codecs; mostly due to the fact that the various editions have stayed fairly true to the original masters and haven’t been screwed around with, unlike most of the other recordings of the period. Having it get the Grammy Award for “Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording (1978)” probably helps too.
Due to the above – plus the fact this is the group’s best-selling album, having reached #3 on the U.S. charts and #5 in the United Kingdom – everyone knows the material backwards. So why even take-on the task then? Well, according to an interview with one of the band members in conjunction with THIS BLOG POST for the CBC Radio3 show Appetite for Distraction, the idea was given voice because one of the band members was both drunk and tired of answering questions posed by someone in a bar that evening, so he said the band was about to record this in order to make the guy shut up and go away. Sadly, the pestering individual was a member of the Toronto music media, and the statement was published shortly thereafter. The band member claims he is no longer permitted to drink, for fear of him doing something equally insane to the rest of the group.
It’s not fair to do a track-for-track comparison of the original album to the new version, as the purposes for the creation of the two are so wildly different from each other. The original was made to give voice to the muse of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, while the new one was made to pass the original album’s contents through the collective muse of The Darcys to see what would happen. Thus, the preference of one over another isn’t either just or even relevant. No doubt the eye-balls of the members of the Toronto group are filled with a non-stop stream of words by people who are quite happy to make it painfully clear that “the original is perfect”, “why would anyone commit such sacrilege”, or the always popular “this cover album sucks goats!”
I was originally made aware of this about 2⁄3 of the way through the tune “Peg” which was pre-released as part of the album’s promotion. In the middle of typing something frantically on the keyboard whilst listening to Radio3, the chorus rammed itself into my awareness, my head shot-up, and I thought is that song what I think it is? The answer, obviously, was yes. In a series of events – that culminated with [ahem] ‘a well connected radio personality’ sending me an Advance Copy CD – I’ve now had a chance to listen to the entire effort. Five times. In a row. Without listening to the original version once. Yet.
However, it’s nigh-on impossible to hear any of the tracks on this without hearing the original in one’s head.
Which brings us back to the original question, why would you attempt this in the first place? Again, I submit the purpose is to bring something new to the musical work, due to it being interpreted by a different person in a different age. I’m a big fan of re-interpretations of The Beatles, The Who, and for some reason I also have about 87,000 different recordings of the Cole Porter composition “Love for Sale”.
Ultimately, the new version of the album isn’t all that successful as something which stands on its own. I wouldn’t expect it to replace the original in my mind, as that’s something a cover version has only done for me with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (the cover is far more in keeping with the event it records in its lyrics, for one thing). To create a version of any album which is superior to the original one is arguably impossible, but it ought to stand on its own in some fashion. This one doesn’t, no matter how hard I try to really, really like it.
A few tracks do make the cut, as they work but not entirely through their lengths. The title track handles the material fairly well, with echoes of the original here and there, but an entirely new feel to the whole of the song. Likewise, “Josie” works fairly well through most of its length for the same reason. “Deacon Blues” and “Home at Last”, however, just don’t work at all, sometimes to the point of being down-right ‘broken’. Not all songs are structured in a clear enough way to make it possible for re-interpretation, and especially not easily an entire album being re-interpreted by the same group in essentially the same style (although one exception to this is Luther Wright and the Wrongs’ version of The Wall as semi-blue-grass styled music, which is brilliant).
The cover image chosen by The Darcys [see image, way above, right] is odd, as it harkens far more to the cover of The Royal Scam [see image, right], which Steely Dan declared in the re-mastered edition of which as “the most hideous album cover of the seventies, bar none (excepting perhaps Can’t Buy a Thrill)”. As tough as it is to make an album your own, it’s probably tougher to make the cover art yours as well.
Now, props to the group for taking this task on in the first place! To learn to play any of these songs is incredibly tough, and to do this with all seven is fantastic. To add to that the challenge to, essentially, ‘un-learn them’ and then re-learn them afresh is a hell of a steep climb for anyone, never mind an independent band attempting to fulfill a drunken promise made by one of the members in a fit of frustration. What a staggering achievement this is!
But it needs to have more than that, frankly. The sparseness of the original in large areas are too often honoured seemingly for the reason that “that’s what Steely Dan did”, instead of honouring a new approach. There are little musical frills from the original throughout that ought to have avoided entirely in favour of the songs’ cores. As well as that, there are some vocal moments which are delivered by the lead singer which were originally echoes by the back-up vocalists and ought to have been avoided for the same reason or delivered in some new way by another singer during the new recording sessions.
Basically, it’s a great idea. If they had attempted to show off their instrument chops by duplicating it perfectly, that would have gotten a pretty good reaction for the work (although not on an artistic level). Instead, they went for the far tougher assignment of re-working the music with their own style, and that’s awesome. However, the end result isn’t something which seems to have gone far enough to create a new work per se. Thus, my ultimate reaction is “meh…”
If you want to listen to ‘old music’, then you risk not evolving into a better person; or at least ‘fresher’ one. Thus, if you want to play the old music, you must do so in an entirely new way, bringing the best of the old into direct contact with the new work
If you want to check out the music for yourself, then HEAD HERE to download it for free. However, if you prefer a ‘hard copy’, I have the ‘Advance Copy’ CD in front of me, and will happily send it to someone who requests it (hit the “contact” link up there).