Saturday, November 10, 2012

Aja Live: The Darcys On The Dark Side

Shine up the battle apple...Strike at the stroke of midnight...lay down the law and break it. These tough, hard bitten lines from Steely Dan's Josie have never sounded bleaker than when crooned by Jason Couse of The Darcys at the end of their set at Mercury Lounge last Tuesday night. Drummer Wes Marskell had left the stage and Jason, guitarist Michael le Riche and bassist Dave Hurlow created a backdrop that was rich and at the same time skeletal. The original Josie, which closes out Steely Dan's multi-platinum album, is almost a romp, bringing the implicit funk to the forefront and spinning a tale of a hellcat's riotous return. Hearing The Darcys take, I wasn't so sure I wanted to be around when Josie comes home.

Jason Couse
Covering Steely Dan is a bit of a fool's game. Few have tried and many who have get caught up in the virtuosity of the playing, leading to dreck like The Hoops McCann Band. As Jason put it to me after the show, "You can't make it better, so you have to make it different." That iconoclastic approach makes their version of Aja a complete success. Instead of getting lost in the fiddly bits of Becker and Fagen's rigorous pursuit of perfection, the four-man group from Toronto instead lose themselves in the dark tales and shady characters at the heart of this classic album.

Having enjoyed the album since its release earlier this year (the free download is available here), I leapt at the opportunity to see them perform it live. What I wasn't expecting was that the band would play nearly as fast and loose with their own version of Aja as they had with the original. Instrumental passages grew longer, sometimes launching into the ether, and there was a sense that they were still finding new crevices to explore in the songs. It was fascinating to watch how carefully they were listening to each other, which is likely what kept the thing from going off the rails.

Michael le Riche
They obviously love Aja and know every nuance of it well enough that they can supercharge it or strip it down section by section. Jason told me that the deconstructive process of making the album was now informing their work on their own material. "We're more likely to take a song apart completely and put it back together," he said, "and we listen to each other more." His excitement about the three songs they've completed so far was contagious.

Their ability to continue to play around with Aja made the concert a thrilling experience, with the 35 year old songs sounding white hot, as if they had just been written. They took the stage wordlessly and slammed through Black Cow and Aja without coming up for air. Deacon Blues, with its unsettled rhythm, came next, and it was another case of Becker & Fagen's film-noir themes meshing perfectly with The Darcys approach. Peg still holds its place as the brightest song in the set, although the fast tempo and Michael le Riche's nearly punk guitar lent it an urgency that bordered on desperation. Le Riche's guitar deserves special mention overall. Through his use of effects, some of which he built himself, he has developed one of the most distinctive guitar sounds going, a sort of serrated yet sleek sound that is surprisingly versatile. It is equally well suited to the fine songs on The Darcys self-titled debut, released last year and also available as a free download.

The pedals of le Riche.
Dave Hurlow
Wes Marskell
Home At Last has the band drawing the most from the original, with Hurlow's rock-solid bass anchoring the "tired sea song" in much the same way Chuck Rainey did on Steely Dan's version, but it still sounds completely fresh. Instead of being frisky, I Got The News was almost introverted, like an inner monologue. As it ended, Marskell walked off (to run the merch table, it turned out) and we were treated to the horror-show apotheosis of Josie. Almost before the last notes faded away, the band left the stage and it was over. No encores. It was a scorched earth move which meshed perfectly with their dark take on Aja. As the crowd broke up, I was ready to break out the hats and hooters. Kudos to The Darcys for making this monolithic song cycle completely their own, first in the studio and again on stage.

For openers we heard Mexican rock band Rey Pila, who brought some intriguing hints of Bill Nelson and early Simple Minds to their colorful sound. Two things really stuck out as needing improvement, however. First of all, in a five-piece band, having no back-up vocals is a huge missed opportunity. The bassist and/or guitarists chiming in on the choruses and bridges would have obviated the singer's need to go all emo at those points in many songs. Even if none of the other guys can sing, he may want to look into the virtues of restraint as his voice sounded much better when he wasn't over-doing it.


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