Aztec Camera: The Best Of (Warners)

Roddy Frame’s hits and misses 1983-98

For a while, in the early ‘80s, there were emerging young songwriters — among them Messrs. Frame, Collins and McAloon — who almost appeared to be from the same composition school that encouraged literate, guitar-driven, melodically and romantically aware songs. Happenstance, of course, but we had high hopes for these boys, especially Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera who, at sixteen, was routinely cast as a Boy Wonder.

Frame, of course, graduated from sophisticated indie ingenue to sometime rock star for a few years but there was always an uneasy sense of underachievement in the work. Shifts of style and perspective are common in a growing writer but when combined with unrepresentative hit singles and erratic album sales, it comes over as a talent growing up in public that doesn’t quite know where to put itself.

The tracks from the 1983 debut High Land, Hard Rain — teenage vocals, vaguely inept band and all — retain their naïve-precocious charm. The reaching melodies and lyrics of ‘Pillar To Post’, ‘Walk Out To Winter’, the hit ‘Oblivious’ and the sweeping, strikingly emotive ‘We Could Send Letters’ have an effortless intelligent poignancy that the kids-doing-their-best feel only enhances.

The Mark Knopfler-produced 1984 follow-up Knife showed that as a stand-alone troubadour, Frame’s delivery couldn’t quite match the quality of his writing (‘Birth Of The True’) and that an establishment-approved sheen on his subtle art (‘All I Need Is Everything’) seemed only to diminish it. Where to go?

Into the session musician land of 1987’s Love and the lovely blue-eyed soul ‘Working In A Goldmine’ and ‘How Men Are’ – excellent, pastiche-transcending genre-writing – and the inscrutable country-folk of ‘Killermont Street’. ‘Somewhere In My Heart’ was the hit but it’s sounds like a faintly embarrassing peace of rockist fakery now. So too does the sub-Springsteen miss ‘The Crying Scene’ and the hit ‘angry’ duet with Mick Jones from 1990’s Stray, ‘Good Morning Britain’; forced Clashisms, clumsy invective, a low point.

1993’s Dreamland hooked him up with Ryuichi Sakamoto and though ‘Spanish Horses’ wasn’t a hit, it was a delightful piece of flamenco pop. His fine, commercially quiet swan song for Warners, 1995’s Frestonia isn’t represented but oddly, ‘Reason For Living’ from 1998’s The North Star (the first release billed as by Roddy Frame rather than the brand name) is here and finds him in fabulous voice.

For much of his recording career, Frame’s lightweight, one expression vocals have belied the substance of his songs, merely skimming the demands of his lyrical nuances. And as his music got tougher and plainer, so monotony crept in. Still, hearing him soulfully tearing into the organic romantic rock of his recent songs on The North Star, it’s clear the story is far from over; this selective retrospective will be seen to merely represent the fascinatingly patchy Early Years.

© Kit AikenUncut, September 1999

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