by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Few albums are quite as admired among audiophiles as Steely Dan’s Aja, and for good reason: as my colleague Brian Erickson has quipped on The Great Albums Podcast, “it just sounds expensive.” While you could conceivably criticize Aja for being just a little too polished (it certainly stands in great contrast to the band’s rougher-edged early work, like Can’t Buy a Thrill or Countdown to Ecstasy), you have to admire the meticulousness of the playing and studio craft that went into Aja, and the album was wildly influential, many of the band’s contemporaries wondering just how exactly the duo could get an album to sound that good and how they might be able to achieve that same sound for themselves. The easiest way of doing that, naturally, would be to hire those from the band’s innermost circle, and our two featured artists in this week’s column did exactly that by bringing aboard longtime Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, who had helmed every one of the band’s discs from their debut Can’t Buy a Thrill through 1980’s Gaucho.
The 1982 self-titled debut from the pop duo Eye to Eye – consisting of American vocalist Deborah Berg and British keyboardist Julian Marshall – is immediately recognizable as the work of Katz, bearing all the traits of a latter-day Steely Dan album: immaculate engineering (courtesy of Roger Nichols, who had worked on Aja), lush, meticulous productions, and a cast of all-star session talent familiar to the Steely Dan circle, ranging from drummers Jeff Porcaro and Jim Keltner and bassist Chuck Rainey to guitarists Rick Derringer (of “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” fame and formerly the frontman for the McCoys of “Hang on Sloopy” fame), Elliot Randall (who had played the solos on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years”) and Dean Parks. Donald Fagen himself even shows up to provide a synthesizer solo on the album-closing ballad “On the Mend.”
Though the duo clearly is influenced in part by latter-era, jazz-tinged Steely Dan outings like Aja and Gaucho (though you can hear hints of that band’s early sound on the second-side opener, “Progress Ahead,” which features Derringer on guitar and consequently ends up recalling Countdown to Ecstasy’s “Show Biz Kids”), the songs lack the famously acerbic lyrics of that band, and that, combined with Deborah Berg’s soothing vocals, makes the disc a warmer and less obtuse affair than your average Steely Dan disc, though it’s still just quirky enough to seem no more commercial, either. Take, for example, “Physical Attraction”; as catchy as the cut is, it never exactly feels like obvious radio bait, either, in part due to the sheer quirkiness of the syncopated way in which Berg delivers the song title, the words cleverly interwoven with the bop of Randall’s guitar lines.
The album-opening “Hunger Pains” is just as quirky, sounding like a fusion of Joni Mitchell’s mid-‘70s work (i.e. The Hissing of Summer Lawns) and Laurie Anderson. The wordy frenetic bop of “Life in Motion” plays like a cross between Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” and Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” and the almost stream-of-consciousness-like lyrics unexpectedly but cleverly work in a reference to The Little Engine That Could, while “More Hopeless Knowledge” opens, unpredictably enough, with a fantastic guitar solo from Randall.
The album’s most famous cut, however, is “Nice Girls,” which just snuck into the Top 40 (peaking at #37); the bouncy pop of the keyboard-heavy cut (featuring a guest appearance from synthesizer player Ian Underwood, best known for his work on early Frank Zappa albums like Hot Rats) is soft but appealing, sounding like a fusion of Basia (who Berg sounds remarkably like on the song’s hook), Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, and up-tempo Melissa Manchester singles like “You Should Hear How She Talks About You.”
A second album from the duo, boasting the memorable title Shakespeare Stole My Baby, would be issued the following year, but it missed the Top 200 entirely, and the duo broke up shortly after, unexpectedly reuniting three decades later in 2005 for a third disc, Clean Slate.