Aztec Camera: Knife (WEA 240 483-1)


FRANKLY, after High Land, Hard Rain and a macabre night spent watching Aztec Camera onstage at The Lyceum, I wouldn’t have cared if you’d melted down Roddy Frame and his boys with a blowtorch and used them for boot-polish. Their songs were twee and anaemic, a few guitar chords pinched from Mickey Baker’s jazz tutors added to by the kind of simpleton-aesthetic which made the Lovin’ Spoonful one of history’s truly infuriating outfits.

Times change, and here I sit listening to Knife and… enjoying it. Almost everything is different this time around. Obvious deduction numero uno — Roddy Frame, wisely devoid of twattish buckskin jacket, has learned a good deal about singing, playing that gee-tar and (perhaps most importantly) songwriting. You can still hear traces of prototypical Aztecs — most clearly in the single ‘All I Need Is Everything’, which, despite its devious multi-guitared outro, is the weakest track on the album and the one where you can trace most clearly Frame’s line of development.

But the opening ‘Still On Fire’ swiftly gives you a few useful tips about Frame’s new unit. Facts first — line-up is now Campbell Owens on bass, drummer David Ruffy and former Orange Juice operative Malcolm Ross on guitar. In ‘Still On Fire’, they blast straight in with a stiff shot of blowtorch rhythm guitar, a curtain-raiser for a neat little melody picked up by Guy Fletcher’s featured keyboards. It’s a bright, urgent start.

Frame, obviously not a half-wit, has had the inspired notion of hiring Mark Knopfler to produce Knife. You can probably find hundreds of people willing to queue up to harangue you about how dull and staid Knopfler is, but as single-handed architect of all those shifted Dire Straits units around the planet, Knopfler might be assumed to know a fader from a Yorkie bar. And, of course, he does.

Throughout Knife, sound textures and arrangements give Frame’s new songs the weight and sense of purpose so conspicuously lacking in their predecessors. ‘Knife’ itself, which closes the album, is the most obvious demonstration of Straitsism. It clocks in at around nine minutes, building a stately kind of momentum not by forcing the pace but by careful increases of pressure from bass and percussion, and by deploying guitars which vanish into the distance in layers alongside judicious “real” piano colourings. In the middle, everything falls away to spotlight a bridging section of thick, zooming bass notes. There’s a confidence at work here I’d have been hard-pressed to guess wee Roddy possessed.

The songs, with this classy production job to bring out their inherent strengths, need do little more than stand up and be counted. In ‘Just Like the USA’, Roddy’s weary vocal sits comfortably next to big acoustic guitar and a grainily-textured organ line. A trifle corny, but it’s not long before you’re humming the damn thing.

‘Head Is Happy’ uses its vaguely hymnal structure to suggest things like Hope and Struggle. “…I’ll remember a Texan man/When he spoke in major sevenths,” sings Rod obscurely, a wry nod perhaps to his personal songwriting foibles. Again, it’s a song built of strong blocks of melody, a remark you could apply equally to the folk-clubby acoustic strum of ‘Birth Of The True’.

However, Knife is arguably worth seizing a copy of for its finest moment, ‘Backwards And Forwards’. This is a kind of ballad, loosely Latin in style, urged along by pattering percussion and Roddy’s elegant filigree guitar, played on a nylon-strung Gibson — very south-of-the-border, and make mine guacamole. Again, the allegedly 20-year-old Frame sings the song’s uplifting chorus with a savoir-faire it seems improbable he really possesses. It works, though. Precocious little bugger.

So there I was, napalm spray at the ready, only to find Knife a winner and still growing. Try it and see — I’m still numb from the shock.

© Adam SweetingMelody Maker, 29 September 1984

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