Monday, October 26, 2009

Boy Wonder

Think back to what you were doing when you were 17 years old. No matter how precocious you may have been, I’m willing to bet that you weren’t writing songs for one of the finest ever debut albums, as Roddy Frame was doing with Aztec Camera’s “High Land, Hard Rain”. Released in 1983, this is a remarkably assured collection of songs about love, loss and vulnerability with Frame exhibiting a maturity way beyond his adolescent years. The perfect bridge between the indie idealism of the time and the pop sensibilities of the early 80s, it’s a fresh, vibrant record that showcases Frame’s incredible songwriting, marrying the wide-eyed innocence of youth with the bitter experience of life.

Aztec Camera is a gloriously silly name, but for all intents and purposes, the band is Roddy Frame. There have been numerous changes to the line-up over the years, but it has always centred around the lad from East Kilbride. Indeed, the other musicians left the group before the first album was released, leaving Frame to complete the record by himself.

"Smile like you mean it"

Aztec Camera were a Scottish new wave band working at the sensitive, tuneful end of the spectrum, very much the contemporaries of similar well-scrubbed guitar bands like Orange Juice. The early 80s was a great time to be an aspiring pop star in Glasgow with Alan Horne’s pioneering indie label Postcard Records standing proudly in the centre of the scene, recruiting Aztec Camera, Edwyn Collins and Josef K to what he considered to be the Scottish equivalent of Motown. Aztec Camera first came to prominence with an acoustic version of “We Could Send Letters” that appeared on the influential C81 compilation cassette distributed by the NME in, yes, 1981. The band released two singles on Postcard before following the well trodden path south, in their case to Rough Trade.

Rejecting the synthesizers, fancy clothes and lip gloss prevalent in the charts, Aztec Camera sounded like nothing else at the time. Strumming an unfashionable acoustic guitar and dressed in similarly unpretentious clothes, the teenage Frame delivered his heartfelt songs with a charming lack of guile and sincere boyish enthusiasm. These soul-searching alternatives to the somewhat bland muzak of the period demanded your attention.

"Yes, I am Scottish"

Though generally considered to have been born during the new wave movement, Aztec Camera’s well-crafted, multi-layered pop was largely an acoustic affair with its genre-hopping stylings combining pop, jazz, folk and even flamenco. However, the twists and turns of the arrangements provide the minimalist set-up with a unique, huge sound. The calming melodies and soothing rhythms may envelop you, but this music has teeth, with Frame’s prowess as a guitarist taking the songs into unexpected directions, aided and abetted by his deep, slightly nasal voice.

Their sound is somewhere between Orange Juice (for the jangly guitars) and The Smiths (for the clever wordplay), though the pastoral elements are similar to XTC’s “Skylarking”. You could argue that Frame was slightly ahead of his time, foreshadowing the likes of The Style Council and Everything But The Girl with their jazz influences.

Praised by no less than Elvis Costello, the ultimate wordsmith, for being one of the best songwriters he had ever heard, Frame’s trademark is the thoughtful, wordy song that manages to pull the listener in with a kind of strained emotion. Every composition is a minor masterpiece of musical poetry, full of words that feel like old-fashioned movie dialogue, but crafted with a witty, wry turn of phrase that marked him out as a new literary voice. References range from Romantic poets (“Bottle merchants both of us/Overdosed on Keats/we smashed them all/And watched them fall/Like magic in the streets”) to The Clash (“Faces of Strummer that fell from your wall/And nothing was left where they hung”). His songs meld an air of militancy with a love of life, featuring a lyrical craft reminiscent of future label mate and all-round charming man, Morrissey.

"Guitar hero"

Frame’s relative youth may explain the album’s preoccupation with affairs of the heart, but his love songs are neither sentimental, nor dumb. No, Frame’s ruminations on romance were both sweet and sour. There is a proud, confessional glow to much of his writing, but even though the songs cover ground of an intensely personal nature they still pack a mighty emotional punch. His under-stated singing style can lull you into a false sense of security, before he spits out a line that is so direct and to the point that you just have to sit up and take notice of what he’s saying. Although he’s clearly been buffeted by the winds of loneliness and loss, there is an underlying optimism here – a desire to pick himself up and start again. The album may breathe emotion, but it contains an indomitable spirit that will lift your heart.

“High Land, Hard Rain” hits the floor running with three upbeat, bouncy tracks. The opening song is the sublime pop classic “Oblivious” with its utterly infectious melody. Its light, funky rhythms, swooning backing vocals and (Spanish) guitar hooks obscure the anguish of unrequited love with bitter lines like, “I see you crying and I want to kill your friends” and “They'll call us lonely when we're really just alone”. Musically, Frame shows off his Scottish roots in the hyper-active “The Boy Wonders”, as he tells of the magic of meeting his love, “We threw our hands up high/We nearly touched the sky/We clicked our heels and spat and swore/We'd never let it die”, though even here, he seems to be pre-empting future disappointment, “Now this boy wonders/Why the words were never worth the wait”.

"Spy kid"

Another track with soulful backing and sparkling guitars is “Walk Out To Winter”, which is a complex yet catchy, erudite yet accessible version of Puppy Love, “Met in the summer and walked 'til the fall/And breathless we talked, it was tongues/Despite what they'll say/It wasn't youth/We hit the truth”. The only other “fast” song on the album is “Pillar To Post”, which is the first track of the second side of the LP (for vinyl freaks). This again highlights Frame’s ability to contrast jaunty, happy-sounding music with depressing lyrics, as he recounts the break-up of his previously beautiful relationship, “Once I was happy in happy extremes/Packing my bags for the path of the free/From pillar to post I am driven it seems/These bitter tokens are worthless to me”.

The depth of emotion in this record shines through most powerfully in the slower numbers like “The Bugle Sounds Again”, where Frame is scared to acknowledge his new-found love, “The cards are on the table now/And every other cliché/Somehow fits me like a glove/You know that I’d be loathe to call it love”. The meandering bass line superbly evokes the restless, can’t-sit-still nature of young love, while the song closes with a cheesy synth sounding just like a (you’ve guessed it) bugle that somehow makes you think of an unbreakable relationship.

"What is known as park life"

It’s achingly beautiful, but pales into insignificance next to the astonishing “We Could Send Letters”. This is a haunting, uplifting experience whose emotional waves rise to a crescendo, “You said you’re free, for me that says it all/You’re free to push me and I’m free to fall/So if we weaken, we can call it stress/You’ve got my trust, I’ve got your home address”. More than any other song on the album, this is the one where initial despair (about a relationship close to collapse due to enforced separation) builds into a triumphant climax of hope, “Just close your eyes again/Until these things get better/You’re never far away/But we could send letters”. That determination to make things work is reflected in “Back On Board”. In spite of all the draining arguments, there’s still a spark, “Even after all those words/I want you for my own/Touch me when the sun comes up/And tell me when we’re home”.

The exquisite “Release” starts off slowly, picking up the pace as it goes along, hitting hard in a crazy round of The Organist Entertains, as Frame has to let his love go, “Cause I wanted the world/And all I could get to/Was a gun or a girl”, leading to a lament for what might have been in the atmospheric “Lost Outside The Tunnel”, complete with spooky synth sound and lightly tapped percussion, “I laughed until it got too dark/Somewhere else her voice will bark/Someone else will be involved/Someone stronger still”.

"Man at C&A"

The original album came to a perfect conclusion with the simple “Down The Dip”, a song that references both Frame’s folk background and The Diplomat, a pub back home in his native East Kilbride. This is a short song, featuring just Roddy and his acoustic guitar, that looks forward to whatever life will bring in the future, “And I'm holding my ticket tight/Stupidity and suffering are on that ticket too/And I'm going down the dip with you”. Throughout the album he’s been riding a rollercoaster of a relationship, not knowing what’s around the corner, but at the end he’s striding ahead with a spring in his step.

Some consider “High Land, Hard Rain” to be a concept album , charting the ups and downs of a single relationship over the course of a few months. While it is often easy to attempt to identify a common thread in an album’s songs, even where none exists, I think that there may be something to this one. In chronological order, the lyrics describe a time where the girl of his dreams is initially unaware of his existence. Then the couple meets and embarks upon an affair that runs through summer, strengthening during autumn, before being endangered by having to live apart and ultimately breaking up. After that he describes how he had to release the love of his life, leading to loneliness and regret at what could have been. Just when you think all hope is lost, the couple forgives each other and gets back together again, looking forward to the future with optimism. Well, it’s as good a theory as any.

"Tartan Army"

Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera have released some excellent albums over the years, most notably the energetic “Stray”, the mature “Dreamland” and the enticing “Love”, but he has never quite reproduced the absolute brilliance of this debut effort. Some performers never make a bigger splash than with their first record and it is true that “High Land, Hard Rain” remains the stunning highlight of Frame’s career. It is a masterclass in melancholy pop, bright guitars and shimmering keyboards refreshing the sharp vignettes about love with great vitality and energy.

This album heralded the arrival of one of the most literate songwriters of the post punk period, who “felt the rain and called it genius” in “The Boy Wonders”. Genius is a term that is terribly over-used these days, but in the case of Roddy Frame I think that we can safely make an exception.

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