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Friday, June 8, 2012

Aztec Camera: High Land, Hard Rain


1) Oblivious; 2) The Boy Wonders; 3) Walk Out To Winter; 4) The Bugle Sounds Again; 5) We Could Send Letters; 6) Pillar To Post; 7) Release; 8) Lost Outside The Tunnel; 9) Back On Board; 10) Down The Dip; 11*) Haywire; 12*) Orchid Girl; 13*) Queen's Tattoos.

Every time I listen to New Wave pop from the early 1980s, all these fresh new faces wishing to leave their mark on musical history and all, I can't help wondering whether all that stuff would be more enjoyable without all the electronics. Leave in the smarter brands of lyrics, the R'n'B, reggae, and «world music» influences, the commercial hooks, but leave out the digitalization — would that make the songs more durable and intelligent-sounding?

Well, look no further than the Aztec Camera debut record to answer that question. The opening track, ʽObliviousʼ, greets you with a funky drum beat rather typical of the time — but the rhythm part is pure acoustic guitar, and, apart from a thin electric organ part that comes in later, that's all the instrumentation you get. A danceable pop song composed and performed in a contemporary manner, but rigorously set to a stark acoustic guitar backing — who else did that in 1983? Mind you, we are not talking «college rock» à la R.E.M. here: Roddy Frame, the 19-year old Scottish mastermind behind Aztec Camera, was clearly aiming for the charts.

And ʽObliviousʼ did hit the UK charts, eventually going as high as #18, which is fairly high for an acoustic pop hit at the time. But then again, it's not just the instrumentation. It's Roddy's voice — free of mannerisms or extra pathos; Roddy's lyrics — freshly intricate and thought-provoking in the verses ("they'll call us lonely when we're really just alone" is quite a nice line), seductively straightforward in the chorus; Roddy's hooks — the chorus has just enough chord changes and is reprised just the exact number of times to stick firmly. It's not a jaw-droppingly great song, but it oozes quality and inspiration all over, and it is particularly excellent in a 1983 context.

Acoustic guitar is not the only leading instrument on Aztec Camera's debut, but the only other leading instrument is the electric guitar, and I have only been able to spot electronic percussion ef­fects in a few places where they never spoil the impression. As for the music, Roddy does not subscribe fully to the «new school» of musical thought. He is clearly influenced just as much by the likes of Phil Spector (check out the «wall-of-sound» chorus on ʽWe Could Send Lettersʼ), smooth jazz (ʽReleaseʼ), even gospel-tinged R'n'B (ʽBack On Boardʼ), not to mention just about every school of pop from the Beatles to ABBA.

The only thing that prevents High Land from reaching «total masterpiece» status is a certain mo­notonousness in the arrangements. It is nice that Roddy and his backers can install the wall-of-sound with just a bunch of acoustic guitars and a few harmony overdubs, but overall, the minima­listic approach to arrangements gets a bit samey: at the very least, it prevents the listener from immediately dropping down dead in amazement — you have to let the songs gradually establish their individuality, get used to the difference in messages and atmospheres that is conveyed most­ly through different chord structures.

But when you do, the album can overwhelm you with a wow!-effect when you least expect it, be­cause the songs are worth it. "Walk out to winter, swear I'll be there" is tremendously uplifting and chivalrous without fake sentimentality. ʽThe Bugle Sounds Againʼ uses a clever military me­taphor and ironically-pathetic martial atmosphere, influenced by Scottish folk, to talk about good old love some more. The "Once I was happy in happy extremes..." chorus of ʽPillar To Postʼ ea­sily matches the emotional impact of any of Elvis Costello's greatest songs (not to mention that Roddy has an advantage here — no one has to undergo the fussy procedure of getting used to the pitch and tone of his voice).

The whole thing is wildly optimistic in spirit: no syrup and a constant readiness to confess pro­blems and pain, but always with hopes of redemption and an outlook to a better future. Every­thing sounds intelligent and sincere, including the more intimate songs like ʽReleaseʼ where Rod­dy complains that "I wanted the world, and all I could get to was a gun or a girl" — yes, its past tense is almost believable, despite the guy being all of 19 years old at the time (and the song may have been composed even earlier: Aztec Camera released their first single when he was 16). The album itself, having started out with a fully rhythmic pop hit, ends on a humble note with just Roddy and his guitar, trying out a simple folk ditty (ʽDown The Dipʼ) that's equal parts Bob Dy­lan and Willie Nelson. "I put all the love and beauty in the spirit of the night / And I'm holding my ticket tight / Stupidity and suffering are on that ticket, too / And I'm going down the dip with you" is a chorus I like so much I even took the time to retype it.

It is this combination of intelligence and optimism that distinguishes High Land from so much dreck around it — intelligent songwriters at the time tended to veer towards bleakness and depre­s­sion, leaving hope and romance for commercial hacks. Roddy Frame was one of the few excep­tions who tried to kick the ground from under the feet of commercial hacks, beating them at their own game. He did not succeed, but the legacy of High Land is one of those blessings that helps seek out and destroy stereotypes. As far as I'm concerned, the album should be in any «Top 20» for 1983, and even higher if we want the list to be maximally diverse. And a respectable / admi­ring thumbs up from both sides of human nature.

Check "High Land, Hard Rain" (CD) on Amazon


  1. For us who love music, and love reading about music, your work is as passionate as it is enlightening.
    The world is a better place with your writing in it!
    A big thank you from a distant shore.

  2. George please review tiger lilies for they are going under. Also you must do some current 90 forgot

  3. Ha, George and I were scoping out the same territory last week. I was on an Aztec Camera kick for a bit. Its a shame that great guitar pop which touches on "smooth" genres like jazz, bossanova, R&B etc. really gets disrespected out in the general world. Its always nice to see that critics who I hold in high regard digging the same stuff that I sometimes think I'm alone in liking. Good on ya George, Roddy is a musical stud on this album, if you like this Orange Juice, Prefab Sprout (to a lesser extent) did fine takes on this type of music as well.

  4. after reading George's review of this album, i dug into my old vinyl collection and put this on. his review is absolutely spot on. terrific album. i hadn't realized it before.

    orange juice, eh?

    i hope that he will be checking out Built to Spill, as well. i have been really wowed this year by a lot of their earlier material.

  5. " A danceable pop song composed and performed in a contemporary manner, but rigorously set to a stark acoustic guitar backing — who else did that in 1983?"

    A good question and one that I may be able to answer (considering that it appears that you will be working on the letter "C" for quite a while): The Cleaners from Venus (aka, mostly Martin Newell). If you like the songwriting/arrangement tradition that stretches from Lennon/McCartney via Ray Davies to (arguably) Andy Partridge, you can do much much worse than their music, especially the albums since 2010 or so (English Electric, The Late District, Return to Bohemia, etc). Jangly guitar pop in the true eccentric English tradition that has few, if any, equals.