AZTEC CAMERA: HIGH LAND, HARD RAIN (1983)
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.