Earlier this year, progressive rock quartet the Darcys did their fans and the music-consuming public the ultimate good turn by posting their self-titled debut for free on their website. With Internet piracy at the forefront of current sociopolitical concern, they demonstrated their fan appreciation by bypassing the middleman, and in similar fashion to their pioneering predecessors Radiohead and Trent Reznor, provided guilt-free and cost-free access to their material. Only two months after its official release, they’ve returned with Aja, a full album cover of the Steely Dan classic, also available for free on their site. Given that the Darcys are such a young band, this bold career move may seem strange to the casual listener. However, what with the initial comparisons of their sound to the likes of Radiohead and Steely Dan, the whole ordeal seems like the next logical step in their career. Knowing the Darcys’ keen interest in creating interesting music over radio-friendly singles, anticipation for its release has been justifiably high.
So what does this album actually sound like? In a word, you could say it sounds like the Darcys covering Steely Dan, but things are not quite so simple here. These are not covers; these are full re-imaginations. The difference between the two albums is the difference between a night out on the town and a night indoors watching an art film; this version of Aja is less of a lounge soundtrack and more of an introspective reflection. Beginning with a placid, subdued version of “Black Cow”, the Darcys return to form with gentle vocals, breathy harmonies, shimmering guitar, and rolling keyboard riffs. The track builds into a grand finale, with distorted guitar wailing and dissolving into a cathedral organ-esque fadeout. On Aja, the vocal tracks are harmonized to haunting effect, underscored by delicate keys and scratchy synthesizer reminiscent of Radiohead’s Kid A. This version is a full minute longer than the original, and translates the wistful guitar and saxophone solos into a more dramatic, tonally dark atmosphere clouded by electronic distortion. “Deacon Blues” follows suit with bleak instrumentation and light vocals, balancing the carefree attitude of the song with a faint sense of sadness.
And that’s really the underlying theme to this album; where Steely Dan tended towards upbeat, danceable melodies, the Darcys tend toward darker, drawn-out interpretations. Steely Dan’s “Peg” skipped; the Darcys’ “Peg” simmers. “Home at Last” crawls over a droning guitar riff, and “I Got the News” gradually builds up to a piercing climax. “Josie”, originally an up-tempo funk song, is transformed here into a brooding, mysterious closer for an album that has taken the listener on a surreal journey, a journey into a world a bit gloomier than that of Steely Dan.
This is certainly the kind of album that will divide listeners. Long-time enthusiasts of Steely Dan’s original may or may not find anything worth their while here, but this album wasn’t necessarily for them in the first place. The Darcys’ Aja is a double-edged sword, demonstrating both their firm grip on their brand of prog rock and their ability to competently translate a classic for a modern audience. If it doesn’t impress the older generation, it should at least serve to draw younger fans into the fold of the Darcys’ unfolding musical journey. With two releases under their belt in less than a year, it shouldn’t be long before we’re presented with another. With any luck, maybe they’ll attempt a similar feat with a Radiohead album, but until then, fans of the Darcys have a lot of great listening on their hands.