Saturday, 6 May 2017

"Aja" by STEELY DAN (September 2013 Japan-Only Geffen/Universal PLATINUM SHM-CD Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...







"...I Have Found My Home At Last..." 

Since 2008 (and this is in Japan alone) there have been a dizzying 'eight' reissues of Steely Dan's 1977 meisterwerk "Aja" on various CD formats including the big reissue three - SHM-CD, Platinum SHM-CD and SHM-SACD. Hell as I write this review number nine is due on 17 May 2017 in a standard jewel case. And with the famous LP's 40th birthday coming up in September of this very year - we'll probably see yet another anniversary reissue that comes complete with a live Japanese woman in a ceremonial kimono on the Whistling-Dixie Chim Chim Cher-ee Chim Chim Cher-Roo Uber Strudel Deluxe Edition (she'll be a limited edition of course and won't have aged a jot in 40 years).

But which CD variant does an upstanding with-it Audiophile dweeb like me buy? In a sea of reissue temptation I'm going to plum for this beautiful September 2013 Japanese version that comes on the exclusive Platinum SHM-CD format with a new best ever Remaster and truly gorgeous packaging (see photos supplied). Here comes the Deacon Blues...

Released 23 September 2013 in Japan only (deleted March 2014) - "Aja" by STEELY DAN on Geffen/Universal UICY-40007 (Barcode 4988005782175) is a PLATINUM SHM-CD reissue in a Presentation Repro Artwork Box and plays out as follows (39:49 minutes):

1. Black Cow [Side 1]
2. Aja
3. Deacon Blues
4. Peg [Side 2]
5. Home At Last
6. I Got The News
7. Josie
Tracks 1 to 7 are their fifth studio album "Aja" - released 23 September 1977 in the USA on ABC Records AB 1006 and in the UK on ABC Records ABCL 5225. Produced by GARY KATZ and Mastered by BERNIE GRUNDMAN - it peaked at No. 3 in the USA and No. 5 in the UK.

The first thing that hits you is the 'look'. I've a version of "Dire Straits" by DIRE STRAITS on this Platinum-SHM CD format (see separate review) and 'class' is the word that jumps to mind. Inside an oversized white-bordered presentation box is the MINI LP REPRO ARTWORK of "Aja" in a high glossy sleeve complete with Obi, the Inner Sleeve repro'd and a black and white 24-page booklet. As it is with all of these Japanese reissues - the booklet is a slightly disappointing affair - Japanese language liner notes from 2000 by Y. OTOMO, the lyrics in English and naught else by way of any photos. But that's all academic to the Audio.

First up - it's been DSD flat transferred from Japanese original analogue master tapes by HITOSHI TAKIGUCH at Universal Music Studios in Tokyo in 2000. Further to this - YUMETOKI SUZUKI then 24-bit transferred from DSD in 2013 and in turn that was followed by high resolution cutting of the disc (also in 2013).

The SHM-CD or Super High Materials format (exclusive to Japan) is a better variant of the original CD that of course dates back to the early 1980s. The Platinum variant of SHM is supposed to be the ultimate music carrier able to find more nuances in the transfer than the basic red-book version. As you can see from the exhaustive list I've compiled below - now there is also the SHM-SACD format for Super Audio fans - but that requires SACD-playback on your player - the SHM and Platinum-SHM variants does not - they play on all machines.

To put this is a most basic way - this Platinum SHM-CD sounds incredible. I've been listening to my favourite Steely Dan album for 40 years now and have sappily collected no less than seven vinyl pressings of varying issues and also own the 1999 Donald Fagen and Walter Becker CD Remaster too. But this is the best I've ever heard "Aja" sound. It helps of course to have decent equipment (mine isn't that overly expensive) – but I'm thinking this sucker will sound great on any system (the Japanese even provide a protective gauze bag for the disc). Now to the music...

Since their 1972 debut "Can't Buy A Thrill" - Steely Dan has slowly become one of the most sophisticated recording acts of the Seventies - abandoning touring after the second LP and legendarily featuring the best session men for their albums as early as "Countdown To Ecstasy" in 1973. By the time "Aja" arrived in 1977 - they were almost a Jazz-Rock act with the list of 'appears courtesy of' artists reading like a who’s who of West and East Coast musical alumni. You know you're in the realms of a serious album when the liners note state 'Rhythm Charts Prepared By'...

To give an indication of the talent used - "Aja" had seven tracks with six different drummers - Paul Humphrey on "Black Cow", Steve Gadd on "Aja", Bernard Purdie on "Deacon Blues" and "Home At Last", Rick Marotta on "Peg", Ed Greene on "I Got The News" and Jim Keltner on "Josie". The guitarists featured another list of superlatives - Larry Carlton on all tracks except "Peg", Lee Ritenour on "Deacon Blues", Dean Parks on "Josie", Steve Khan on "Peg" with a thrilling solo on "Peg" from Jay Graydon. Keyboard players included Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Joe Sample of The Crusaders, Paul Griffin and Don Grolnick – while Backing Singers featured Michael McDonald of The Doobie Brothers ("Peg" and "I Got The News"), Timothy B. Schmit of The Eagles ("Aja" and "Home At Last") - not to mention the golden ladies - Clydie King, Venetta Fields, Sherlie Matthews and Rebecca Louis. Horn players included Jazz Giants like Wayne Shorter and Tom Scott. To top all of this you had core members of Steely Dan - Donald Fagen sang all Lead Vocals and played Keyboards, Denny Dias and Fagen played guitars - while Walter Becker exonerated himself with Bass and his own lesser vaulted contributions - inventive guitar solos on "Home At Last" and "I Got The News".

Every track is a rich musical gem - with some requiring a few comebacks to appreciate the sheer depth of what's coming at you ("Aja" and "Home At Last" for instance). Others like the lengthy "Deacon Blues" and the riffing "Josie" seem simpler but again contain amazing musicianship if you dig in. What also gets you is the sheer funkiness of the album - tracks like "I Got The News" and "Black Cow" eat their way into your pants while the centre passage of "Aja" when Fagen lets blast on that Police whistle is simply stupendous. The Platinum SHM-CD brings up those funky guitar chugs of Larry Carlton and Dean Parks on "Josie" while Michael McDonald's distinctive voice steps just enough out of the chorus on "Peg" to make the hairs on your arms point northwards. If I were to single one track - I'd stump up the piano-funk of "Home At Last" - Walter Becker's guitar solo - Chuck Rainey laying down that Bass backbeat. "...Could it be that I have found my home at last..." Well yes it could.

"Aja" is 40 in September 2017 and I'll be 59 on the 29th of that month - still soppy at the mere sight of that tasteful Hideki Fujii front cover photo - still in love with this magnificent achievement. Punk and New Wave was thrashing about all around it - but even they would nod in respect to "Aja" - and this in my opinion is the best version of it yet...

FOR INFO PURPOSES
JAPANESE REISSUES for STEELY DAN 
On The SHM-CD, SACD and PLATINUM SHM-CD Formats...

The Japanese reissue program surrounding STEELY DAN and their core catalogue of albums between 1972 and 1980 ("Can't Buy A Thrill" through to "Gaucho") for the three formats of SHM-CD, PLATINUM SHM-CD and SHM-SACD is a tangled minefield of reissue after further reissue – a long line of endless upgraded versions. This list is an attempt to sort out what’s what.

Audio wise – most of the 2008 to 2011 issues are based on the Donald Fagen and Walter Becker approved remasters of 1999 - all of which are easily available as US and European MCA Remastered CDs (and cheaply too). But for those who crave best ever sound from this most Audiophile of American bands – the Superior Formats and repro packaging imitating original US album artwork are more than enticing.

There are also reissues from 2014 in Japan that have exclusive Remasters using US analogue tapes (listed below). And all though they’re constantly reissued – technically all Japanese CD reissues of back-catalogue are limited editions (they sell out quickly and become deleted soon after). So I’ve included exact barcodes to find the right issues when looking for them on various sale/auction sites.

This list is accurate to May 2017...

SHM-CD (Jewel Case and Mini Repro LP Artwork Versions):

1. "Can't Buy A Thrill" (1972)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-20122 (Barcode 4988005639240) – 1999 Remaster
(ii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93515 (Barcode 4988005518293) – 1999 Remaster

2. "Countdown To Ecstasy" (1973)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-25036 (Barcode 4988005677754) – 1999 Remaster
(ii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93516 (Barcode 4988005518309) – 1999 Remaster
(iii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD re-released 30 July 2014 on Geffen/Universal UICY-76427 (Barcode 4988005831552) - features 2014 DSD Remastering from original US analogue master tapes and HR Cutting on the Disc

3. "Pretzel Logic" (1974)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-25037 (Barcode 4988005677761) – 1999 Remaster
(ii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93517 (Barcode 4988005518316) – 1999 Remaster
(iii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD re-released 24 September 2014 on Geffen/Universal UICY-76524 (Barcode 4988005838209) - features 2014 DSD Remastering from original US analogue master tapes and HR Cutting on the Disc

4. "Katy Lied" (1975)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-25038 (Barcode 4988005677778) – 1999 Remaster
(ii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93518 (Barcode 4988005518323) – 1999 Remaster

5. "The Royal Scam" (1976)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-25039 (Barcode 4988005677785)
(ii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93519 (Barcode 4988005518330)

6. "Aja" (1977)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 23 January 2008 on Geffen/Universal UICY-90764 (Barcode 4988005502070)
(ii) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 24 June 2009 on Geffen/Universal UICY-91430 (Barcode 4988005560810)
(iii) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD re-released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-25040 (Barcode 4988005677792)
(iv) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD re-released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93520 (Barcode 4988005518347)
(v) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD re-released 25 September 2013 on Geffen/Universal UICY-75768 (Barcode 4988005782274) – HR Cutting
(vi) Non SHM CD Issue (standard CD) in a Standard Jewel Case re-released 17 May 2017 on Geffen/Universal UICY-78312 (Barcode 4988031220726)

7. "Gaucho" (1980)
(i) Standard Jewel Case SHM-CD released 12 October 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-25041 (Barcode 4988005677808)
(ii) Mini LP Repro Artwork SHM-CD released 29 December 2011 on Geffen/Universal UICY-93521 (Barcode 4988005518354)

PLATINUM SHM-CD (Mini LP Repro Artwork inside a White Bordered Box):
"Can't Buy A Thrill", "Katy Lied" and "The Royal Scam" – not issued on this format as of May 2017

1. "Countdown To Ecstasy" (1973)
(i) Released 30 July 2014 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9566 (Barcode 4988005831590) - features 2014 DSD Remastering from original US analogue master tapes
(ii) Re-released 24 August 2016 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-15005 (Barcode 4988031161814) – features 2014 DSD Remastering from original US analogue master tapes

2. "Pretzel Logic" (1974)
(i) Released 24 September 2014 on Geffen/Universal UICY-40085 (Barcode 4988005838155)

3. "Aja" (1977)
(i) Released 25 September 2013 on Geffen/Universal UICY-40007 (Barcode 4988005782175)

SHM-SACD:
These Japanese SHM-SACD releases require a CD player that has SUPER AUDIO playback facilities - they will NOT PLAY IN A STANDARD PLAYER. There are two variants of Remasters - 2010 DSD versions done exclusively in Japan and based on Japanese original analogue tapes – and 2014 variants based on US analogue tapes with HR Disc Cutting. The 2014 variants come in white-bordered boxes like the Platinum SHM-CD issues.
"Can't Buy A Thrill", "Countdown To Ecstasy" and "Katy Lied" – not issued on this format as of May 2017

1. "Pretzel Logic" (1974)
(i) Released 24 September 2014 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9568 (Barcode 4988005838223) - features 2014 DSD Remastering from original US analogue master tapes and HR Cutting on the Disc

2. "The Royal Scam" (1976)
(i) Released 28 September 2011 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9501 (Barcode 4988005653628) – Withdrawn

3. "Aja" (1977)
(i) Released 30 June 2010 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9026 (Barcode 498800 5614384) – features 2010 DSD Remastering
(ii) Re-released 26 November 2014 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9591 (Barcode 4988005857439) –features 2010 DSD Remastering

4. "Gaucho" (1980)
(i) Released 24 October 2010 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9039 (Barcode 4988005633330) in oversized Card Repro Artwork
(ii) Released 26 November 2014 on Geffen/Universal UIGY-9592 (Barcode 4988005857446) in SACD Jewel Case

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